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Convict Voyages: Traveling to America in Chains

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

Convict ships heading directly to America after leaving London would have traveled down the Thames on the ebb current and then anchored at Dover, Cowes, or the Downs to wait for favorable winds to take them out to sea. Some ships would have traveled to additional British ports to pick up even more convicts before heading out across the Atlantic, although major ports like Bristol would generally have relied on their own convict transportation firms.

Travel from Great Britain to the Chesapeake was fairly direct along the northern route of the Atlantic, which took the ship in a west-southwest direction from the British Isles towards the Chesapeake Bay. In good weather, the trip could take as little as seven to eight weeks, although any encounters with bad weather could extend the time of the voyage considerably. During the winter, when cold and bad weather was more common, the trip could take twelve to fourteen weeks. Return trips back east to Great Britain took much less time–sometimes only six or seven weeks–with the winds and the Gulf Stream helping to move the ship along at a faster pace.

A Voyage Full of Risk

Crossing the Atlantic was full of risk in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Setting sail for America from England was a serious affair, since there was a fairly high chance that those embarking would never return for a variety of reasons.

Frequent storms on the Atlantic were feared the most, since ships that ran into them were at the mercy of the high winds and roiling waters. Storms not only could severely damage ships and cargo, but they made travel extremely uncomfortable for passengers as the vessel was battered around. If the ship sprang a leak, all passengers were expected to help pump water. Ebenezer Cook in 1708 wrote the following about a stormy trip to the American colonies:

Freighted with Fools, from Plymouth sound,
To Mary-Land our Ship was bound,
Where we arrived in dreadful Pain,
Shock’d by the Terrours of the Main;
For full Three Months, our wavering Boat,
Did thro’ the surley Ocean float,
And furious Storms and threat’ning Blasts,
Both tore our Sails and sprung our Masts.

Food was nearly impossible to cook during rough weather, but seasickness generally took away any possible hunger anyway.

Pirates, privateers, and hostile navies could also threaten voyages. The Atlantic was full of vessels either acting alone or sanctioned by enemy states looking for other boats to seize and plunder. Convict ships were not immune to such threats. In 1746, the Virginia Gazette reported that the Zephyre, a French Man of War armed with 30 guns and 350 men, attacked the Plain-Dealer, a convict ship bound for Maryland commanded by Capt. James Dobbins. Forty of the 106 convicts on board took part in the two and a half hour fight against the French, but the enemy’s numbers eventually overwhelmed the ship. The Man of War took most of Dobbins’s men and some of the convicts, but during its return back to France the ship sank, killing all but seven Frenchmen who managed to make it back to shore.

Below Deck

Convicts were commodities that brought profit to the people who transported them, so they were only rarely subjected to harsh punishments, such as beatings or executions. They had little opportunity to cause trouble anyway, since they spent most of the voyage chained to one another below deck. They did, however, suffer from overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and the old and infirm were generally considered expendable, since they were unlikely to be sold for a profit at the end of the voyage.

Voyages across the Atlantic could be pure misery for even regular passengers. A traveler from Germany to Philadelphia in 1750 described his trip in horrifying terms.

[D]uring the voyage there is on board these ships terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror, vomiting, many kinds of sea-sickness, fever, dysentery, headache, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth-rot, and the like, all of which come from old and sharply salted food and meat, also from very bad and foul water, so that many die miserably.

Add to this want of provisions, hunger, thirst, frost, heat, dampness, anxiety, want, afflictions and lamentations, together with other trouble, as c. v. the lice abound so frightfully, especially on sick people, that they can be scraped off the body. The misery reaches the climax when a gale rages for 2 or 3 nights and days, so that every one believes that the ship will go to the bottom with all human beings on board. In such a visitation the people cry and pray most piteously. (Gottlieb Mittelberger, Journey to Pennsylvania in the Year 1750)

If normal passengers experienced such hardships crossing the ocean, convicts would have had an even worse time of it, being confined in stifling, unventilated air and little light throughout most of their trip.

The incessant tossing of the ship by the ocean waves was a major cause of misery for the convicts. Seasickness was an omnipresent source of discomfort for many of them. The constant rocking of the ship also caused the chains attached to them to rub their skin raw. Minimal movement of iron against skin could be painful; being thrown around from side-to-side by rough waters while sitting on a wooden plank could be excruciating.

In his book The Slave Ship: A Human History, Marcus Rediker quotes from a first-hand account by a slave named Equiano to describe what it was like for slaves traveling on a slave ship. His depiction of the circumstances in which the slaves traveled closely correspond to the way convicts were transported.

Now that everyone was confined together belowdecks, the apartments were ‘so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself.’ The enslaved were spooned together in close quarters, each with about as much room as a corpse in a coffin. The ‘galling of the chains’ rubbed raw the soft flesh of wrists, ankles, and necks. The enslaved suffered extreme heat and poor ventilation, ‘copious perspirations,’ and seasickness. The stench, which was already ‘loathsome,’ became ‘absolutely pestilential’ as the sweat, the vomit, the blood, and the ‘necessary tubs’ full of excrement ‘almost suffocated us.’ The shrieks of the terrified mingled in cacophony with the groans of the dying.

The experiences of convicts traveling across the ocean must have been similar to those of African slaves.

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. 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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