Digital History

Is Digital Crime History Too White? Representation in Australian Archives

The digitisation of historical criminal-justice archives has been transformative in foregrounding the lives of poor, marginalised Britons incarcerated at home or transported to the colonies. On websites like Digital Panopticon and Founders and Survivors you can search a convict’s name and, thanks to digital record linkage, find their whole life-course laid out from cradle to grave.

Convicted African, Caribbean, Chinese, Indian, and Indigenous people are present in colonial records of Australian crime and punishment. However, they are present in much smaller numbers than European prisoners, and as individuals their details are recorded less fully and with less accuracy than white inmates. This problem is magnified by a lack of accurate representation of Indigenous and non-white immigrant populations across all government-created datasets. This makes it extremely difficult to link digital records for convicted people of colour across large datasets.

As a result, Asian, Black and Indigenous prisoners are rendered less visible in the digital archives. This is problematic because it is through tracing criminal ancestors online that most of the general public engages with Australia’s colonial history. By replicating these datasets online, are we re-creating the racist presumptions of the state authorities who first created them? When we foreground the lives of European convicts as founders, do we also negate their role in dispossessing Aboriginal people and discriminating against non-white immigrants?

The under- and mis-representation of Asian, Black and Indigenous prisoners in digital archives was brought home to me when creating a database of inmates incarcerated at Cockatoo Island Prison in Sydney Harbour from 1839 to 1869. As well as incarcerating transported convicts from across the British Empire, Cockatoo Island held a range of locally-convicted prisoners, including Aboriginal men resisting colonisation, Chinese migrants who flocked to the colony during the gold rush, and Black and Indian (Lascar) sailors at port in Sydney Harbour.

Source: Author’s personal collection

For my ESRC-funded project, I am transcribing prison registers to make a database of the inmates incarcerated on Cockatoo Island available for free online. I aim to create a family history resource and highlight the diversity of the prison population. However, I quickly realised that these aims contradicted one another. It is far easier to trace European convicts and immigrants because the colonial government cared about identifying them: listing the ship on which they arrived, their place of birth and, for transportees, a unique prison number identifier. These details are central to how indexes and finding aids are arranged, in order to trace convicts through various government record sets.

When searching for Indigenous people, the utility of prison registers is limited. The racist underpinnings of the archive mean non-white prisoners were not accurately described. Aboriginal names were mangled through anglicisation and nicknames that were often demeaning (for example, ‘Cockroach’ or ‘Contagion, alias No Good’).  The country and community to which Aboriginal prisoners belonged were replaced with the nearest European settlement. Listing both the original Indigenous place names and those used by British colonisers could be a powerful tool for accurate representation without damaging historical authenticity.

Aboriginal, East Asian and African people’s physical appearances were also misrepresented in the archives. While white prisoners’ complexions were described in a range of hues – from ‘ruddy’ to ‘pale’ to ‘freckled’ – Aboriginal people’s skintones were described simply as ‘Black’ and East-Asian as ‘Copper’. Even Aboriginal people’s scars were recorded in less detail than white prisoners, stating they had the ‘usual scars on torso’ rather than listing the location of each individual scar. In the archive, the bodies of people of colour were erased, with ‘race’ acting as their primary descriptor: denying their individuality.

In other areas of Australian history, the representation of non-white people is growing – including the Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography which redresses the whiteness of Australia’s foundational persons, the mapping of colonial massacres of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia, and the Real Face of White Australia website which renders visible the historic presence of Chinese-Australians. The Digital Panopticon also includes a webpage describing convicts’ role in the dispossession and genocide of Aboriginal people. Yet, this description of groups of Aboriginal people does not compare to the life-course of any individual white convicts conjured up through their search engine.

This lack of diverse representation within digital criminal history has significant implications. These resources are framed around individual lives, casting the ancestor as the protagonist of history. Since these records are far more complete for white prisoners, they draw attention away from histories of people of colour. Convicts were transported to Australian colonies by the British government as settlers to dispossess, eradicate and replace Indigenous peoples. Though these convicts may have been socially marginalised at home, once transported their race afforded them privilege and power over Indigenous people, and later non-white immigrants.

The family-centric focus of genealogists using digital crime records has a secondary effect in terms of attitudes around contemporary crime and punishment. The is inherent bias to the genealogical endeavour which focusses on convicts ‘successful’ enough to have descendants. The government incentivised convicts to marry and have families in the colony by offering land grants, so white family formation was directly tied to Indigenous dispossession. This social mobility was at the expense of Indigenous people whose country was invaded by white settlers, and whose communities were then criminalised by the state.

Indigenous people continue to be highly over-represented in custody: making up 28% of the adult prison population, despite numbering just 2% of the general population. An Aboriginal and Torres Strait man is 15 times more likely to be in custody than a non-Indigenous man, man, a woman 21 times more likely. There is no easy rehabilitation for contemporary prisoners, without an overhaul of government policy focussed on reconciliation. When digital crime history does not engage actively with racist criminal-justice systems, it does not encourage understanding or activism to address the contemporary crisis in Australia’s prisons.

When we present criminal records as an open-access historical source, we must ensure that users recognise how firmly embedded they are in the technologies of power of the colonial state which was sexist, classist, but above all racist. To perform genealogical research is to reaffirm your importance through your lineage. Yet, there is white privilege in being represented within the historical archive. If we keep searching for ourselves in the data, we will never recognise this multigenerational accrual of benefits according to race.

As historians, we should explore how digital histories can be made more inclusive of Asian, Black and Indigenous people. By recognising the politics of race and privilege, not just digitising the historical criminal record, we can challenge non-Indigenous people to recognise the racist nature not just of historical punishment, but of the contemporary criminal-justice system.

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