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Transported Convicts in the New World: Convicts Who Returned to England

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

Most of the convicts who were sent to America from Great Britain stayed in America, but some made it back to their home country, legally or illegally. Convicts who escaped, ran away, or purchased their freedom soon after landing in America had a greater likelihood of making the trip back across the Atlantic than convicts who ran away after several years had passed or who finished their terms of service.

“The WAY that Convicts return from Transportation”

Convicts who belonged to criminal gangs were more likely to return to England from America, basically because these gangs provided a support system for any member who was caught by the authorities. Gangs had a ready-made list of false witnesses who could provide alibis for any member who was caught and brought to trial. If that member was still found guilty and sentenced to transportation, the gang provided money for the convict to purchase privileges on board the ship, his or her freedom once the ship landed, and a trip back to England.

In his best-selling book that gives a full account of his criminal career and exposes the common practices of criminals, John Poulter describes the method by which convicts returned from transportation:

After they are in an Part of North America, the general Way is this, just before they go on board a Ship, their Friend or Accomplices purchase them their Freedom from the Merchant or Captain that belongs to the said Ship, for about ten Pound Sterling, some gives more and some less; then the Friend of the Convict or Convicts, get a Note from the Merchant, or Captain, that the Person is free to go unmolested when the Ships arrive between the Capes of Virginia, where they please.

Once the convicts secured their freedom, Poulter continues, they then looked for a ship that would take them back to England.

Convicts almost never returned on the same ship that brought them to America. The risk of taking a convict back across the Atlantic would have been too great for the convict merchants. The British government prohibited them from helping any convict to return to England, and if they were ever caught doing so, it would have jeopardized their highly profitable business. There were plenty of other ships, however, that were willing to take paying passengers back to England. Convicts who did not have enough money would look for opportunities to work on board the ship as compensation for their passage.

If convicts could not secure their freedom upon arrival, Poulter says, they would run away from their master, and “lay in the Woods by Day, and travel by Night for Philadelphia, New York, or Boston, in which Place no Questions are asked them.” Poulter goes on to claim that the ease by which convicts could return from transportation “encourages a great many to commit Robberies more than they would, because they say they do not mind Transportation, it being but four or five Months Pleasure, for they can get their Freedom and come home again.”

At his trial, the transported convict Bampfylde-Moore Carew expressed the kind of nonchalant attitude towards transportation that Poulter contends was typical. After the judge passed a sentence of transportation and told Carew that he would now “proceed to a hotter Country,” the convict

enquired into what Climate, and being told Merryland, he with great Composure made a critical Observation on the Pronunciation of that Word, implying, that he apprehended it ought to be pronounced Maryland, and added, it would save him Five Pounds for his Passage, as he was very desirous of seeing that Country.

Carew later escaped just as he was being sold to some planters, but he was eventually caught. As punishment, the captain had him flogged with a cat o’ nine tails and secured an iron collar around his neck to prevent him from escaping again.

Poulter concludes his section on convict transportation by offering an unwieldy bureaucratic solution to the problem of returning convicts. First, he recommends fining any merchant or captain who frees a convict upon arrival. Then he proposes that anyone bound homeward on a ship should be required to publish publicly his or her name and intent to travel abroad and that person should then secure a certificate from the governor stating that he or she is not an indented servant or a convict. These steps, he proclaims, “would prevent such a Number of Convicts coming back again before their Time is expired.”

Convicts Back in England

Any convict returning to England had to remain in hiding. If he or she were caught, the convict could automatically receive the death penalty. The government did not make it easy for returned convicts to go undetected. The reward for identifying and turning in a convict who returned early from a sentence of transportation was substantial. Given the risk of detection, the number of transported convicts returning to England was low.

Jonathan Wild, the self-proclaimed “Thief-Taker General,” took advantage of this reward system. He developed a strong relationship with Jonathan Forward, the Contractor for Transports for the Government, who could give him valuable intelligence in the matter of returned convicts. Once he identified a returned convict, Wild could either blackmail the convict into continuing a life of crime as a working member in Wild’s criminal empire or he could turn the convict in for the ₤40 reward offered by the government.

Even with the reward, prosecuting returned convicts was apparently quite difficult if one did not have the kind of resources that Wild had at his disposal. The Virginia Gazette contended,

It is certain Numbers do return from Transportation; but it being so much Trouble to bring them down to the Old Bailey, prove them to be the Persons transported, and that did the Fact transported for, that People don’t care for the Trouble of it; especially since the Trying of them for the Fact transported for, is too often attended with great Trouble and Expence, that poor People are scarce able to support it, by which Means Rogues often escape.

Notably, convicts who were caught returning to England never showed up in advertisements for runaways in American newspapers. There could be several reasons for why this is the case. Most likely, those who ran away from their masters never made it back to England. Convicts needed some combination of money, connections with captains or sailors, and an appearance that did not draw suspicion that they were escaped servants in order to travel back to their homeland. The longer they stayed in America, the less likely these resources were available to them. Convicts who managed to escape or found freedom after their ship encountered problems at sea through shipwreck, piracy, or mutiny before they could be sold would not have had advertisements run in colonial newspapers for their capture, and these early escapees were more likely to return to England. Another reason convicts caught returning to England did not show up in runaway ads could be that returned convicts were either skillful in avoiding detection or the methods of detecting them were in reality inadequate.

Resources for this article:

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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