Bruno Arich-Gerz

In the Penal Colonies. On Insular Detention Past and Present 

This paper deals with a significant aspect of imperial colonialism (and a corollary of today’s migration movements) which Rupert Emerson would arguably define as „an imposition of white rule on alien peoples through their detention on islands surrounded by salt water“. „[N]atural concentration camps“ (Thomas Pynchon) such as the barren Haifischinsel off Lüderitzbucht where the German rulers detained the few remaining survivors of the Herero and Nama genocide of 1904, the notorious Robben Island facilities where Southern African individuals from 17th century „Strandloper“ Autshumato to the Namibian and South African liberation strugglers around Nelson Mandela eeked out as long-term prisoners, but also instances from the present such as the detention and „regional processing“ centers on Lesbos (Greece), Nauru or Manus containing the influx of refugees to the EU or Australia (notably itself a former penal colony) fit the modified definition pace Emerson.

The aim of the paper is twofold: (1) / descriptively, it seeks to single out the common characteristics of (post)colonially driven insular detention by, first, shedding it from prisoner islands catering for Metropolis delinquency such as Alcatraz or Île du Diable, and by, second, observing the differences in the rationales of insulating-isolating Global Southern individuals past and present. (2) / terminologically, it contributes to theory building by grafting selected concepts from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish on the issue at stake: an as yet – and surprisingly – largely unattempted transposition within postcolonial studies (cf. Willaert 2012). With their specific geological (usually small-sized), maritime (salt water as the barrier) and weather conditions, islands facilitate surveillance; intriguingly many of them are moreover located in sight of city agglomerations (Lüderitz, Cape Town). In allusion to Foucault’s notion of panoptism, this can be subsumed as oceanoptism: an approach that focuses on circumstantially given – and less on the subjectively perceived time regimes of – technologies of discipline at work in contexts of insular detention (complementing thus the recent findings on „Disruptions of Time and Space in Labour and Refugee Camps“ undertaken at Cologne’s Global South Studies Centre). Finally and tentatively, a number of seeming incommensurabilities can be pinpointed such as the islands‘ transformation from previous (or even their synchronic presence as) sites of detention to (and) tourist attractions.