This article will explore the history of execution and its aftermath across the nineteenth-century British Empire. It will bring together in a single frame of analysis a diversity of ideas about and different practices of capital punishment, in order to reflect upon the relationship between metropolitan and imperial understandings of the meaning and value of execution as a deterrent punishment; the various modes of effecting judicial sentences of death, on the scaffold, guillotine and cannon; and variegations in post-execution practices, including the display of severed heads, hanging in chains, anatomisation, dissection, and the burial or burning of bodies.
In elaborating and analysing for the first time a pan-imperial history of judicial killing, the article centres on the relationship between capital punishment and broader cultures of Empire, in particular ideas of colonial difference and distinction; and between capital punishment and enslavement, and the governance of Indigenous and migrant peoples. In so doing, it ranges across contexts, including Britain’s Indian Empire and Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Australia, and raises further issues around the British inheritance of Dutch, Spanish and French legal practice in some places.
In its theoretical scope, geographical scale and imperial reach, the article offers an original interpretation that places and gives fresh meaning to regional specificities, metropolitan and colonial, by situating each in relation to each other and within the context of a much larger imperial world.
In offering this wide-ranging analysis, it is impossible to write meaningfully of colonial ideas about judicial killing, colonial executions, or colonial post-execution practices. Rather, capital punishment took various forms across Empire, was highly dependent on local contexts, was frequently at variance with metropolitan penal norms, and was the subject of fierce dispute. Two key points must be made at the outset.
First, its form was the product of particular, local understandings of the impact of execution on specific cultures and religions, and thus its relative value as a penal deterrent. As we will see, the choice of execution as a punishment, the choice of particular modes of executing, were not only bound up with understandings of the relationship between colonial bodies and souls, but cannot be separated from the larger context in which “race” and, in the Indian context, “caste” were made and understood as pertinent categories of rule. The deliberate non-choice of execution was important in some contexts, too, for it was entwined with imperial ideas about overseas transportation as peculiarly suitable and therefore deterrent for “Asiatics” — Indians, Malays and Chinese. In many British colonies, one cannot talk about execution and its aftermath without setting it against this important, and usually alternative, form of secondary punishment, and the social if not physical death that it was believed to produce.
Second, colonial penal distinctiveness was connected to the politics of imperial domination. Across Empire, though the execution was used for the punishment of ordinary criminal offenders, it was also used to consolidate imperial rule and to eradicate resistance against it. Its reach stretched to the punishment of people born free, to slaves and ex-slaves in the sugar colonies of Jamaica, Barbados and Mauritius, to sepoys (soldiers) and peasants in India, to the Indigenous people of Australia, to transported convicts in the penal colonies and settlements of Australia and the Indian Ocean, and to migrants indentured to labour contracts in British Guiana and Trinidad.
There are important comparisons to be drawn between colonies and metropole with respect to the relationship between capital punishment, culture and religion, and the crushing of political opposition. However, in the colonies, gruesome forms of mutilation constituted an element of capital sentences for much longer than in Great Britain.
Furthermore, because ideas about execution were founded on ideas of colonial difference, a notion developed that subject peoples thought in particular and different ways about death, compared to Europeans, and this produced distinct and dramatic methods of execution. Most significantly, though, it was the scale of judicial reprisals seen in Empire, including mass executions under martial law, which had no parallel in nineteenth-century Britain.
Towards the middle of the nineteenth-century, in the context of wide-ranging metropolitan discussions about penal reform, the home office became aware of the diversity of execution and post-execution practices in Britain and the colonies. It instituted an enquiry through the colonial office, with the aim of bringing overseas practices into line with metropolitan ones, with respect to both the crimes for which capital punishment was awarded and how it was carried out. The political geography of imperialism was such that these discussions did not include the Indian Empire, however, which at the time incorporated large populations across South and Southeast Asia, which were administered by the India office.
Metropolitan criminal justice was not, then, imposed across Empire, but might rather be viewed as part of a geographically partial “Empire project,” the binding together of diverse places and practices within a loose global system. However, this was not an Empire that radiated unidirectionally outwards from London. In the colonies where colonial office enquiries into capital punishment did have purchase, it was revealed that it was not necessarily Britain that was leading reform.
For instance, some colonies led the move to take execution out of public and into private view. An appreciation of the character of metropolitan and imperial circuits and networks in this respect is of enormous relevance to historians of nineteenth-century British criminal justice.
Beyond the chapter’s desire to articulate and to make sense of the distinctiveness of execution and its aftermath in British colonies during this period, is my more general contention that metropole and colony were mutually constituted. Therefore, it is only through an appreciation of imperial practices that this aspect of the reform of capital punishment in nineteenth-century Britain can be properly understood.