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The British East India Company established a fortified outpost on Con Son in 1703. Had this flourished, the island may by now have been a more diminutive Hong Kong or Singapore, given its strategic position on the route to China. But within three years, the Bugis mercenaries (from Sulawesi) drafted in to construct and garrison the base had murdered their British commanders, putting paid to this early experiment in colonization. Known then as Poulo Condore, Con Son was still treading water when the American sailor John White spied its “lofty summits” a little over a century later, in 1819. White deemed it a decent natural harbour, though blighted by “noxious reptiles, and affording no good fresh water”.
The island finally found its calling when decades later the French chose it as the site of a penal colony for anti-colonial activists. Con Son’s savage regime soon earned it the nickname “Devil’s Island”. Prisoners languished in squalid pits called “tiger cages”, which featured metal grilles instead of roofs, from which guards sprinkled powdered lime and dirty water on the inmates. As the twentieth century progressed the colony developed into a sort of unofficial “revolutionary university”. Older hands instructed their greener cell-mates in the finer points of Marxist-Leninist theory, while the dire conditions they endured helped reinforce the lessons.
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