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The End of Convict Transportation: Debates Back in England

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

In 1739, Governor William Gooch of Virginia complained to the British government that “The great number of Convicts yearly Imported here, and the impossibility of ever reclaiming them from their vicious habits have occasioned a vast Charge to the Country.” Objections from the American colonies to the practice convict transportation like this one were perhaps to be expected, but convict transportation also had its critics back in Great Britain.

Almost as soon as the Transportation Act was passed in 1718 by the British Parliament, convict transportation had its doubters. While the punishment served as a popular alternative to executing petty offenders in the courts, the public generally regarded it as less humanitarian and more severe than corporal punishment, which had commonly been used to punish petty criminals before passage of the Act. Most of the critics in Great Britain, however, were less concerned with severity of the punishment and instead focused on the failure of convict transportation to accomplish its end goals.

Critiques in the Press

Critiques of convict transportation in the British press frequently claimed that convict transportation failed to reform criminals and that many of them ended up returning to England before serving out their sentence.

In Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735), the author contends that convict transportation doesn’t answer the purpose of preventing crime. He maintains that within a year, many of the convicts return to England “and are Ten times more dangerous Rogues than they were before; and in the Plantations they generally behave themselves so ill, that many of them have refused to receive them.” He holds up the use of convicts to man the oars of galleys in other nations as a model that Britain should follow, since this punishment subjects prisoners to hard labor yet effectively prevents them from committing any more crimes. He goes on to admit that Great Britain has no need for galleys, but he is confident that similar laborious work could be found.

The argument that convict transportation fails to reform criminals is reinforced later in Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals by no less than Ebenezer Ellison, “a notorious Irish thief.” His biographical entry includes his last dying speech, where Ellison is reported to have said that “we generally make a Shift to return after being transported, and are ten times greater Rogues than before, and much more cunning. Besides, I know it by Experience that some Hopes we have of finding Mercy when we are tried, or after we are condemned, is always a great Encouragement to us.” It’s hard to argue with a criminal who claims that convict transportation does not have any effect on his kind.

Some critics contended that transportation did not go far enough in instilling terror into criminal offenders. George Ollyffe in 1731 was troubled by the fact that even though convict transportation was supposed to rid “the Nation of its offensive Rubbish, without taking away their Lives, greater Numbers still gather.” He proposed a more systematic application of hard labor in order to “promote the most sharp and lasting Terror.” He envisioned prisoners working to defray the costs of their confinement, while “watchful Inspectors” would “drive them on in their Work with the utmost Severity” until they determine that the convicts have been sufficiently punished for their crime. He also embraced the idea of either transporting vagrants and beggars to the colonies and then selling them off as slaves or sending them to work in galleys to help guard the British seas and forts.

In an essay added to the end of Ways and Means Whereby His Majesty May Man His Navy, Thomas Robe wonders why convicts need to be sent overseas to perform work when they could be made to do so in Great Britain. He proposes stripping those who would normally be transported down to their waste and then confining them in workhouses, where they should be made to work in iron forges or in stone quarries. He adds that at night these felons should be manacled and during the day fettered at the ankles. Female felons, on the other hand, should be kept in hospitals and treated similarly, “only not stript to the Waste as the Men,” and employed to card wool or wind yarn. Those who refused to work in such a capacity, he goes on to suggest, should be exchanged two for one to liberate fellow countrymen who have been taken as slaves in foreign countries.

Support in the Press

Despite all the criticism, convict transportation had its supporters in the press. In The Trade and Navigation of Great-Britain Considered, the merchant Joshua Gee proposes expanding convict transportation to include all people who could not find ways to support themselves in Great Britain. He supports this view by contending that many of the convicts who were transported to the American colonies have “come to severe Repentance for their past Lives, and become very industrious.”

Gee suggests that anyone who finishes out their term should receive 100 acres of land or more from the government and then be charged rent for the land in the form of hemp or flax, which could be used to help supply the Royal Navy. He sees his proposal as a win-win situation for both Great Britain and the convicts, since “they would marry young, increase, and multiply and supply themselves with every Thing they want from us, but their Food, by which Means those vast Tracts of Land now waste will be planted, and secured from the Danger we apprehend of the French over-running them.”

Second Thoughts

Criminal biographies that recounted the early return of transported convicts to England from America, along with debates in the British press about the efficacy of convict transportation, gave the public the impression that this experimental form of punishment was a failed policy. Despite the criticism that convict transportation received on both sides of the Atlantic, Britain continued shipping large numbers of convicts to America, and American planters continued buying them up as fast as they landed.

In 1752, the British government took some of the criticism seriously and appeared to have second thoughts about the practice of convict transportation. Parliament began exploring alternatives to sending its convicts across the ocean. Some of the proposals included making the convicts work in the dockyards, toil in the local coal mines, or repair and maintain roads. The government even considered exchanging convicts for English slaves being held in Morocco. But none of these proposals ever took hold, and arguments that some of these measures would end up displacing positions that were currently held by honest workmen prevailed.

Convict transportation, it turns out, was too convenient of a punishment for the British government to abandon it. England was about to find out, however, just how dependent it had become on convict transportation.

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.
  • Gee, Joshua. The Trade and Navigation of Great-Britain Considered. London: Printed for Sam. Buckley, 1729. Database: Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Gale.
  • Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals. 3 vols. London: John Osborn, 1735. Database: Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Gale.
  • Mason, Polly Cary. “More About ‘Jayle Birds’ in Colonial Virginia.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 53.1 (1945): 37-41.
  • Morgan, Gwenda and Peter Rushton. “Print Culture, Crime and Transportation in the Criminal Atlantic.” Continuity and Change 22.1 (2007): 49-71.
  • Ollyffe, George. An Essay Humbly Offer’d, for an Act of Parliament to Prevent Capital Crimes. London: Printed for J. Downing, 1731. Database: Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Gale.
  • Robe, Thomas. Ways and Means Wherby His Majesty May Man His Navy with Ten Thousand Able Sailors. Second Edition ed. London: Printed for J. Wilcox, [1726?]. Database: Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Gale.

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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