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Convict Voyages: The Convict Ship

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

Once the convicts were loaded onto the convict ship, the captain, the jailor, and certain witnesses would sign a transportation bond ensuring that the convicts being transported were safely aboard the ship. These documents were then delivered to the Treasury to prove that the convicts had been transferred and that payment was due. After a month or so, payment was made to the convict contractor, and the documents were copied word for word into the Treasury Money Books. With the signing of the transportation bond, the convicts were now set to embark on their voyage across the Atlantic to America.

On Board the Ship

Conditions on convict ships were harsh. Transported convicts spent almost the entire 8- to 10-week voyage below deck in cramped quarters chained together in groups of six. In essence, the convicts went from one miserable prison on land to an even worse one floating on water.

Convict ships in general were not large. Most of the ships used in the trade were made in America, mainly in Maryland and New England; the rest, about a third, were constructed in Britain, and an even smaller percentage were seized from the French as booty during wartime. The ships tended to be old and worn down from frequent trips back and forth across the Atlantic, and their rotting hulks often required costly repairs that cut deeply into the profits of the convict contractors.

Even though slave ships were sometimes used to transport convicts, most of the ships used in the convict transportation business were ill-equipped to handle the transport of human cargo. Few ships used in the trade were ever designed specifically for the purpose of transporting convicts, and many of them were better suited to carry tobacco and other commodities from the colonies back across the Atlantic once the convicts were unloaded in America.

“Sold into Slavery”

Both jailors and convicts often referred to those sentenced to transportation to the colonies as having been sent or sold into slavery. The comparison is apt, especially when one considers the circumstances under which both convicts and slaves were carried across the Atlantic. The similarity between the two trades is not surprising, since both dealt in human cargo and many of the contractors, captains, and ships in the convict trade also had experience in the slave trade. On some level, the experiences of convicts on board ships would have been similar to those of slaves.

Even though merchants in both the convict and slave trades had a financial incentive to keep their passengers healthy, to some degree convicts were treated worse than slaves on board convict ships. Since the convict trader was already receiving a subsidy from the British government for each convict transported, there was more of a temptation to cut corners in providing provisions to the convicts in order to increase profits. Slave traders only profited from the sale of slaves at the end of the voyage, and since slaves commanded much higher prices than convicts, there was more incentive to deliver them in as healthy a state as possible.

Convict ships were akin to floating dungeons. Throughout most of their journey, convicts were kept belowdeck with little light or fresh air. They were chained together in groups of six in small, cramped quarters that were either too hot or too cold, depending on the time of year. The number of convicts being transported could range anywhere from 1 to 150 or more. More than half of the ships arriving in Maryland between 1746 and 1775 carried more than 90 passengers. The lower decks of slave ships had ceilings only four and a half feet high, so most convicts carried on such ships would not be able to stand straight up. In general, though, convicts enjoyed more room on ships carrying them than slaves, but less room than indentured servants.

Unlike slaves, convicts were kept in the lower decks almost throughout their entire voyage, due to their criminal backgrounds and the threat they posed for taking over the ship, although slaves posed a similar threat as well. Only occasionally were convicts let up on deck in small shifts of several prisoners each. Slaves at least enjoyed fresh air on deck on a regular basis during their voyage in the interests of keeping them healthy, even though the “dancing” they were forced to perform for exercise in the open air could be excruciatingly painful due to their chains rubbing against their skin.

A Snapshot on Board a Convict Ship

A letter from the Earl of Fife to George Selwyn on April 28, 1770 gives a snapshot of the conditions under which convicts were transported. Matthew Kennedy, who along with his brother, was found guilty of murdering John Bigby, a watchman, in a riot on Westminster Bridge. Kennedy was sentenced to death, but his politically connected family managed to have his sentence changed to transportation.

In order to arrange a free passage for Kennedy to the American colonies, the Earl of Fife paid John Stewart, the Contractor for Transports to the Government at the time, fifteen guineas. Just before Kennedy’s ship left port, however, the widow of the murdered man lodged an appeal of the revised sentence, so Fife hurried to retrieve Kennedy from the ship. Fife reported in a letter to Selwyn the condition in which he found Kennedy:

I went on board, and, to be sure, all the states of horror I ever had an idea of are much short of what I saw this poor man in; chained to a board, in a hole not above sixteen feet long; more than fifty with him; a collar and padlock about his neck, and chained to five of the most dreadful creatures I ever looked on.

This passage not only gives us a description of the dreadful circumstances under which convicts were transported by John Stewart–who had a reputation for actually improving the conditions under which convicts were transported–but also displays Stewart’s unscrupulous nature in throwing Kennedy in with the other convicts even after Fife had specifically paid for special treatment for Kennedy.

Ship Captains

Captains of convict ships were hired for their experience in transporting human cargo. If they were anything like the captains of slave ships–and many of them came with experience in that trade–they were tough men who wielded strict discipline. They wouldn’t hesitate to whip and beat those who disregarded their orders or to place unruly convicts in double irons. The sailors were often treated miserably by them as well. Crew members could be beaten and whipped by the captain for insubordination, and they were subjected to low wages, poor provisions, and a high mortality rate. Some of the crewmen even died of disease contracted from the convicts.

Some captains were completely incompetent. In one case, Edward Brockett, captain of the Rappahannock Merchant, spent almost the entire 1725 voyage drunk. He turned the boat into a party ship and squandered the ship’s provisions by encouraging those on board to drink to excess and giving them open access to the food. Brockett and a merchant who was also along for the voyage each kept a mistress in their cabin. When the ship arrived in Virginia, George Tilly, one of Jonathan Forward’s agents in Virginia, reported that the ship had no provisions left on board and that it was in terrible condition due to the neglect of the captain, mate, and ship carpenter to sound the pump.

One particularly egregious case of cruelty by a captain was reported in the Virginia Gazette in 1774. Capt. John Ogilvie was carrying 94 convicts from London to Virginia on the Tayloe.

When this vessel was at sea, the captain one morning discovered an uncommon bird on the bowsprit, which was particularly beautiful; and having a desire to possess it, to view its formation, he called for his gun and shot it. The bird fluttered for some time, and at last fell into the water, some distance from the vessel. The captain’s curiosity being still heightened, he offered the convicts, that which ever of them would procure for him the bird, should immediately receive his freedom. Several of them undertook it with alacrity, and, after stripping themselves, plunged into the sea. But, alas! he who was the ablest competitor in this spumy element, just as he stretched forth one arm, in order to seize the little urchin, his other fell a sacrifice to the jaws of an hungry shark. The man’s fortitude, however, was still so great, that he kept the prize within his grasp till he got to the vessel, when, after being hauled up, he delivered to the captain his favourite, and instantly expired.

Later, in an event reminiscent of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the mainmast of the ship was struck by lightning in the Chesapeake Bay before it reached shore. The mast was destroyed and the people on board were stunned by the bolt, but fortunately nobody was injured.

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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).

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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.

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