This is a tribute to the men and women who were instrumental to Singapore’s early development: Indian convict labourers who first arrived in Singapore in 1825 through to 1873. They served out their sentences here through construction and development work.
At that time, Singapore was a fast growing colony, and many pairs of hands were desperately needed.
In stepped convict labourers who helped to clear land, reclaim swamps, layroads, build forts, and erect buildings and bridges. Some of the landmarks they built – including North Bridge Road, South Bridge Road, Cavenagh Bridge, Kampong Glam, Bukit Timah Road, Sri Mariamman Temple, St Andrew’s Cathedral and the Istana – still stand today. They also built the sally ports, drawbridge and deep wells for Fort Canning in 1860. Even though they arrived under less-than-optimal circumstances, upon completing their sentences, they were able to settle down here and find good jobs to support their new families.
Singapore’s growth from 1819 meant that new developments needed to be built. However, the colonial government experienced a shortage of labour and a lack of funds. To cope, they started to bring convict labourers into Singapore. Most of them hailed from Bengal, Madras and Bombay. Some were political prisoners, while others found guilty of theft, murder and other crimes.
Between 1824 and 1873, convict labourers formed an important part of Singapore’s workforce. Not only did they pave roads and erect buildings, they also cleared land and rubbish as well as reclaimed swamps. Some were even employed as nurses. They quickly gained a reputation for being hardworking.
Image: Different types of labour that convicts carried out.
The colonial government in Singapore had an progressive system of convict management. Convict labourers were organised into six classes, depending on the extent of their criminal offences.
The first class held their own jobs, although they still needed a guarantor, and privileges could be forfeited if they were found to have misbehaved. The second class also went unshackled, and could be employed as messengers or household help. The third class cleared land for construction of roads or public projects. They too, worked unshackled. The fourth class was the most common for new convicts, and they remained here until they were able to qualify for the other higher classes. The fifth class were violent criminals or convicts degraded from higher classes, which were closely guarded, and wore heavy irons. The sixth class were for invalids and female convicts that were not in the second class. Convicts from the first three classes were also given a monthly allowance.
Image: Government House (now the Istana) was built by convict labourers. (Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)
Despite the freedoms given to them, very few absconded. Many who finished their sentences here were released, married local women and settled down. The system was considered so successful that in 1864, both the Siamese and Japanese governments sent special missions to study it.
In 1873, when the system of convict labour ended in Singapore, the convicts were either sent to other colonies, allowed to settle in Singapore or repatriated. Many went into business or bought property. Some even sought employment with the Public Works Department.
Image: Sri Mariamman Temple, another iconic building that was erected by convict labourers. (Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)