Note: This post is part of a series on Convict Transportation to the American colonies.
Almost as soon as British convict transportation to America ended, Americans began to downplay the numbers and significance of convicts sent to the colonies. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson led the way by claiming,
The Malefactors sent to America were not sufficient in number to merit enumeration as one class out of three which peopled America. It was at a late period of their history that the practice began. I have no book by me which enables me to point out the date of its commencement. But I do not think the whole number sent would amount to 2000 & being principally men eaten up with disease, they married seldom & propagated little. I do not suppose that themselves & their descendants are at present 4000, which is little more than one thousandth part of the whole inhabitants.
Jefferson should have known better. The British were sending nearly 1,000 convicts to America each year around the time he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and about half of them ended up in his own home state of Virginia.
Much Higher Numbers
Nineteenth-century historians participated in this cover-up as well. Most of them ignored the institution of convict transportation to America, and those who did recognize it usually claimed that most of the people who were transported were political prisoners. Not until 1896, when an article on convict transportation by J. D. Butler appeared in the American Historical Review, did this thinking begin to change. Butler pointed out that the majority of convicts shipped to America during the colonial period were decidedly not political prisoners and that their numbers were much higher than previously reported. After the appearance of Butler’s essay, historians in the twentieth century finally began to research convict transportation to America in a serious and systematic way.
Today, historians of convict transportation to America have settled on much higher numbers than those cited in the nineteenth century. Of the 585,800 immigrants to the thirteen colonies during the years 1700-1775, about 52,200 were convicts and prisoners (9 percent of the total). During these same years, slaves by far constituted the largest group of immigrants (278,400; 47%), followed by people arriving with their freedom (151,600; 26%) and indentured servants (96,600; 18%). Note that almost three quarters of all the people arriving in the American colonies during this time period did so without their freedom.
These numbers account for immigrants arriving in America from all countries during these years. When the numbers arriving in America from Great Britain are examined in isolation, the percentage of immigrants who were convicts is of course much higher. From 1718 to 1775, when the Transportation Act was in full force, convicts accounted for one-quarter of all immigrants arriving in the American colonies from the British Isles. Either way, the numbers are much higher than the “one thousandth part of the whole inhabitants” cited by Jefferson.
Short Stories, Momentous Events
This series on convict transportation to the American colonies began with the story of James Bell, who in 1723 was caught stealing a book and was sentenced to transportation for a 7 year term. Other than the description of his criminal act at his trial in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey and the appearance of his name on a convict shipping list, we do not know much more about his story. More well-known and hardened criminals were certainly transported to America, but Bell’s story is more typical of the thousands of petty thieves who received a sentence of transportation for their crime.
Even though Bell’s story of petty theft is short and lacks detail, the event turned out to be a momentous one for him. In being sentenced to transportation, he joined the ranks of thousands of others who could tell a similar story. Transportation to the American colonies constituted a major transformation in the lives of the people who received this punishment–a transformation so profound that they probably never could have conceived of what was in store for them before it actually happened to them. For what could very well have been an impulsive act, Bell was sent on an epic journey across the ocean and into the unknown.
The history of convict transportation has modern resonances that are hard to ignore. In recent years, drug crimes in the United States have soared and strict sentencing laws meant to contain such activity have led to a dramatic increased in the prison population. Today, more than 1 out of every 100 adults is now locked away behind bars in the United States. Convicts who have committed a wide range of offenses are housed in overcrowded and dangerous conditions, often with nothing to do all day. Prison gangs are rampant, and violent clashes between rival gangs and guards are common. Many prisoners have become institutionalized and see prison as their only and most comfortable way of life. This description of the state of the criminal justice system in the U.S. today is not far from what characterized England’s in the eighteenth century.
The United States is in dire need of finding new solutions to its prison problem. The cost of housing convicts is draining government coffers, and some states have even tried to contract out the management of its criminal offenders to private prisons. In the eighteenth century, England took the radical step of partnering with private firms to create a new form of criminal punishment that was surprisingly efficient in its administration. The result was convict transportation to America. Can the history of convict transportation to colonial America help the United States to rethink the way it handles its criminal offenders today? The answer to this question hinges on evaluating the success of Britain’s new system of punishment in the eighteenth century.
Winners and Losers
When convict transportation to America had reached its height after mid-century, the British government was ambivalent about the success of this enterprise and sought alternatives, although none of them proved satisfactory enough to displace it. The stories and experiences of the various groups involved in convict transportation offer different shades of light on the success of convict transportation. All of them must be taken into account when evaluating how effective the punishment ultimately was in diminishing the crime rate, rehabilitating the offenders, and establishing new lives for the convicts.
There were many winners in the practice of transportation. Convict merchants, who specialized in moving this form of human cargo across the Atlantic, made a fortune. Plantation owners were also beneficiaries of this form of punishment by taking advantage of the cheap labor that convicts provided. There were risks, to be sure. Convicts with ill temperaments could disrupt plantation life, and many convicts jeopardized plantation owners’ investment in them by escaping and running away. Even so, planters quickly bought up convicts almost as soon as they arrived in port, because they were such a bargain. The British government probably benefited the most. Not only was it able to empty its jails of convicts at minimal cost, but it could pass their convicted felons off on someone else and forget about them as soon as they set foot on American shores.
The convicts, for the most part, were the losers. Some of the transported convicts ended up thriving in their new setting. Many, however, died during their trip overseas before they even arrived in America. Others were mistreated by their new masters once they did arrive. Most of them, uprooted from their family and friends in England and shipped off to a strange land, either ran away or served out their terms before disappearing into obscurity.
Convict transportation played a significant role in the workings of colonial America. In the same way that Australia has learned to acknowledge and embrace its criminal legacy, America needs to come to terms with its similar criminal past. The history of convict transportation to colonial America asks Americans to re-examine their roots and compels them to recognize the contribution of British convicts such as James Bell in establishing and populating what would eventually become the United States.
Resources for this article:
- Butler, James Davie. “British Convicts Shipped to American Colonies.” American Historical Review 2.1 (1896): 12-33.
- Fogleman, Aaron S. “From Slaves, Convicts, and Servants to Free Passengers: The Transformation of Immigration in the Era of the American Revolution.” The Journal of American History 85.1 (1998): 43-76.
- Jefferson, Thomas. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Ed. Paul Leicester Ford. Vol. IV. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894.
- Liptak, Adam. “More Than 1 in 100 Adults Are Now in Prison in U.S.” The New York Times Friday, February 29, 2008, National Report: A14.
- Morgan, Kenneth. “Convict Transportation to Colonial America (Review of A. Roger Ekirch, Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775).” Reviews in American History 17.1 (1989): 29-34.
- Old Bailey Proceedings. (www.oldbaileyonline.org, 7 April 2008), January 1723, trial of James Bell (t17230116-9).
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.