In the nineteenth century, colonial officials in Singapore were proud of their prison system, and particularly proud of their “convict prison.” This was a place for criminals who had been exiled from India.
Since these men and women were on an island inhabited by people of other ethnicities, they had nowhere they could run to, so there wasn’t much need to confine them as strictly as prisoners in other societies were. In fact, well-behaved prisoners could end up getting a job as a prison warder.
Hence the title of a book written by John Frederick Aldolphus McNair, a colonial official in Singapore who, among many other tasks, supervised the convicts and put them to work on various construction projects – Prisoners Their Own Warders.
While the Indian convicts may have inhabited a unique space in the colonial prison system, one which afforded them some relative freedoms, life behind bars was probably not as nice as colonial officials wanted people to believe.
We can see this in the case of Kho Ah Wat, a Chinese who was arrested in early 1835 for burglary, and who committed suicide in his cell at the Police Jail a few days later by hanging himself.
What is particularly gruesome about Kho Ah Wat’s case is that there was another man in his cell. However, because the prison did not have lights, the cellmate did not know what Kho Ah Wat was doing in the dark until it was too late.
I learned about Kho Ah Wat from this entry for January 31, 1835 in the Singapore Chronicle:
Yesterday a Coroner’s Inquest was held at the Police Office on the body of Kho Ah Wat. The deceased was a Chinaman, but the cause of his making away with himself is unknown.
It would appear that he had been put in confinement five or six days previously on a charge of burglary, and in the same apartment with himself another Chinaman was also confined (upon some minor offence) who gave the first indications of alarm shortly after seven in the evening of Thursday last by knocking at the door and calling for a light, upon which the seapoy [i.e., Sepoy] who then happened to be on guard opened the door, and having a light in his hand discovered the deceased suspended.
Kho Ah Wat when first seen in that situation was not dead, although by the evidence adduced he expired shortly after his body had been taken down. A verdict of felo de se [“felon of himself,” an old term for “suicide”] by hanging was found by the Jury.
We understand that no light at night time is in general allowed in the apartments of the Police jail where prisoners are confined, and to this cause, in some measure, this casualty may not be inattributable as it cannot but be obvious, had there been a light, there might, at all events, have been a more timely alarm made, or the occurrence of so melancholy a result might altogether have been prevented by the deceased’s fellow prisoner.