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The Business of Convict Transportation: The Sale of Convicts in America

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

Convict transportation was modeled after the indentured servant trade. Many of the merchants who traded in indentured servants also took up the convict trade, and convicts were often transported alongside indentured servants. Both kinds of servants were generally sold at auction once they reached American shores.

The Indentured Servant Trade

People who desired to start a new life in the American colonies but lacked money to do so, or those who could not find work in England and found themselves in debt or some other form of trouble, could sign a binding contract to become a servant in America.

An indentured servant contract signed by Henry Mayer with an “X” in 1738.

Sometimes the potential servant signed a contract directly with an agent of a planter in America. Most planters, however, did not want to risk acquiring a servant sight unseen, so usually a merchant, an emigrant agent, or a ship captain would strike a deal to take those who wanted to become servants in America on consignment. The agent who transported the servants would then auction them off in America and use the money he received from the sale to cover the cost of their passage. The cost of carrying a person across the Atlantic was about ₤4, so the agent could realize a profit if he could sell the servant for more than this amount.

When the British government developed the legal and practical structures for transporting convicts to America, it used the existing indentured servant market as a model, so there were many similarities between the two trades. Both set fixed terms for servitude before the future servants left port. Indentured servants generally served for a period of 4 years, while convicts who were sentenced to transportation could receive one of three terms: 7 years, 14 years, or banishment for life (74, 24, and 2 percent of the total convicts shipped, respectively). These terms became the length of their servant contracts in colonial America.

In both trades, the government utilized the private sector to carry out the transport of these future servants across the ocean. Once in America, both types of servant were sold to the highest bidder, with the proceeds offsetting the associated costs of bringing them overseas. The labor that each servant performed in America, as well as their legal rights, was fairly similar as well. The main difference between the two was that the term of contract for convicts and the subsidy paid out for transporting them were set by the government, whereas both the term of service and the cost of passage were negotiated by the indentured servants themselves.

The Auction of Convicts

Once convicts and indentured servants arrived in America, they were treated as commodities. American newspapers, such as the Maryland Gazette, often advertised upcoming auctions of newly imported convicts. Despite grumblings in the press about the dumping of convicts on the American colonies by Great Britain, the planters were eager to receive cheap labor and readily bought the convicts who were transported. Convict labor was in such demand that the Bristol-based firm of Stevenson, Randolph & Cheston had standing orders to supply plantation owners with convicts months before they arrived by ship.

Soon after arrival, the servants were put on display on the deck of the ship for the planters to inspect. Potential buyers were shown the convict’s conviction papers, which contained the convict’s crime, length of sentence, and where and when the convict had been jailed in England. After inspection, the servants were sold to the highest bidder.

Convicts who were sick, old, lame, or judged useless were lumped and sold together or were simply given away. In some cases, the convict contractors actually had to pay a premium to have such convicts taken off their hands. Later in the eighteenth century, groups of convicts were purchased by “soul drivers,” who would buy up large groups of convicts and parade them inland through the countryside, selling the convicts along the way.

In general, cheap labor in America was in such need that contractors had little problem unloading their cargoes of convicts. After passage of the Transportation Act, the sale of convict labor competed with the sales of indentured servants, European immigrant servants, and African slaves to American buyers of labor. Convicts, it turns out, were an excellent deal.

The Price of Convicts

Convicts, when compared with indentured servants and slaves, were a bargain. They served almost twice the time of indentured servants–7 years as opposed to 4–and they were not subject to freedom dues, usually a small parcel of land, some tools, and some seed that was contractually awarded to indentured servants who had served out their terms. Planters were also skeptical about hiring indentured servants, since they suspected that anyone willingly subjecting themselves to four years of servitude must be fleeing something at home. At least with a convict, they presumably knew what they were getting.

Smaller planters who could not afford to buy slaves often turned to convicts and indentured servants. Even though, unlike slaves, they were bound to serve for only a set number of years, they were much cheaper to acquire. A healthy, young convict could be purchased for ₤12-15, while a black slave might cost ₤50 sterling. Planters sometimes found that white servants made better laborers, since they spoke English and could more easily adjust to the colonial lifestyle. Large planters would use convicts to augment their slave labor or to perform specialized tasks, such as overseers, schoolmasters, carpenters, coopers, weavers, and blacksmiths.

Most male convicts sold for ₤10-14 sterling, and most females sold for ₤5-9. Convicts who could provide skilled labor would sell at an even higher rate, and manual laborers who could work the plantations were in greater need than those who were literate and well-educated. Adult servants were more valuable than teenagers, because the latter were considered less productive, and taller convicts sold for 20 percent more than those of average height. The specific crime that convicts committed affected their price as well. Those who committed arson, received stolen goods, or stole horses were discounted 36, 22, and 8 percent respectively from those who committed simple theft.

Convicts with high skills could be sold for cash, while others would be sold for credit or exchanged for tobacco. While buyers could inspect the convicts before sale, they could not fully inspect them for some diseases, such as venereal disease. The firm of Stevenson, Randolph & Cheston offered partial refunds to buyers who returned with evidence that the convict they bought was defective in some way that was not detectable at the point of sale.

Farley Grubb, a scholar of convict transportation, calculates that criminality lowered the labor value of convicts in the American colonies by 35 percent in comparison with indentured servants. This sizable discount explains why the demand for convict labor was so high. If a planter was willing to take a chance that the convicts he bought would not cause more problems than they were worth, he could extract a great deal of cheap labor from them.

Resources for this article:

  • Coldham, Peter Wilson. . 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.
  • Grubb, Farley. “The Market Evaluation of Criminality: Evidence from the Auction of British Convict Labor in America, 1767-1775.” The American Economic Review 91.1 (2001): 295-304.
  • —. “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.
  • Middleton, Arthur Pierce. Tobacco Coast: A Maritime History of Chesapeake Bay in the Colonial Era. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953.
  • Morgan, Kenneth. “The Organization of the Convict Trade to Maryland: Stevenson, Randolph and Cheston, 1768-1775.” The William and Mary Quarterly 42.2 (1985): 201-27.
  • Shaw, A. G. L. Convicts and the Colonies: A Study of Penal Transportation from Great Britain and Ireland to Australia and Other Parts of the British Empire. London: Faber and Faber, 1966.
  • Smith, Abbot Emerson. Colonists in Bondage : White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776. The Norton Library; N592. New York: Norton, 1971.

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. 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.

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