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The End of Convict Transportation: Closing Stages

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

Beginning in 1770, English courts handed out fewer transportation sentences to its convicted felons. The growing unease in the American colonies over British rule and its use as a destination for convicts probably had something to do with this trend. Rather than send convicted criminals across the ocean to America, local authorities instead started reviving the use of benefit of clergy, imposing terms of imprisonment on offenders, and instituting hard labor at home. Even so, convict transportation remained an important element of the British criminal justice system.

The Last of the Convict Merchants

John Stewart assumed the position of Contractor for Transports to the Government in 1763, but his short tenure came to an end with his death in 1772. Stewart’s business partner, Duncan Campbell, naturally applied for the vacant the post.

Duncan Campbell was descended from the Glasgow family of Scotland. With his marriage in 1753 to the daughter of a wealthy Jamaica planter, he was prominent in the West Indies trade, owning both plantations and ships. One of his ships, the Bethia was later renamed the Bounty, of Captain Bligh fame. He also served as chairman of the London merchants trading to Virginia.

Campbell assumed that he would automatically step in to the position of Contractor for Transports and continue to receive ₤5 from the government for every convict he transported to America, just as all the others who held this position had in the past.

Duncan was mistaken. Apparently, the profits that could be had by selling convicts in America were so great that a line of merchants were already lined up at the Treasury offering to transport convicts at their own expense. The Treasury no longer needed to pay any merchant to take convicts off the government’s hands, so Stewart turned out to be the last person to hold the post of Contractor for Transports.

Even though Campbell did not secure the government subsidy, he made a fortune exporting convicts and remained an influential player in the business of convict transportation.

The American Revolution

Samuel Johnson famously quipped in 1769 that the American colonists “are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.” Needless to say, such a sentiment would not have sat well with the American colonists. After all, the British government was responsible for populating America with its unwanted convicted felons against the wishes of many colonists.

While convict transportation was not a direct cause of the American Revolution, it helped to validate in the minds of American colonists their status as second-class citizens under British rule. If Great Britain could forcibly dump its criminals and other undesirables on America, what did that say about how it viewed its relationship with the colonies?

Convict transportation came to an abrupt end in the spring of 1775, when the American colonies began to refuse entry to ships from England after hostilities had broken out between the two lands. On September 16, 1775, The Virginia Gazette carried a short report from London dated July 4 that a convict ship was refused entry to America and was forced to return back to England. No detail was given as to exactly why it was refused entry.

The British government at first thought that the rebellion would not last long. In May 1776, the Solicitor-General asserted before the British Parliament that “when tranquility was restored to America, the usual mode of transportation might be again adopted.” His prediction never came to pass.

The last known ship to empty its cargo of convicts on American shores successfully was the Jenny, which arrived in the James River from Newcastle in April 1776. At this point, however, well over a year had passed since any other convict ship had landed in America before it.

On December 11, 1776, after America had claimed its independence from England in July, a group of convicts who boarded the Tayloe for transportation to America were subsequently pardoned on condition that they join the British army. Rather than work for the colonists in America, now the convicts would be used to fight against them.

New Immigration Trends

After the American Revolution, Americans were forced to reconsider how they do business. Much of the American economy had relied on cheap labor provided by the forced immigration of British convicts and African slaves. The idea of equality that informed the American Revolution now conflicted with the economic structures of the past.

When immigration resumed after the war, free immigrants now dominated the numbers of those coming to America. Nearly two-thirds of all immigrants who came to America were free, compared to only about a quarter before this time. Slaves and indentured servants continued to make up the difference until importing African slaves was banned in 1808.

Even though the American Revolution put an end to the British practice of transporting convicts to America, runaway ads for convicts continued to run in American newspapers well after 1776. Despite the divorce between the American colonies and Great Britain, convicts were still bound to serve out their terms in America.

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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