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Convict Voyages: The Convict Ship

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

Once the convicts were loaded onto the convict ship, the captain, the jailor, and certain witnesses would sign a transportation bond ensuring that the convicts being transported were safely aboard the ship. These documents were then delivered to the Treasury to prove that the convicts had been transferred and that payment was due. After a month or so, payment was made to the convict contractor, and the documents were copied word for word into the Treasury Money Books. With the signing of the transportation bond, the convicts were now set to embark on their voyage across the Atlantic to America.

On Board the Ship

Conditions on convict ships were harsh. Transported convicts spent almost the entire 8- to 10-week voyage below deck in cramped quarters chained together in groups of six. In essence, the convicts went from one miserable prison on land to an even worse one floating on water.

Convict ships in general were not large. Most of the ships used in the trade were made in America, mainly in Maryland and New England; the rest, about a third, were constructed in Britain, and an even smaller percentage were seized from the French as booty during wartime. The ships tended to be old and worn down from frequent trips back and forth across the Atlantic, and their rotting hulks often required costly repairs that cut deeply into the profits of the convict contractors.

Even though slave ships were sometimes used to transport convicts, most of the ships used in the convict transportation business were ill-equipped to handle the transport of human cargo. Few ships used in the trade were ever designed specifically for the purpose of transporting convicts, and many of them were better suited to carry tobacco and other commodities from the colonies back across the Atlantic once the convicts were unloaded in America.

“Sold into Slavery”

Both jailors and convicts often referred to those sentenced to transportation to the colonies as having been sent or sold into slavery. The comparison is apt, especially when one considers the circumstances under which both convicts and slaves were carried across the Atlantic. The similarity between the two trades is not surprising, since both dealt in human cargo and many of the contractors, captains, and ships in the convict trade also had experience in the slave trade. On some level, the experiences of convicts on board ships would have been similar to those of slaves.

Even though merchants in both the convict and slave trades had a financial incentive to keep their passengers healthy, to some degree convicts were treated worse than slaves on board convict ships. Since the convict trader was already receiving a subsidy from the British government for each convict transported, there was more of a temptation to cut corners in providing provisions to the convicts in order to increase profits. Slave traders only profited from the sale of slaves at the end of the voyage, and since slaves commanded much higher prices than convicts, there was more incentive to deliver them in as healthy a state as possible.

Convict ships were akin to floating dungeons. Throughout most of their journey, convicts were kept belowdeck with little light or fresh air. They were chained together in groups of six in small, cramped quarters that were either too hot or too cold, depending on the time of year. The number of convicts being transported could range anywhere from 1 to 150 or more. More than half of the ships arriving in Maryland between 1746 and 1775 carried more than 90 passengers. The lower decks of slave ships had ceilings only four and a half feet high, so most convicts carried on such ships would not be able to stand straight up. In general, though, convicts enjoyed more room on ships carrying them than slaves, but less room than indentured servants.

Unlike slaves, convicts were kept in the lower decks almost throughout their entire voyage, due to their criminal backgrounds and the threat they posed for taking over the ship, although slaves posed a similar threat as well. Only occasionally were convicts let up on deck in small shifts of several prisoners each. Slaves at least enjoyed fresh air on deck on a regular basis during their voyage in the interests of keeping them healthy, even though the “dancing” they were forced to perform for exercise in the open air could be excruciatingly painful due to their chains rubbing against their skin.

A Snapshot on Board a Convict Ship

A letter from the Earl of Fife to George Selwyn on April 28, 1770 gives a snapshot of the conditions under which convicts were transported. Matthew Kennedy, who along with his brother, was found guilty of murdering John Bigby, a watchman, in a riot on Westminster Bridge. Kennedy was sentenced to death, but his politically connected family managed to have his sentence changed to transportation.

In order to arrange a free passage for Kennedy to the American colonies, the Earl of Fife paid John Stewart, the Contractor for Transports to the Government at the time, fifteen guineas. Just before Kennedy’s ship left port, however, the widow of the murdered man lodged an appeal of the revised sentence, so Fife hurried to retrieve Kennedy from the ship. Fife reported in a letter to Selwyn the condition in which he found Kennedy:

I went on board, and, to be sure, all the states of horror I ever had an idea of are much short of what I saw this poor man in; chained to a board, in a hole not above sixteen feet long; more than fifty with him; a collar and padlock about his neck, and chained to five of the most dreadful creatures I ever looked on.

This passage not only gives us a description of the dreadful circumstances under which convicts were transported by John Stewart–who had a reputation for actually improving the conditions under which convicts were transported–but also displays Stewart’s unscrupulous nature in throwing Kennedy in with the other convicts even after Fife had specifically paid for special treatment for Kennedy.

Ship Captains

Captains of convict ships were hired for their experience in transporting human cargo. If they were anything like the captains of slave ships–and many of them came with experience in that trade–they were tough men who wielded strict discipline. They wouldn’t hesitate to whip and beat those who disregarded their orders or to place unruly convicts in double irons. The sailors were often treated miserably by them as well. Crew members could be beaten and whipped by the captain for insubordination, and they were subjected to low wages, poor provisions, and a high mortality rate. Some of the crewmen even died of disease contracted from the convicts.

Some captains were completely incompetent. In one case, Edward Brockett, captain of the Rappahannock Merchant, spent almost the entire 1725 voyage drunk. He turned the boat into a party ship and squandered the ship’s provisions by encouraging those on board to drink to excess and giving them open access to the food. Brockett and a merchant who was also along for the voyage each kept a mistress in their cabin. When the ship arrived in Virginia, George Tilly, one of Jonathan Forward’s agents in Virginia, reported that the ship had no provisions left on board and that it was in terrible condition due to the neglect of the captain, mate, and ship carpenter to sound the pump.

One particularly egregious case of cruelty by a captain was reported in the Virginia Gazette in 1774. Capt. John Ogilvie was carrying 94 convicts from London to Virginia on the Tayloe.

When this vessel was at sea, the captain one morning discovered an uncommon bird on the bowsprit, which was particularly beautiful; and having a desire to possess it, to view its formation, he called for his gun and shot it. The bird fluttered for some time, and at last fell into the water, some distance from the vessel. The captain’s curiosity being still heightened, he offered the convicts, that which ever of them would procure for him the bird, should immediately receive his freedom. Several of them undertook it with alacrity, and, after stripping themselves, plunged into the sea. But, alas! he who was the ablest competitor in this spumy element, just as he stretched forth one arm, in order to seize the little urchin, his other fell a sacrifice to the jaws of an hungry shark. The man’s fortitude, however, was still so great, that he kept the prize within his grasp till he got to the vessel, when, after being hauled up, he delivered to the captain his favourite, and instantly expired.

Later, in an event reminiscent of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the mainmast of the ship was struck by lightning in the Chesapeake Bay before it reached shore. The mast was destroyed and the people on board were stunned by the bolt, but fortunately nobody was injured.

Resources for this article:

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.

34 Comments

  1. M. R. Williamson wrote:

    I am interested in the merchant ship, Rappahonnock. Was wondering if it is the same merchant ship that traded between England, Holland, and the Colonies. This ship was called the Rapehonnock (similar spelling), and was at one time captained by a Francis Billingsley. His aunt owned the vessel. They are my kin…

    M. R. Williamson

    Monday, March 22, 2010 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  2. In addition to the voyage captained by Edward Brockett, my research resources list only three other convict voyages made by a ship with the name Rappahannock Merchant. Two were captained by Charles Whale (Nov. 1725 and Mar. 1727) and the other by John Jones (Dec. 1724). Jones died of smallpox when the ship landed in Falmouth, and 38 of the convicts on board died of “gaol fever” before the ship reached Virginia.

    I don’t have any record of a ship with the name “Rapehonnock,” but spelling conventions were not as fixed as they are today, so it’s possible that it is the same ship.

    I hope this helps.

    Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  3. Stephanie Clayton wrote:

    I am looking for a photo and further information on Charles Wale, the ship Rappahannock that docked w/ my convict ancestor, William Longmire. I purchased the book, Bound in Chains and what a treasure!!! I plan to purchase another copy to donate to our library. Any information you can help me find about the ship, captain, or convicts on board, I’d truly appreciate it.
    Stephanie Longmire Clayton

    Friday, March 30, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Permalink
  4. Hi Stephanie,

    Thank you for your kind words about my book. Your convict ancestor had an interesting history! He was transported from London to Virginia on the Rappahannock Merchant in November 1725 and arrived in Virginia. The captain of the ship, Charles Whale, commanded one more convict voyage on the same ship in March 1727.

    Because William Longmire committed his crime in London, an account of his trial appears in the

    Sunday, April 1, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  5. Pamela Jones wrote:

    Hi.
    I found this link and am very interested because I have heard that an ancestor of mine (John Newport) was transported about the Rappahannock Merchant in 1724.
    Do you have any information about him?
    I’d appreciate anything you have at all.
    thanks

    Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 8:47 pm | Permalink
  6. John Newport was a servant found guilty of stealing four shillings out of the pocket of his master, who had suspected Newport of regularly taking money out of his pants pocket and had planted money that could be traced (http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17241014-13-defend75&div=t17241014-13#highlight). He was sentenced to transportation and boarded the Rappahannock Merchant in London in December 1724. The ship landed in Falmouth, Virginia, but the voyage was marked by tragedy: Captain John Jones and 38 other convicts died of smallpox along the way.

    Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink
  7. Fred Corram wrote:

    My ancestor William Coram (Coreham) was convicted in Old Bailey on December 7, 1726. Records show he was on the Rappahannock Merchant sailed on March 1727 from London for Maryland.
    Does anyone know of the people who made it to North America.

    Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink
  8. Fred Coram wrote:

    Pardon,

    I miss spelled my last name on the firt post.

    Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  9. Hi Fred, Discovering what happened to transported convicts in America is difficult. Most transports were illiterate and eager to shed their past once they completed their terms of service in America. I wish you luck in your search! –Anthony

    Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  10. Pamela wrote:

    Thank you so much for the info about John Newport. And thanks, too, for the link in the message. I’ll be looking for other relatives with apt hat link.
    God Bless

    Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 8:33 pm | Permalink
  11. Fred Coram wrote:

    Thanks Anthony,
    I was wondering if there was any way to know if he did make it a shore in Maryland or if he could not have been on the ship when it docked (assuming the ship did make it to Maryland.) I have not been able to find a landing certificate.

    Fred

    Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 8:55 am | Permalink
  12. My main source is Peter Wilson Coldham’s “The King’s Passengers.” Coldham is a meticulous compiler of transport lists, and he only cites the Treasury Money Orders–which confirmed that transports made it onto the ship–for Coram. He does not list a landing certificate source for Coram’s ship, so it most likely does not exist.

    If you find any information about what happened to Coram, let me know. I’d love to hear it.

    Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  13. Carole Smith wrote:

    Looking for Thomas Smith or Herbert Thomas Smith, who at age 13 in 1760 was tried and sentenced to transport for theft from John Gell or Gall. He was supposedly on the ship “Friendship” from England to MD.
    Can’t find record of trial or passenger list. Help?

    Friday, January 11, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  14. I can confirm that a Thomas Smith was transported on the Friendship in March 1760 and arrived in Maryland in June of that same year. Here is the record of his trial, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17600227-14-punish65&div=t17600227-14#highlight, which says that he was about 16 years old, not 13.

    Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink
  15. When I discovered my 4X’s grandfather was a transported convict, I immediately bought your book and am finishing it, fascinated by the light you’ve eloquently shone on this little known aspect of American history. My ancestor, Hugh Steers, was Anglo-Irish, was convicted of larceny, and was transported in 1774. He ended up in Pennsylvania, and I was wondering where he would likely have worked in servitude in that colony at that time. Any conjecture on that score? He obviously had his term of servitude cut short by the coming of the American Revolutionary War, and he ended up serving in the Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania Militia under Col. Archibald Lochry. Only a few years after his premature liberation as a British convict, he was taken as a POW in the Battle of Lochry’s Defeat by the famous Mohawk war chief/British officer Joseph Brant along the Ohio River in 1781. Ironically, he was once again enslaved, this time for two years as a captive of the British allies the Shawnee Indians in the village of Chillicothe until 1783, victimized by the British system twice in his lifetime! He settled in Kentucky, miraculously lived to the age of 90, and is now buried on the 18th hole of the Lassing Pointe Golf Course in Union, Kentucky (probably the only Revolutionary War veteran buried in the middle of a golf course!) My research has uncovered a great deal about his adventurous, precarious life, but not why he would have been relegated to servitude in Pennsylvania instead of the more common Virginia and Maryland tobacco plantations. He was 18 when transported, had no specialized skills I’m aware of, and therefore I was wondering why he would likely end up in Pennsylvania?

    Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 10:46 pm | Permalink
  16. Hi Jerry, You are fortunate to have found so much information about your convict ancestor. Most people are not so lucky. To answer your question: While most convicts transported to America ended up in Maryland and Virginia, some ended up in the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere in the colonies. Where they ended up depended on where the ship landed and who purchased their labor. Pennsylvania is close to MD and VA, so it was not unusual for someone from PA who was in need of labor to attend a convict auction, say, in Maryland. Unfortunately, I cannot give you any leads as to who may have purchased your ancestor. His owner would have had to have kept some kind of personal record of the purchase, and you would have to miraculously stumble upon that record. It could very well be a search for a needle in a haystack, where the needle may not even exist.

    Thank you for your kind words about my book and for visiting my website!

    Friday, February 8, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink
  17. I appreciate you responding so promptly and helpfully to my previous query, Mr. Vaver. I recently found my 4X’s grandfather Hugh Steers listed on page 760 of Coldham’s compilation of transported convicts. My ancestor received a 14-year sentence in 1773 in County Devon for receiving stolen goods, namely 200 iron bolts, obviously valued over the 5 shillings that was the demarcation between a 7-year and 14-year sentence. Would he have likely been convicted of a capital crime because of the value of those goods, a sentence then commuted to transportation and servitude in the colonies? Also, you noted in your book that convicts were branded on the thumb in many circumstances. Having been convicted of larceny, would he likely have been branded with a “T” for “Thief” as late in the convict transportation trade as 1773?

    Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 12:27 am | Permalink
  18. It is most likely that your ancestor was convicted of a capital offense and had his sentence commuted through royal pardon to transportation for 14 years, as was standard practice.

    Branding was connected to the practice of “Benefit of Clergy,” which applied to lesser offenses and which transportation as a punishment partly replaced. It was mainly a means of identifying whether someone had committed a first-time offense and was thereby liable to be executed for a second offense. Since your ancestor was likely convicted of a non-clergyable offense and was sentenced to transportation for 14 years, it is unlikely that he was also branded.

    Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  19. Jerry Kue wrote:

    I know from documents that my ancestor Hugh Steers was convicted on March 15, 1773 at the Lent Session of Court in County Devon and given a 14-year sentence, which you pointed out was likely a capital sentence commuted to a royal pardon and transportation to the American colonies. Given that he arrived somewhere in the colonies in 1774, is there any way to determine which convict ship he would likely have been brought over on? Would ships depart from ports in Devon, or would ships from the port of London call at other British ports and pick up additional convicts?

    Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 9:53 pm | Permalink
  20. Hi Jerry, there are convict ship lists, but unfortunately your ancestor does not appear on the ones that I regularly consult. Ships from London did stop at other ports to pick up convicts before heading off for America. But smaller counties outside of the proximity of London would also contract the transfer of convicts with local merchants who just happened to be going to America, especially if they only had a few convicts to transport.

    Friday, March 8, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  21. L.W. Hartley wrote:

    I have found my grandfather was sent to America on the Litchfield in May, 1752. The captain of the Litchfield was L. Gerraro. This information was gleaned from “Bonded Passengers to America” by Peter Wilson Coldham. However, I could not find why he was sent (other than he was a criminal) and who bought him or indentured him. Can you help me?

    Monday, April 22, 2013 at 6:33 pm | Permalink
  22. If your ancestor was from the London area, his trial might appear in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/forms/formMain.jsp. But if he was from another part of England, those court records–if they are still in existence–are probably not online.

    Monday, April 29, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink
  23. Nancy Scott wrote:

    I believe that my 4x great grandfather Roger Swiney may have been sent to America on a convict ship. I have records that he fought in the Revolutionary War for the British with the King’s Carolina Rangers and then was transported to Nova Scotia in 1784. But I have no information on how or why he came to the Carolinas except for a very vague reference. He may have been from Northern Ireland. Do you see him on any of your lists? I am downloading your book to my kindle as we speak. Thank you for your passion about this very interesting part of our history.

    Sunday, June 16, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink
  24. Hi Nancy, Your ancestor was transported after transportation to colonial America had come to an end and before Britain started sending convicts to Australia in 1787, which may explain why he was sent to Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, I do not have any lists where his name would appear.

    Good luck on your search!

    Tuesday, June 18, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink
  25. george worby wrote:

    need information about edward braden a convict shipped from england to usa on board a convict ship THE WHITING

    Monday, September 23, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink
  26. george worby wrote:

    any information about EDWARD BRADEN a 16 year old convict shipped to america in 1753 aboard THE WHITING

    Monday, September 23, 2013 at 6:43 am | Permalink
  27. Elizabeth Price wrote:

    I have discovered a link to a possible ancestor by the name of Richard Moorby of St Martin’s In Fields who stole a coat worth 10 shillings from a Alexander Steward on August 26th, 1724. It was decreed that he was to be transported on the Rappahanock and was in New Gate Prison in London when the sentence was handed down. He arrived in Virginia on Dec 14,1724. In many cases the name was spelled wrong, even after the initial arresting record. I find this the case often in doing research of this kind. Now I seem to be hitting a road block for information after his arrival in Virginia. Any suggestions as to where to go from here? ESP who was he auctioned off to and what town he would have been in when he arrived. I just love this sight and contributions such as yours and others. Not only does it aid in research but is fascinating reading. Thank-you very much, Beth

    Saturday, November 30, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  28. Unfortunately, you are at the point where a lot of people hit a wall in researching their convict ancestors. Some records were kept early on about who purchased convict servants, but such record keeping was eventually abandoned–the British government did not really care about what happened to the convicts once they headed off across the Atlantic–and these early records were lost in a fire. My suggestion is to contact the Virginia Historical Society’s library if you haven’t already.

    Tuesday, December 3, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  29. A John Jackson and an Elizabeth Commins were transported in May 1749 on the Litchfield. The grandparents of Gen. Stonewall Jackson are said to have married in Cecil Co. in 1755. Some of the descendants feel John and Elizabeth tried at Old Bailey are the grandparents of Stonewall. Is there a way we can locate the port of entry for them in Maryland and also where they served their sentence? After the marriage they resided in Leesburg, VA; migrated to the South Potomac in Hardy Co. and then to the western part of VA/now Upshur Co., WV. I just received your book and am looking forward to reading it. Thank you

    Tuesday, December 10, 2013 at 7:01 pm | Permalink
  30. Hi Nancy, Unfortunately, no records were kept on exactly where convicts landed in America and who purchased them during the time frame that interests you (and most of the ones that were kept early on were lost in a fire). My suggestion is to contact the library of the Maryland Historical Society (http://www.mdhs.org) if you haven’t already.

    I don’t know if you have looked up the court records for John and Elizabeth, but here they are (from the Proceedings of the Old Bailey website):

    Elizabeth Comins: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17490405-42-punish192&div=t17490405-42#highlight

    John Jackson: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17490113-2-punish11&div=t17490113-2#highlight

    Good luck in your search!

    Wednesday, December 11, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink
  31. Our relative Richard Walley alias Wainscott arrived in Maryland in 1728. We have a lot of information on him but even though we have a record showing Charles Whale as being the captain, it does not say what ship Richard was transported on.He was on a convict ship. Do you have any record of this?

    Sunday, February 9, 2014 at 6:15 pm | Permalink
  32. Peter Coldham in “The King’s Passengers to Maryland and Virginia” guesses that the ship was called the “Oak” (he puts the name of the ship in square brackets with a question mark next to it). It is the only listing of this ship in his book, so it’s possible that this voyage was the only one it made.

    Monday, February 10, 2014 at 8:03 am | Permalink
  33. Thank you so much for your help. We truly appreciate it!
    Alice Wainscott

    Monday, February 10, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  34. Robin E. Farris wrote:

    My ancestor, Elisha Sharpe was aboard the Rappahanock Merchant for highway robbery… Interestingly, he named a son Litchfield, which I found from reading your posts here was the name of another ship involved in transporting prisoners. I’ve only just ordered your book and am looking forward to reading it.

    Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

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