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The Business of Convict Transportation: “Weren’t the Convicts All Sent to Georgia?”

Note: This post is part of a series on Convict Transportation to the American colonies.

When I first began my investigation of convict transportation to the American colonies, I fully expected my project to focus on Georgia, because I had a distinct memory from grade school of a map of colonial America with the words “Penal Colony” in parentheses under the label for Georgia. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with such a memory. Whenever I brought up my interest in convict transportation and its original roots in America with friends, they would respond, “Oh yeah, Georgia. Weren’t the convicts all sent to Georgia?” I soon learned that we were all mistaken.

James Edward Oglethorpe

General James Oglethorpe

Image via Wikipedia

The popular confusion over Georgia as the prime destination for transported convicts probably resulted from the circumstances of its founding. The colony of Georgia was the brainchild of James Edward Oglethorpe, who was moved to action when he witnessed the abuses carried out on inmates by the keepers and jailors of debtors’ prisons. Oglethorpe came up with the idea of founding a colony in America where the poor and destitute could start anew and at the same time help England by producing wines, silks, and spices that it normally bought from foreign countries. In 1732, Oglethorpe secured a charter to found what would eventually become Georgia (named after George II, who granted the charter). One year later Oglethorpe brought his first group settlers across the Atlantic with him and founded Savannah.

Unfortunately, the people who came over with Oglethorpe did not supply the kind of industrious work needed to start a colony. Quickly, the trustees of the colony agreed in 1734 to abandon the idea of populating the colony with debtors, contending that “as many of the poor who had been useless in England were inclined to be useless likewise in Georgia” (Quoted in George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century). The second wave of settlers to Georgia included twenty families of Portuguese Jews and twelve families of German Jews, who all came from the Jewish community in London. While the former group was independent, the latter group depended on Oglethorpe’s charity, which greatly displeased the other trustees of the colony.

From Debtors’ Colony to Penal Colony

James Oglethorpe, from a painting at the Georg...

Image via Wikipedia

In the end, Georgia never served as a penal colony—indeed, none of the American colonies did—and the only group of transported convicts who ever landed in Georgia was a shipment of 40 Irish convicts in the mid-1730s after being refused entry to Jamaica. More than likely, confusion over Oglethorpe’s original intention to set up Georgia as a debtor’s colony eventually led to the misplaced popular belief that it was early America’s penal colony.

In reality, most of the convicts transported to America ended up in Maryland and Virginia.

Resources for this article:

  • Ekirch, A. Roger. Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • George, M. Dorothy. London Life in the Eighteenth Century. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1965.
  • Hendricks, George and Louis De Vorsey. “United States of America: Georgia.” The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Ed. Philip W. Goetz. 15th ed. Vol. 29: 322. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1991.
  • “Oglethorpe, James Edward.” The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Ed. Philip W. Goetz. 15th ed. Vol. 8: 886. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1991.

Learn More About Convict Transportation

Learn more about convict transportation to colonial America by reading my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America.

Amazon.com: Paperback ($16.99) and Kindle ($4.99).

Smashwords: All e-book formats ($4.99).

Most people know that England shipped thousands of convicts to Australia, but few are aware that colonial America was the original destination for Britain’s unwanted criminals. In the 18th century, thousands of British convicts were separated from their families, chained together in the hold of a ship, and carried off to America, sometimes for the theft of a mere handkerchief.

What happened to these convicts once they arrived in America? Did they prosper in an environment of unlimited opportunity, or were they ostracized by the other colonists? Anthony Vaver tells the stories of the petty thieves and professional criminals who were punished by being sent across the ocean to work on plantations. In bringing to life this forgotten chapter in American history, he challenges the way we think about immigration to early America.

The book also includes an appendix with helpful tips for researching individual convicts who were transported to America.

Visit Pickpocket Publishing for more details.

4 Comments

  1. chickfuzz wrote:

    I am so glad to find this website. I had someone tell me that while visiting an Australian museum, they learned that Georgia had been a penal colony containing thousands of convicts. It makes me sad to think how many people visit that museum and leave with a false impression that does a great injustice to the memory James Oglethorpe and the vision he had for the colony of Georgia.

    Saturday, July 11, 2009 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  2. Brian wrote:

    I’m writing a paper for my legal history class; it is my understanding that the Carolinas sent convicts to Savannah. Please advise if there is any truth to this. Also, please lead me to some primary sources.

    Thanks in advance,

    Brian Abell

    Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  3. Bill wrote:

    More Irish sold as slaves to the US colonies & plantations from 1651 to 1660 than the total existing free population of the Americas!

    1641-1652, 550,000 Irish were killed by the English & 300,000 were sold as Slaves, Irish population of Ireland fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000.

    1649 Cromwell landed in Ireland,slaughtering 30,000 Irish. 25,000 were sold to planters in St. Kitt
    100,000 Irish children, 10-14 years old, taken from parents & sold as slaves in the West Indies, Va & N. England.

    Wednesday, February 8, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink
  4. All my life, my mother’s family said their people were shipped from debter’s prison in the British Isles to the penal colony in Georgia. I have had a good laugh from your history lesson and will be delighted to share it with the family.

    Saturday, June 23, 2012 at 2:43 am | Permalink

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