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The Need for a New Punishment: The Transportation Act of 1718

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

As stories of crime and criminals captured the attention of the eighteenth-century reading public and English jails continued to fill beyond capacity, the need to find a new form of institutionalized punishment grew. Citing the fact that current punishments had failed to deter people from committing crimes such as robbery, burglary, and larceny, and that there was a great need for labor in the American colonies, the British parliament passed “An Act (4 Geo. I, Cap. XI) For the Further Preventing of Robbery, Burglary and Other Felonies, and For the More Effectual Transportation of Felons, and Unlawful Exporters of Wool; and For the Declaring the Law upon Some Points Relating to Pirates,” better known as the Transportation Act of 1718.

Two Birds with One Stone

With the passage of the Transportation Act, judges could now sentence convicted felons of certain crimes to transportation overseas to a British colony. This new act gave judges the option of removing convicted felons from the streets and jails without having to take away their lives in the process. Furthermore, the Act seemed to offer help with the American colonies’ desperate need for cheap labor. Anyone who had sufficient means to make the trip overseas from Great Britain to start a new business in America had no intention of working for anyone else. Many settlers to America, then, faced the problem of securing labor at a price cheap enough for them to grow their businesses, and transported convicts could help fill this labor vacuum. In the eyes of the British government, convict transportation killed two birds with one stone.

The Transportation Act applied to two categories of offenses. For offenses where criminals would normally receive Benefit of Clergy, the judge could now directly sentence the guilty party to transportation for 7 years in lieu of branding or whipping, which were the only possible punishments for such offenses before passage of the act. The second category of offense covered by the Transportation Act was non-clergyable offenses, more serious felonies where execution was the normal punishment. After being handed a formal sentence of death, the offender could receive mercy from the Crown and be pardoned on condition of transportation for 14 years or some other determined period, including life. Convicts who had been sentenced to transportation and returned before finishing their term were liable to an automatic death sentence.

Criminals had been banished before from the British Isles and transported overseas during the 16th and 17th centuries, but such cases were generally the result of a conditional pardon handed down from the Crown, and the criminals were usually responsible for removing themselves from the country’s borders, which they often neglected to do. The Transportation Act of 1718 formally institutionalized this type of punishment, made the British government responsible for actively transporting convicts out of the country, and gave judges the authority to pass a sentence of transportation for first-time offenders.

William Thomson and Jonathan Wild

William Thomson, a prominent lawyer who became the sentencing officer at the Old Bailey, was mainly responsible for the passage of the Transportation Act. He had long sought more flexible sentencing provisions for judges and saw transportation as an effective means of dealing with persistent offenders who could not support themselves and would likely return to crime again and again.

In writing the Transportation Act, Thomson also included a provision aimed specifically at curtailing the organized criminal activities of Jonathan Wild, the notorious thief-taker and receiver of stolen goods. This provision made it a crime for anyone to take a reward for returning stolen goods to their owner without at the same time capturing and giving evidence against the thief. Failure to turn in the criminal could subject the person taking the reward to the same punishment as the offender, if he or she were ever caught. This provision was so clearly aimed at Wild that it became known as “The Jonathan Wild Act.”

Despite this obvious attempt to curtail his illicit activities, Wild continued his trade for many years afterward. He knew that if he carefully covered his tracks and received payment indirectly from his clients, it was virtually impossible to secure a conviction against him.

A Preferred Form of Punishment

Transportation quickly became the preferred form of punishment for lesser felonies. At the Old Bailey session on April 23, 1718–the one immediately following passage of the Transportation Act–27 of the 51 people convicted of crimes were sentenced to transportation. They would be the first of the roughly 50,000 who were transported to America under the Transportation Act and who together represented a quarter of all British emigrants to this country during the eighteenth century. Transportation no longer involved simply banishing a criminal offender from England’s borders: it now became an institutionalized practice of emptying jails and forcibly ridding the country of undesirable elements, and the way it was carried out made it a unique American phenomenon.

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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