How did a 19th-century convict become a wealthy philanthropist?
Kunnuck Mistree arrived in Singapore in 1825 as a convict. Over time, he gained his freedom, raised a family, became a “native doctor”, received a pardon and eventually died a wealthy man. As a result of painstaking research by educator and writer Vandana Aggarwal, we now have an insight into the life of one of the earliest people from India who came to Singapore.
This documentary is based on Vandana’s article of the same title that was published in the Jan–Mar 2021 issue of BiblioAsia.
The Extraordinary Life of Kunnuck Mistree
Indian convicts contributed much to the early infrastructural development of Singapore, but their voices have rarely been heard. Vandana Aggarwal uncovers the story of one convict who made good.
Convict Labour in Colonial Singapore
Singapore was once a penal colony for convicts shipped in from overseas. Bonny Tan documents how their humble service raised some of its famous buildings.
Bras Basah Convict Jail
The convict jail at Bras Basah was established in response to the increasing number of convicts who were transported to Singapore from other places such as India and Hong Kong when Singapore was a penal colony in the early 19th century.
Indian Convicts’ Contributions to Early Singapore (1825–1873)
From 1825, Singapore began receiving Indian convicts from British India to serve out their sentences as well as assist with the labour shortage and development requirements in the colony. The transportation of convict labour to Singapore ceased in 1873. The convicts were either sent to other colonies, given freedom to settle in Singapore, or repatriated.
Clare Anderson, Subaltern Lives: Biographies of Colonialism in the Indian Ocean World, 1790–1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
J.F.A. McNair and W.D. Bayliss, Prisoners Their Own Warders: A Record of the Convict Prison at Singapore in the Straits Settlements, Established 1825, Discontinued 1873, Together with a Cursory History of the Convict Establishments at Bencoolen, Penang and Malacca from the Year 1797 (Westminster: A. Constable, 1899).
Anoma Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided landscapes: A Penal History of Singapore’s Plural Society (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009).
Rajesh Rai, Indians in Singapore, 1819–1945: Diaspora in the Colonial Port City (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014).
Resources from the Archives
Bengal to the Resident, November 1824–February 1825, Raffles Library and Museum. (From National Archives of Singapore microfilm no. NL060)
Government of Bengal to the Governor of Straits Settlements, February 1825–November 1825, National Archives of Singapore, Citizen Archivist Project (media no. M004_0233).
Resident Councillor of Singapore, 1827–1840, National Archives of Singapore, Citizen Archivist Project (media no. Q002_00750).