Prisoners Their Own Warders is an 1899 publication which sketches the lives led by the prisoners in Bencoolen, Penang, Old Malacca and Singapore prisons during the 19th century.
The writer, J.F.A. McNair, was a British Indian. A colonial official, his career took him from England to India, Malacca and Singapore. During his service in Singapore, McNair took on the appointment of Executive Engineer and Superintendent of Convicts. He was responsible for supervising public works projects and prisons in Singapore. His strong command of Hindustani served him well as he could converse easily with the Indian convicts. Under McNair’s supervision, the Indian convicts were employed in the construction of roads, bridges and public buildings like the St Andrew’s Cathedral and Government House. In McNair’s own words, “the various employments of these Indian convicts at Singapore, will abundantly show how considerably this important settlement has benefited by their early introduction.”
Arranged topically, the book explores the set-up of Singapore prison, the work duties and hierarchies assigned to prisoners, the classes prisoners were divided into based on the severity of their crimes, age, skillset and overall conduct, the personal stories of prisoners, the abolition of the convict department and pardoning of selected prisoners in 1867 and the health predicaments faced by the prisoners. This content coverage proves to be intriguing as it gives readers the opportunity to visualise the working and living conditions of the prisoners as well as the incentives the prisoners had to spur them on to be cooperative in their work.
Besides prison life, the book also surprises readers with gems such as old photographs of Singapore, extracts from letters written by Sir Stamford Raffles to the British government and the personal anecdotes of prisoners. Readers have the opportunity to explore a segment of society in Singapore’s history that is typically hidden from the masses.