Note: This post is part of a series on Convict Transportation to the American colonies.
While the American press criticized the practice of British convict transportation, Daniel Defoe enthusiastically supported it in his novel The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders. Moll Flanders is the most well-known character in literature to have been transported to America. In many ways, her story offers the most complete account of the life of a transported convict, even if she is only a fictional character and her experience was far from the norm of most transported felons.
Moll Flanders fits a line of tales involving convict transportation in both fiction and nonfiction. At the height of British convict transportation to America, both the British and America presses often carried accounts of convicts who were sentenced to transportation, but returned to England early to resume their nefarious ways. Several literary accounts of convict transportation also appeared both during and after convict transportation to America ended. Sweeney Todd, the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” is perhaps the most famous fictional example from the nineteenth century, when he begins his bloody rampage upon his return to England after being unjustly transported to Australia.
Convicts In Virginia
Moll Flanders first learns about convict transportation during a conversation with her mother-in-law after traveling to Virginia with her husband. To Moll’s surprise, her mother-in-law informs her that the colony is filled with productive citizens who first came to America as convicts: “many a Newgate Bird becomes a great Man, and we have, continued she, several Justices of the Peace, Officers of the Train Bands, and Magistrates of the Towns they live in, that have been burnt in the Hand” (88). Her mother-in-law then goes on to reveal that she herself is a former convict by showing Moll the burn on her hand.
This positive view of convict transportation contrasts with her mother-in-law’s opinion of Newgate Prison:
HERE my Mother-in-Law ran out in a long account of the wicked practices in that dreadful Place, and how it ruin’d more young People than all the Town besides; and Child, says my Mother, perhaps you may know little of it, or it may be have heard nothing about it, but depend upon it, says she, we all know here, that there are more Thieves and Rogues made by that one Prison of Newgate, than by all the Clubs and Societies of Villains in the Nation; ’tis that cursed Place, says my Mother, that half Peoples this Colony (87).
Through these conversations Moll, who was born in Newgate Prison, eventually realizes that her mother-in-law is actually her true mother and that her husband is in reality her brother. The shock of this information sends Moll back to England, where she eventually falls into a life of crime.
Defoe published Moll Flanders in 1722, four years after the passage of the Transportation Act, but the story takes place well before this time. The characterization of Virginia being well-populated with convicts by Moll’s mother, then, is anachronistic to the time period of the novel. A significant convict population did not develop in the Chesapeake until after Britain institutionalized convict transportation in 1718. In other details, however, Defoe was more accurate.
A Source of Inspiration
One of the possible sources of inspiration for Defoe’s Moll Flanders is Moll King, a notorious pickpocket and thief who worked for Jonathan Wild. Just as Moll Flanders protects her identity by telling the reader at the beginning of the book that the name she is using is a pseudonym, Moll King used many aliases throughout her criminal career, among them Mary Godman, Golston, Golstone, Gilstone, Goulston, Gouldstone, Gouldston, Godfrey, Godson, and Bird.
All of these aliases make it difficult to trace the history of Moll King accurately, and most likely they confounded the authorities back then as well. The first time we know for sure that Moll King appeared before the Old Bailey was in 1693. Under the name Mary King, alias Godman, she was found guilty of housebreaking and sentenced to branding. The name “Mary King” appears in the Old Bailey records several times before and after this time, but it is impossible to determine which, if any of them, is actually Moll King.
Moll King was also transported to the American colonies several times under various names. In December 1718, she was indicted under the name of Mary Goulston for stealing a gold watch and chain and was sentenced to death. She turned out to be pregnant, however, and instead was transported on the Susannah & Sarah under the name of Gilstone in 1719, after she had her baby. King quickly turned around and returned to London, but soon after arriving back from transportation Jonathan Wild threatened to expose her as a returned convict if she didn’t join his criminal empire and begin stealing for him.
After about a year of operating under Wild’s thumb, King was caught robbing dress materials from a house on June 14, 1721. During this time, Defoe both wrote and edited newspaper stories about Moll King’s return from transportation and about her criminal exploits, and her story very likely gave Defoe the idea of writing a novel about a female criminal.
For the robbery of the dress materials, King was transported on the Gilbert under the name of Mary Goulstone in 1722. Once again she returned to England, was caught, and was transported by the Alexander under the name of Mary Godson in 1723. Also accompanying her on the voyage was Sarah Wells, aka “Callico Sarah” (See “Convict Voyages (12): Convict Passengers on the Jonathan”). After this, the third time that Moll King was transported, the certainty of her history becomes muddled once again.
A Defense of Convict Transportation
After returning to England and falling into a life of crime, Moll Flanders is caught trying to rob a plate from a goldsmith and finds herself in Newgate Prison, the place of her birth, with a death sentence hanging over her head. Moll, however, successfully appeals her sentence and receives a conditional pardon of transportation for 14 years instead. While in Newgate, Moll meets one of her former husbands, who maintains that he prefers execution to being sold as a slave in America as a transported convict. Moll eventually convinces him to plead guilty in exchange for transportation, and she arranges to have him join her on board the transport ship.
Unlike the other convicts on board her ship, Moll has considerable resources at her disposal to help set herself up for success in America. A governess of Moll’s arranges to load the ship with Moll’s personal belongings, and she supplies Moll with plenty of money. The governess also communicates with the captain to help Moll secure both a private cabin for the voyage and freedom for her and her husband after they arrive in America.
Moll’s early experience in Virginia also gives her great advantages. Before casting off for America, Moll has her governess purchase tools and other items necessary for setting up a plantation, knowing that they will cost twice as much to procure once she arrives at her destination. Upon landing in America, she also learns that her deceased mother has left her a considerable sum of money, as well as a yearly stipend from the family plantation in Virginia. With the help of a Quaker, Moll and her husband set up a prosperous plantation on their own, and they even purchase a female English servant and a black African slave to work on it. Few, if any, transported convicts enjoyed such advantages and treatment.
Moll discovers at the book’s conclusion that by turning her energies to forging a productive life in the colonies she can atone for a previously wicked one. The Preface to the novel maintains:
[Moll's] application to a sober Life, and industrious management at last in Virginia, with her Transported spouse, is a Story fruitful of Instruction, to all the unfortunate Creatures who are oblig’d to seek their Re-establishment abroad; whether by the Misery of Transportation, or other Disaster; letting them know, that Diligence and Application have their due Encouragement, even in the remotest Parts of the World, and that no Case can be so low, so despicable, or so empty of prospect, but that an unwearied Industry will go a great way to deliver us from it, will in time raise the meanest Creature to appear again in the World, and give him a new Cast for his Life (4).
The entire novel is framed by convict transportation, and the narrative works to argue its benefits. Moll’s experiences in America and her improvement at the end makes Defoe’s novel one of the most spirited and extended defenses of convict transportation ever written.
Resources for this article:
- Coldham, Peter Wilson. The King’s Passengers to Maryland and Virginia. Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 1997.
- Defoe, Daniel. The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, & C.. Ed. G. A. Starr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
- Howson, Gerald. Thief-Taker General: Jonathan Wild and the Emergence of Crime and Corruption as a Way of Life in Eighteenth Century England. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1970.
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online. (www.oldbaileyonline.org, 19 May 2009) October 1693, trial of Mary King (t16931012-48).
- —. (www.oldbaileyonline.org, 19 May 2009) December 1718, trial of Mary Goulston. (t17181205-19).
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.