The transparent labyrinth: offshore detention and surplus life

As you survey the desiccated, chalky pinnacles of stone that populate Nauru’s interior, rendering 80% of the island’s surface unusable and uninhabitable, it’s hard to remember this was briefly the second-richest country, per capita, in the world. A consortium of Western interests started mining the island in the early 1900s, after the prospector AF Ellis tested a rock sample being used as a doorstop in the Sydney offices of the Pacific Islands Company and found it contained deposits of valuable phosphate. Nauru, along with its phosphate, passed from German hands into Australian ones, before claiming independence under president Hammer DeRoburt in 1966.

In the eighties, the island nation sued Australia at the International Court of Justice for devastating its landscape, depressing the price of their phosphate and swindling them out of royalties throughout the colonial period. They didn’t do much better on their own, however. Corrupt governments squandered the phosphate money on overpriced real estate and failed West End musicals, leaving the islanders broke and desperate just as the mines were running out. Today, Nauru’s economy relies on our detention centres. It is no longer officially a colony, but it is still uncomfortably subject to Australia’s political and financial dominion.

Today, in Australia, we think of Nauru primarily as a prison camp. We struggle to remember that it has a history of its own. But this very history – as a nation conquered by European empires, ruthlessly exploited for its resources, converted into a barren waste and abandoned to the predators of international finance – is what allows us to use it as a prison camp. We may claim that the refugees we torture on Nauru have committed some infractions according to our laws, but their real offence is to be unproductive. They’re surplus to requirement. Their statelessness makes them useless to systems of state power, except as a cautionary tale about what happens when you don’t have a big strong empire to look after you. We lock them up in client states and external territories carefully excised from our arbitrary migration zone, artefacts of the colonial era’s frantic orgy of border-drawing and imperial division.

The sheer size of the Pacific Ocean – its unclaimable liquid mass, naturally resistant to cartographic conquest – mandated a new mode of European expansion, resulting in the bizarre patchwork of outposts, naval bases, and suburb-sized micronations that enabled the cynical chicanery of the Pacific Solution. Australia’s colonial history makes possible the brutality of our current immigration regime. Now as in the nineteenth century, capital and empire manufacture a demographic of surplus people, citizens of nowhere with no defined economic function. The liminal, borderless space of the Pacific has always been the ideal place to dispose of them.

The Separate Prison at Port Arthur, built in 1852, was intended to offer a humane alternative to flogging. Its convicts were kept in silent isolation, referred to by number instead of name, prohibited from speaking, singing, whistling or communicating in any way. Masks prevented them from seeing one another’s faces. The idea was to break the men’s spirits, to reform them into productive members of society and to prevent them forming bonds of convict solidarity that would let them resist the colonial system. Same-sex relationships, especially, were seen as threats to the established order, and the prison was the immediate destination for anyone convicted of sodomy.

The industrial revolution and the subsequent explosion in urban poverty created a demand for new types of prison and new theories of imprisonment. The philanthropists and religious reformers who developed the separate-prison system, inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, felt they were improving on the eighteenth-century system, which sent thieves and debtors either to privately-owned hellholes or the gallows. Cruelty, however, remained a cornerstone of the system, and the aim was always to keep the poorest and angriest members of society under control. We barely think about Australia’s founding by convicts. It’s an obvious cliché, like the poisonous snakes, interesting only to foreigners who are trying to make jokes about us. But it also makes us essential to the history of British imperial capitalism, in a way that sheds light on the role in the world we play now.

Indigenous people, who of course rightfully own this entire continent, were dispossessed and murdered to make way for the world’s largest prison camp, walled off by impassable ocean and desert. ‘An unexplored continent would become a jail,’ writes Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore. ‘The space around it, the very air and sea, the whole transparent labyrinth of the South Pacific, would become a wall 14,000 miles thick.’

Fresh from the slums of London, convicts lacked the knowledge of how to survive the wilderness alone, and they had nowhere to run to in any case. Some escapees tried to walk to China. All kinds of radicals – Jacobins, Chartists, Irish republicans, Luddite rioters and rebels from the Lower Canadian uprising – were sent here, alongside a much larger body of pickpockets, housebreakers and desperate men with nowhere else to turn.

It’s our location at the edge of the known world, the rim of the Pacific, that made this possible. Australia’s distance from Europe, and its strategic uselessness as a port of call, put it on the periphery of the colonial system. The country was only conquered as an afterthought. And to the inbred psychopaths who ran the British Empire this made it a natural dumping ground for human afterthoughts, useless and troublesome members of the working class who seemed inexplicably angry about the fact that society deemed them unnecessary.

Engine-smashing Luddites and dissident Kurdish journalists are both incomprehensible to capital. They serve no clear purpose, and the only thing to do with them is find some distant spit of rock and leave them stranded there forever.


Nauru, one of the world’s smallest independent countries, has about as many people as the average inner-city suburb. The fact of its existence as a national entity – as if Newtown or St. Kilda were a people’s republic with UN representation – demonstrates the absurdity of the nineteenth-century nationalist project, the arbitrary division of the globe into cleanly-defined, sharp-edged states and the violence employed to transform the invisible abstraction of the border into a real, unbreachable iron wall. This system has been in place so long it’s now hard to imagine the world without it.

But Pacific Islanders, accustomed to sailing freely across half the planet, got on just fine before the West imposed on them its regime of passports and customs checks. Even in Europe the system has always been shaky – as recent events in Catalonia, or the position of Northern Ireland, suggest – and here in the Pacific our willingness to redraw our migration zone on a whim, to land our prison camps on every distant colonial artefact that can usefully be defined as both Australian and not, makes it seem increasingly farcical. The idea of the nation was originally championed, as an alternative to feudal stagnation, by believers in self-determination and democracy – but, as with the Separate Prison, theory would turn out very different from practice.

The silent isolation of convicts was meant to lead to meditation, reflection and progress, but it was immediately and easily exploited as a cheap means of psychological torture. The isolation of whole communities, behind walls of barbed wire and heaving ocean, has worked out the same way. It’s become the most effective means of severing the bonds of solidarity that should naturally form between all the citizens of the world. Only when they’re trapped on some faraway island, silenced and made faceless by distance and time, can we envision refugees as troublesome, abstract economic entities. The instant we actually meet them, we realise they’re just people.

Matthew Halton

Matt Halton is a Brisbane-based writer interested in radical takes on history. He tweets at @circusarmy. You can find his novel Croatoan here.

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