History is scattered with marginal figures and overlooked characters. Clare Anderson in ‘Subaltern Lives’ sees it as her mission to rescue some of these figures from the shadows, focusing on colonial subjects and attempting to shed light on the broader colonial trends reflected in their lives. Chapter 4 examines Narain Singh, a Sikh soldier incarcerated for his actions in the Anglo-Sikh wars of 1848-49 – a turbulent period during which Britain struggled to establish control over a restless Bengal. Singh was transported from prison to prison, condemned then acquitted for his role in instigating a mutiny onboard the Kaleegunga, then finally released, having reformed his views and pledged to support the British. Anderson pieces together fragments of guard testimonies, court evidence and correspondence to revive this figure, whose revelatory involvement in processes of intra-colonial transportation and class distinction had been left unexploited by historians of the field.

Singh’s treatment as a prisoner was heavily influenced by his rank and class. His Brahmin identity gave him benefits denied to regular lower-ranking thugs and ‘dacoits’. The fact that the death sentence for his implication in the Kaleegunga mutiny, which resulted in the deaths of three British soldiers, was revoked can be accredited to the degrading conditions in which a man of his rank was kept, triggering a reckless response. Evidence of Singh’s involvement in the mutiny was even given a heroic shine due to his status as a Brahmin warrior. Class also played a role in the conditions of his transportation, in defining the types of forced labour he was ascribed, and in facilitating his eventual release. I was intrigued by this hierarchy of colonial lawlessness that Anderson was alluding too. Even in prison, which I would have assumed to be the ultimate societal leveller, class distinctions thrived. In an attempt to connect this case study to transnational history, it is perhaps useful to consider the way concepts of class travel across national and cultural borders. Narain Singh’s preferential treatment is a perfect example of a hierarchy being imposed by an external legal agent (the British). Singh’s reference to his rank in the letters he sends to the British authorities exemplifies his realisation of the leverage he could gain from his Brahmin status. Processes of inter-cultural contact – the particularly intimate contact characteristic of political dissidence and punishment – clearly resulted in a communication of hierarchical values across the cultural border of Anglo-Bengali relations.

Such hierarchies, once transferred, did not stay fixed. The British tendency to move convicts away from their homelands with the purpose of isolating them from the cultures to which they belonged, resulted in mass movements of prisoners across the Indian mainland. The unintended result was the creation of new networks and routes of circulation that Anderson termed a ‘borderless penal cosmopolitanism’. ‘Networks’ and ‘circulation’ ring familiar bells in the context of transnational studies. These words suggest the beginnings of an interconnected Empire, a Raj linked by more than simply a centralised administration. The subjects themselves were in motion, and with that motion came the mixing of ideas. The transportation of political convicts across the subcontinent brought the most radical and subversive ideas into contact. I wonder how much of a leap it would be to associate intra-colonial convict transportation with the birth of Indian nationalism. This may seem ironic; flows and movements, typically associated with transnational phenomena, may in this case have contributed to a greater sense of Indian national unity in opposition to the British colonial aggressors.

Locating the transnational themes reflected in the life of Narain Singh was an interesting exercise. Armed with a competent knowledge of the tools and methods of transnational historical study, gained from the previous weeks’ readings, it was useful to tackle a text in which the connections were less explicit. This invited me to make the leaps myself, and to realise how the theory can be applied to tangible examples such as the life of a 19th century Sikh convict.

Narain Singh – the life of a convict