Skip to content

Transported Convicts in the New World: Treatment by Their Owners

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

Plantation owners who purchased the labor of convict servants also acquired complete legal control over them. They could rent the service of the convicts out to another plantation owner. They could transfer ownership of the convict servants to someone else in order to pay off a debt. They could even wager the servants in a card game. On the plantation, they could freely use corporal punishment to control the convicts, as long as they were not deemed overly cruel in handing out the punishment. They also had the power to grant convict servants their freedom and simply let them go.

Convicts had more legal rights than slaves, mainly because their bonded condition was temporary and they could petition courts to prevent excessive abuse. However, as the eighteenth century wore on, convicts steadily lost legal rights to the point where they were treated not much differently than slaves. Both indentured servants and slaves were considered social outcasts with no real ties to the community, and as plantation owners became more and more dependent on slave labor, the working conditions of white servants deteriorated as well. In the period just before the American Revolution, the life of an indentured servant was positively miserable.


Convict servants led fairly isolated lives. They had few opportunities for building community relationships, both on and between plantations. The presence of other convict servants on the plantation did not guarantee companionship, since they most likely came from other parts of England or Ireland where the customs could be quite different from their own. Building connections with slaves, who faced even greater cultural alienation in America, would have been even less likely to occur.

Servants could not marry without the consent of their owner. Without such permission, some convict servants developed illicit relations with one another, which sometimes resulted in bastard children. These children became the responsibility of the county, since the father was generally expected to support the cost of raising his own child, which a convict servant could rarely do given his circumstances.

In order to recover the costs of raising the child, the court usually tacked on extra years to the convict’s service in order to compensate his owner, who then paid the courts the amount needed to care for the child. Another payment option was for the court to seize the father after his original term of service was over and then sell him back into servitude, with the profit from his sale serving as compensation for raising his child. The mother of the bastard child was often required to provide an extra year of service to her owner to compensate him for the time lost during her pregnancy and the childbirth, even though the time she needed to carry the baby to term was much shorter than the tacked on service.


Servants were treated much worse in America than they were in England. Many plantation owners ruled over their personal empire with an iron fist. An Englishman traveling through the Chesapeake once reported to the London Magazine, “Prodigious Numbers of Planters are immensely rich, and I think one of them, at this Time, numbers upon his Lands near 1,000 Wretches, that tremble with submissive Awe at his Nod, besides white Servants.”

There are many cases of masters abusing servants through beatings or through limiting food to bread and water. In one popular account, Chevalier James, an “Unfortunate Young Nobleman,” is tricked into indentured servitude and ends up on a ship bound for Pennsylvania. There, he is purchased by a cruel master named Drumon, who puts him to work cutting timber for pipe staves, which were used for making wooden barrels. James receives many lashes from Drumon, who also withholds meat from James as punishment for his initial incompetence in carrying out this unfamiliar work. James soon realizes that Drumon will never be satisfied with the quality of his work, because his master seems to relish handing out punishments to all of his laborers.

The Fortunate Transport tells another story of a transported convict who is treated cruelly by her master. After being transported for theft to Virginia, Polly Haycock is purchased by a planter and made a cookmaid, despite her inexperience in this line of work. The description of her master does not cast a good light on planters in general:

He was a meer Planter, consequently cruel, haughty, and mercenary, without any soft Sentiment of Humanity in his Breast; and his Years had laid the Fever in his Blood so much that he had no Thoughts but how to work the Value of his Money out of the Slaves, and make the most of them without regard to their Happiness or Misery. In a Word, like most of the Tribe of Planters, he had no Appetite but for Money; nor Pleasure in any Pastime but torturing the unhappy Wretches in his Power.

One day, as punishment for not roasting a turkey properly, the planter has Polly stripped naked, tied to a post, and then whipped. While this is happening, the planter sits down to eat, with the background “Musick” of Polly’s cries heightening the enjoyment of his meal. Luckily for Polly, a justice of the peace happens to be come by and witnesses the scene of an African slave unmercifully applying a cat-o’-nine-tails to her. The justice quickly puts an end to Polly’s beating and threatens to bring the planter to justice. Even though the planter knows that the Assembly would probably be on his side, he offers to give Polly to the justice in exchange for not pursuing the matter, which the justice readily accepts.

Few convict or indentured servants left behind first-hand accounts of their experiences on plantations. In one of the few extent letters written by an indentured servant, Elizabeth Spriggs poignantly illustrates the cruelty that could be wielded by plantation owners when she wrote to her father in 1756:

What we unfortunate English people suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to conceive. Let it suffice that I, one of the unhappy number, am toiling almost day and night, and very often in the horses’ drudgery, with only this comfort that: “You bitch, you do not half enough:” and then tied up and whipped to that degree that you’d not serve an animal; scarce anything but Indian corn and salt to eat, and that even begrudged. Nay, many negroes are better used: almost naked, no shoes or stockings to wear, and the comfort after slaving during Master’s pleasure what rest we can get is to wrap ourselves in a blanket and lie upon the ground.

This is the deplorable condition your poor Betty endures, and no I beg, if you have any bowels of compassion left, show it by sending me some relief. Clothing is the principal thing wanting. (Quoted in Coldham, Emigrants in Chains.)

Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s letter never made it to her father.

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.
  • Creole. The Fortunate Transport; or, the Secret History of the Life and Adventures of the Celebrated Polly Haycock. London: T. Taylor, [1750?]. 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.
  • 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.
  • Ford, Worthington Chauncey. Washington as an Employer and Importer of Labor. Brooklyn, NY: Privately printed, 1889.
  • Memoirs of an Unfortunate Young Nobleman, Return’d from a Thirteen Years Slavery in America. London: J. Freeman, 1743. Database: Gale, Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
  • Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery and Servitude in Colonial North America: A Short History. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
  • “Observations in Several Voyages and Travels in America [from the London Magazine, July 1746].” William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine 15.3 (1907): 1-17.
  • 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. 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.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *