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Transported Convicts in the New World: The Reaction of the American Colonies

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

That the British policy of transporting convicts to America was not well received by colonists should come as no surprise to anyone. American colonists complained that Britain was using their land as a dumping ground for their undesirables in the name of helping the colonies with its labor shortage. The colonial legislatures of Maryland and Virginia both tried to pass laws with the intention of blocking the import of convicts into their colonies, and American newspapers carried numerous editorials denouncing the practice.

Attempts to Regulate the Convict Trade

American colonists worried about the sudden appearance of so many unwanted immigrants in their midst. In an attempt to curtail if not put an end to the import of British convicts into their colonies, both Virginia and Maryland passed laws to regulate the convict trade. In 1722, Virginia passed an act that levied fees and put in place layers of bureaucracy so as to make it entirely unprofitable for convict merchants to do business in its colony. Jonathan Forward immediately petitioned the Board of Trade to have the act overturned, and he testified before the Board in person on June 27, 1723.

The Board agreed with Forward’s arguments, concluding that if other colonies adopted similar measures, the practice of convict transportation would become unsustainable and would essentially allow colonial law to take precedence over the Transportation Act. Acting on the recommendation of the Board, the Privy Council struck down the Virginia law on August 27. Maryland tried to pass a similar bill that year as well, but Lord Baltimore vetoed it based on the previous decision of the Privy Council.

In 1725, provincial authorities in Annapolis tried to block Jonathan Forward’s agents from unloading their convict cargo without securing a bond assuring the good behavior of its passengers. The agents, not willing to take on such an expense, were forced to take the prisoners back on board the ship. Once again, Forward complained to the authorities back in London, and once again they ruled that the Annapolis rules violated the terms of the Transportation Act.

Almost every time Virginia and Maryland tried to pass laws that placed limits on convict transportation, the British government overturned them. The only act regulating convict transportation that passed British scrutiny was a Maryland law that quarantined convict ships that arrived with sick felons on board. Virginia tried to pass similar acts in 1767 and 1772, but both failed on grounds that they contained defects in their administration.

Grumblings in American Newspapers

In 1721, the American Weekly Mercury of Philadelphia carried one of the first newspaper stories about American resistance to convict transportation. The article reported that merchants were beginning to refuse to carry convicts to America despite the large sums of money being offered them to do so. The merchants contended that even though the convicts have helped planters who desperately needed their labor, the colonies have been complaining bitterly about how the convicts have generally been corrupting their society.

On April 16, 1722, The Boston News-Letter protested British shipment of convicts to the American colonies in a more direct manner: “Eighty five Felons have been lately ship’d off for our Colonies in America. Tho’ we abound with those Vermin such Numbers of them are order’d for Transportation every Sessions, it is hoped in a little Time the Plantations there will be pretty well stock’d, tho’ it were to be wish’d with honester People.” In general, though, complaints like this one appeared only sporadically in American newspapers during the early years of convict transportation.

As time went on, discussions of convict transportation began to appear in American newspapers more frequently. At one point, the Virginia Gazette and the Maryland Gazette engaged in a sarcastic exchange about the arrival of convicts to their region. In 1752, the Virginia Gazette reported that a ship carrying 150 convicts bound for Maryland had arrived in the James River, adding, “We congratulate the Marylanders on the safe arrival of these recruits!” The Maryland Gazette responded, “Thanks for this Virginia compliment! But the author, it is probable, did not think of the old trite proverb—‘The pot should not call the kettle black.’ It is said that Captain Gracey, who brought these recruits into the Patowmack, sold the chief part of them on the south side of that river.”

A Humble Proposal

By the middle of the eighteenth century the number of newspaper stories about transported convicts committing crimes in America began to spike, and along with them was an increase in the number of editorials complaining about Britain’s policy of shipping convicts to America without recourse.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin
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On May 9, 1751, Benjamin Franklin wrote one of the more biting critiques of convict transportation in his Pennsylvania Gazette. He begins on the front page with a series of reports about serious crimes committed in Maryland and Virginia. The accounts include a story about a gang of thieves that broke into a Maryland home and then later that same night robbed a store of goods worth 200 pounds. Other stories involve two separate cases of robbery, another roving gang of bandits in Virginia that boldly robbed their victims in daylight, and a forger who came from a reputable Maryland family but supposedly turned to crime under the influence of transported convicts. Franklin also adds a letter from Maryland about how two transported convicts presumably murdered a sea captain and two others.

Franklin follows these criminal accounts with an open letter that begins, “By a Passage in one of your late Papers, I understand that the Government at home will not suffer our mistaken Assemblies to make any Law for preventing or discouraging the Importation of Convicts from Great Britain, for this kind Reason, ‘That such Laws are against the Publick Utility, as they tend to prevent the IMPROVEMENT and WELL PEOPLING of the Colonies.”

Franklin continues, “Such a tender parental Concern in our Mother Country for the Welfare of her Children, calls aloud for the highest Returns of Gratitude and Duty,” and he goes on to suggest a fair exchange for Britain’s convicted felons:

In some of the uninhabited Parts of these Provinces, there are Numbers of these venomous Reptiles we call RATTLE-SNAKES; Felons-convict from the Beginning of the World: These, whenever we meet with them, we put to Death, by Virtue of an old Law, Thou shalt bruise his Head. But as this is a sanguinary Law, and may seem too cruel; and as however mischievous those Creatures are with us, they may possibly change their Natures, if they were to change the Climate; I would humbly propose, that this general Sentence of Death be changed for Transportation.

Franklin ends the letter:

Now all Commerce implies Returns; Justice requires them: There can be no Trade without them. And Rattle Snakes seem the most suitable Returns for the Human Serpents sent to us by our Mother Country. In this, however, as in every other Branch of Trade, she will have the Advantage of us. She will reap equal Benefits without equal Risque of the Inconveniences and Dangers. For the Rattle-Snake gives Warning before he attempts his Mischief; which the Convict does not.

Opinions vs. Reality

Convict merchants and the British government resisted any effort by the American colonies to interfere with the convict trade. There was too much money to be made by the transporters of convicts and there was too much social benefit for Britain to allow the colonies to get in the way of such an expedient means of handling their convicted felons.

Even though objections to convict transportation in the American colonies could be quite vocal, they generally came from those who did not employ convict labor. Many of the complaints about the practice appeared in northern newspapers or were from colonies that generally did not receive any convicts from Britain. Despite these objections, planters who needed cheap labor for their plantations to function continued to buy up convicts almost as fast as they landed.

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.
  • 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.
  • “London, Feb. 10.” The Boston News-Letter From Monday, April 16 to Monday, April 23, 1722: 4. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, NewsBank/Readex.
  • “London, May 20.” The American Weekly Mercury From Thursday, August 31st to Thursday, September 7th, 1721: 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, NewsBank/Readex.
  • Middleton, Arthur Pierce. Tobacco Coast: A Maritime History of Chesapeake Bay in the Colonial Era. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953.
  • “Philadelphia, May 9.” The Pennsylvania Gazette May 9, 1751: 1-2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, NewsBank/Readex.
  • Scharf, J. Thomas. History of Maryland: From the Earliest Period to the Present Day. 3 vols. Baltimore: John B. Piet, 1879, Vol. I: 371-372.
  • Smith, Abbot Emerson. Colonists in Bondage : White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776. The Norton Library; N592. New York: Norton, 1971.
  • Sollers, Basil. “Transported Convict Laborers in Maryland During the Colonial Period.” Maryland Historical Magazine March 1907: 17-47.

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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