Note: This post is part of a series on Convict Transportation to the American colonies.
Convict transportation raised important issues of identity and freedom for the convict, the plantation owner, and the other servants. Once on the plantation, convicts had to renegotiate their social position. They suddenly found themselves bound to a fellow Englishman who claimed ownership over them and everything they did. William Green, in his “Sorrowful Account of his Seven Years Transportation,” states that both he and the English countryman who purchased him in America were born only 20 miles away from each other back in England.
The Status of Convicts on the Plantation
Transported convicts had dual status in the colonies: they were both British criminals and American indentured servants at the same time. On the plantation, convict servants worked alongside regular indentured servants, who had some agency in their decision to travel to America to start a new life, and African slaves, who, like the convicts, did not. Convicts fell somewhere in between these two servant groups in terms of status. They could either be treated like other indentured servants or be subjected to forms of degradation that were usually reserved for slaves.
Convict servants began arriving in America at around the time when slaves were rapidly becoming a critical part of the Chesapeake economy. Menial plantation work was often carried out by white servants back in the seventeenth century. As this form of labor was increasingly assigned to slaves in the eighteenth century, it began to assume a demeaning stigma that it did not have in the earlier century. Convicts, who generally arrived in America with low reputations and few specialized skills, were increasingly treated like slaves as the period of convict transportation wore on, and they were generally put to work alongside slaves out in the fields.
Convicts who possessed valuable skills, however, more than likely enjoyed a status equivalent to indentured servants, who were generally purchased to perform specialized labor. Neither servant group, however, generated much respect from colonists. William Eddis, an Englishman who lived in Maryland in the early 1770s and wrote about his experiences, claimed that “the difference is merely nominal between the indented servant and the convicted felon,” since colonists thought that anyone who abandoned family and friends to become a servant in a distant land must be lacking in character.
Servants on plantations generally lived in huts or cabins of their own fashioning. Even though white servants and African slaves sometimes worked together, the two groups did not live together.
Work on the Plantations
Spring was an especially busy time for plantations in Maryland and Virginia. Planters oversaw the setting out of the tobacco plants, which required special attention early on. Tobacco seeds were first planted in beds, where they grew for a month, all the while needing attention and weeding. Once the plants reached the size of a hand, they were transferred in wet weather one-by-one to the hills. Spring was also the time when ships arrived back from England loaded with china, silver, wine, dresses, and other English items that the planters had ordered over a year ago using the tobacco they grew as exchange.
The fall was also particularly busy. Tobacco and the other crops grown on the plantation needed to be harvested, stored, and shipped off to their destined markets. Tobacco especially required special attention, since it needed to be dried carefully before it was gently packed inside barrels for shipment to England.
Convict servants were forced to work long and hard days in the fields. The transported convict William Green claimed that convict servants had to work six days for their masters, and then on the seventh day had to work to provide food for themselves for the following week. He went on to say that if they ran away, a day was added on to their service for every hour they were gone, for every day absent, a week was added, and for every month, a year. Convicts who were caught stealing or committed murder were put to death.
Convict servants were not permitted to engage in trade outside of what they were supposed to perform for the plantation. The fear was that if they did engage in their own trade, the convicts would pilfer goods to sell from their masters. In addition, any money earned by a servant through exercising a craft could be confiscated by the owner, since the servant’s labor was considered the property of the owner.
In America, convicts had to eat food that was foreign to them, wear clothes made out of cotton or linen rather than wool, and drink water rather than beer. Some convicts reported that they were only fed corn and were given nothing to wear on their feet but skins. Convict servants often endured whippings, especially if they were unruly, and they were forced to wear iron collars and chains if the master thought they needed to be restrained.
The convicts who led idle lives through pickpocketing and stealing back in England and were not used to manual labor probably had the most difficulty adapting to the new circumstances of colonial America.
Resources for this article:
- Atkinson, Alan. “The Free-Born Englishman Transported Convict Rights as a Measure of Eighteenth-Century Empire.” Past and Present 144 (1994): 88-115.
- Breen, T. H. Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of Revolution.. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.
- Carew, Bampfylde-Moore. An Apology for the Life of Mr. Bampfylde-Moore Carew. 8th ed. London: R. Goadby, 1768. Database: Gale, Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
- Eddis, William. Letters from America, Historical and Descriptive, Comprising Occurrences from 1769 to 1777, Inclusive. London: William Eddis, 1792. Database: Gale, Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
- Ekirch, A. Roger. Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
- Green, W[illiam]. The Sufferings of William Green, Being a Sorrowful Account, of His Seven Years Transportation. London: J. Long, [undated, but after 1774]. Database: Gale, Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
- Grubb, Farley. “The Market Evaluation of Criminality: Evidence from the Auction of British Convict Labor in America, 1767-1775.” The American Economic Review 91.1 (2001): 295-304.
- —. “The Transatlantic Market for British Convict Labor.” The Journal of Economic History 60.1 (2000): 94-122.
- Smith, Abbot Emerson. Colonists in Bondage : White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776. The Norton Library; N592. New York: Norton, 1971.
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).
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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.