Note: This post is part of a series on Convict Transportation to the American colonies.
Before passage of the Transportation Act in 1718, convict transportation was a haphazard process, mainly because convicts were generally responsible for making their own arrangements for leaving the country. After passage of the Act, convict transportation became an official business. The Act codified the practice of convict transportation by establishing rules and procedures that needed to be followed in the removal of convicts from the country, and the British government was now required to oversee the mechanisms of this process.
One of the procedures necessitated by the Act was the appointment of official contractors who specialized in efficiently transporting convicts overseas. Merchants involved in the African slave trade were a natural choice, since they had experience moving large numbers of people across the ocean and had pre-established connections in the American colonies. Contracting out the punishment of convicted felons to private enterprise was a radical step for the British government. As one historian of convict transportation put it, the “transatlantic market for British convict labor was essentially a vast experiment in privatizing post-trial criminal justice.”
The transportation of convicts across the Atlantic was mainly organized by a few merchant firms centered in London and Bristol. From 1727 to 1773, the British government paid ₤5 sterling for every convict transported from London and the Home Counties to a single contractor. Other shippers throughout the kingdom could still transport convicts, but they would not receive a subsidy to do so from the government. These other firms would have to rely solely on the profit they could extract from selling the labor of the convicts they transported to America.
Merchant firms that transported convicts were required to secure the convicts from prison to ship to shore and to obtain arrival certificates from officials in the colonies to ensure that the convicts arrived at their destination. These arrival certificates were then presented by the contracted merchant to the Treasury, which entered the names of each convict into the Treasury Money Books and authorized payment to cover the expense of feeding, clothing, and transporting the convicts. While serving as Lord of the Treasury, Robert Walpole, the future Prime Minister of Great Britain, authorized and signed many such petitions for payment.
His Majesty’s Seven-Year Passengers
Transported convicts became colloquially known as “His Majesty’s Seven-Year Passengers,” since most of them were sentenced to serve out seven-year terms of laboring in America. Almost all of them were from the lower orders of society and around 80 percent were male. By far, the most prevalent offense for which a criminal was transported was for the theft of a handkerchief–most likely committed out of economic necessity–although murderers, highwaymen, and professional thieves were also sent overseas. From this perspective, transportation was a harsh punishment. It involved waiting in jail before being transferred to a crowded, airless ship, enduring the long journey in these conditions to America, and being sold to a planter for seven years, where the convict could be subject to harsh treatment and back-breaking work.
Practically every county in England sent their criminals to the colonies, with over 30,000 felons being shipped from England alone between 1718 and 1775. Convicts transported from all of Great Britain totaled 50,000 between these years. With the passage of the Transportation Act, convict transportation became big business, with great profits going to those who carried felons overseas and to those who purchased their labor in America.
Resources for this article:
- —. Emigrants in Chains: A Social History of Forced Emigration to the Americas of Felons, Destitute Children, Political and Religious Non-conformists, Vagabonds, Beggars and Other Undesirables, 1607-1776. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1992.
- Ekirch, A. Roger. “Bound for America: A Profile of British Convicts Transported to the Colonies.” The William and Mary Quarterly 42.2 (1985): 184-200.
- Grubb, Farley. “The Transatlantic Market for British Convict Labor.” The Journal of Economic History 60.1 (2000): 94-122.
- Kaminkow, Marion J., and Jack Kaminkow. Original Lists of Emigrants in Bondage from London to the American Colonies, 1719-1744. Baltimore, MD: Magna Carta Book Co., 1967.
- Morgan, Kenneth. “Convict Transportation to Colonial America (Review of A. Roger Ekirch, Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775).” Reviews in American History 17.1 (1989): 29-34.
- —. “The Organization of the Convict Trade to Maryland: Stevenson, Randolph and Cheston, 1768-1775.” The William and Mary Quarterly 42.2 (1985): 201-27.
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.