How Convict Labourers From Chennai, Mumbai, & Bengal Built Singapore In The 1800s

How Convict Labourers From Chennai, Mumbai, & Bengal Built Singapore In The 1800s

Singpaore is known for its spectacular architecture, which displays a range of influences and styles from different places and periods. But some of its most treasured heritage buildings like the first church of Singapore or the palatial Istana which is currently the official residence and office of the president of Singapore, were in fact, created by convicted indentured labourers from India.

It all began with the infamous penal colonies which were settlements used to exile prisoners and separate them from the general population by placing them in a remote location, often an island or distant colonial territory.

In 1787, around the same time that Australia became a penal colony for British felons, Bencoolen (Bengkulu today) became the first penal colony for Indian convicts and eventually so did Penang, Malacca and Singapore. The following year, Indian convicts who were sentenced to more than seven years of imprisonment started to be transported to Penang. Singapore received its first batch of convicts – 79 men and 1 woman from Madras (now Chennai) on 18 April 1825 on a brig called 'Horatio'. And just a week later, a second group of 122 convicts from Bengal arrived.

Indian Labourers  repairing a road in front of the since demolished Chartered Bank Building along Battery Road
Indian Labourers repairing a road in front of the since demolished Chartered Bank Building along Battery RoadBiblioasia

The British believed that shipping the convicts out to faraway lands for use as forced labour was more effective in deterring crime compared to other, more punitive measures. But the journey across the vast ocean was so harsh that many convicts, even on safe arrival, died from depression and homesickness.

“The love of their native country is very great with them, and the idea of never again seeing their homes, their old and sacred places… and loss of caste, act powerfully both on mind and body…some obstinately refuse to eat at all", states an excerpt from Rajesh Rai's Indians in Singapore.

in 1827, the Straits Settlements were formed which were the British crown colony on the Strait of Malacca comprising four trade centres — Penang, Singapore, Malacca, and Labouan that joined later in 1907. Unique to these settlements was an odd phenomena of convicted prisoners being their own wardens. This happened because of Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, the founder of Singapore, who laid the foundation for an enlightened system of managing convicts during his service in Bencoolen as a governor.

After the Straits Settlements, Assistant Resident George Bonham took charge of construction in Singapore. He found the labourers to be well-behaved and manageable having trained under Raffles. This made him terminate the services of the paid wardens and replace them with convicts on much lower salaries, which in turn motivated other convicts to strive for similar good behaviour so that they too could aspire to be promoted and escape menial hard labour.

By 1841, the Straits Settlements had become the “Sydney convict settlements of British India”, and there were between 1,100 and 1,200 of such transported convicts just in Singapore who were brought in from Bengal, Madras and Bombay presidencies of British India.

Apart from building long stretches of roads in Singapore, Indian convict labourers were also used in clearing jungles for construction, which also included hunting and killing tigers and venomous snakes like cobras and kraits especially during the construction of Fort Canning.

Besides major land work, the convicts were also engaged in regular duties around town like sweeping the streets, tending to the parks and gardens and even announcing the town’s official time by signalling when the noonday gun was to be fired from Fort Canning.

View of the Convict Jail between Bras Basah and Stamford Roads (1870)
View of the Convict Jail between Bras Basah and Stamford Roads (1870)Biblioasia

Over a span of 20 years, the “largest building complex in the settlement” was constructed. This was the Bras Basah convict jail, which was ironically built by the convict labourers themselves. This was also a site of industry where the convicts were employed for rattan work, weaving, tailoring and even running a printing press.

From the end of 1857, J. F. A. McNair served as executive engineer and superintendent of convicts under whom the labour force became thoroughly organised and skilled. They built a civic centre with some key buildings like the St. Andrew Church (now called St. Andrew Cathedral).

Other significant constructions included the Town Hall (today’s Victoria Theatre), the battlements of Fort Canning (known as Arts House today), a new courthouse, which later became the office for the government secretariat, parts of which are now the Asian Civilisation Museum, and the Cavenagh Bridge linking the civic centre to the commercial centre.

Indian convicts built the Pearl's Hill Prison, a commercial square, roads like North and South Bridge roads, Serangoon Road, which by the 20th century became an Indian neighbourhood called 'Little India', and New Harbour road today known as Keppel road.

They built ports by blasting the rocks at the mouth of the Singapore river, lighthouses like Horsburgh and Raffles and even the Sri Mariamman temple.

Cavenagh Bridge, Horsburgh Lighthouse
Cavenagh Bridge, Horsburgh LighthouseWikipedia,

In April 1867, the Straits Settlements finally ended its ties with Bengal, India, and came directly under the jurisdiction of the Crown in London which marked the end of Singapore as a penal colony.

Singapore’s penal policies included organising the convicts into the following classes —

First Class consisted of trustworthy convicts allowed to move freely on a ticket of leave.

Second Class comprised convict petty officers, and those employed in hospitals and public offices.

Third Class convicts were employed in roads and public works, having passed their probationary course.

Fourth Class comprised newly arrived convicts as well as those downgraded from the higher classes or promoted from the fifth class. They worked in light irons.

Fifth Class comprised convicts downgraded from the higher classes and required more than ordinary vigilance to prevent escape, or regarding whom special instructions had been received from India. They worked in heavy irons.

Sixth Class were invalids and superannuated convicts. Youths were transferred to a special category within this class for boys. Female convicts were assigned to this class too.

By 1873, when the system of convict labour ended in Singapore, the convicts were either sent to other colonies, given freedom to settle in Singapore or repatriated. Instead of returning to India, many who had savings, went into business and bought landed property, while some sought employment with the Public Works Department. The skilled artisans were made as sub-assistant overseers for public works.

Convict, Bawajee Rajaram who was from Bombay, became the first native draughtsman in Singapore and continued to produce municipal drawings after his release. He drafted the design, for example, for Louis Alfred’s bungalow on Devonshire Road in 1890.

Another convict called Hammapah set up a land brokerage, buying large plots of land in the east and his son, Somapah, continued the business, submitting building plans for the family's successful establishment, now called Somapah Village.

Today, Singaporeans of Indian or South Asian ancestry, constitute 9.0% of the country's citizens, making them the third largest ancestry and ethnic group in Singapore; a country that was built by some of their 'convict' ancestors. While the magnificent civic structures constructed by the convicts are a testament to their contribution to society, their individual stories of the pain and alienation of exile as well as their strength and sacrifice still remain largely buried in history.