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date: 06 December 2023

Landscapes of Colonial Detention Siteslocked

Landscapes of Colonial Detention Siteslocked

  • Anaïs AngeloAnaïs AngeloDepartment of African Studies, University of Vienna


Built on the legacy of the goals established during the slave trade, early colonial prisons were essential to the expansion of the colonial conquest. Once slavery had been abolished, the jails it had established continued to provide reservoirs of free, cheap, and forced labor, which were indispensable to the economic exploitation and development of the colonies. Complex networks of detention sites expanded over time and became essential tools for colonizers to mark their authority over their territory and to control, discipline, and punish colonized populations. Leaving aside Eurocentric narratives on the birth of the prison, exploring the genealogy of detention in colonial Africa highlights the multifaceted landscape of detention sites. Penal detention was enforced in prison, detention, internment, concentration, and labor camps; these could be open or mobile, or they could comprise entire villages. Detention also served nonpenal purposes and materialized in asylums, orphanages, penitentiaries, work camps, and sanitary confinement. This multiplicity of detention sites demonstrates that detention cannot be solely defined by its geography or its scope, for colonial detention was profoundly pervasive and knew no clear territorial, legal, and architectural boundaries. In political systems in which everyday life was criminalized in the service of a “civilizing” mission, whole sections of the population were exposed to detention. Beyond the walls, barbed wires, and entry points of detention sites, bodies and minds were the main targets of the policies of confinement and punishment. The genealogy of the detention sites in African colonies reveals the way that the policies of detention nurtured a culture of violence that developed with, within, around, and outside them. For historians, it raises an important question as to the historical reconstruction and conceptualization of detention, freedom, and agency in colonial contexts.


  • Colonial Conquest and Rule
  • Political History

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