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Convict Voyages: Diet and Health

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

Even though external threats, such as bad weather and pirates, could seriously jeopardize convict voyages across the Atlantic, the most persistent sources of agony for convicts were internal to the ship. Transported felons received poor and scanty provisions throughout their voyage, and the extent to which diseases infected the convicts was a major determinant in whether or not they would make it safely to American shores.


The amount of provisions supplied to each convict was generally spelled out in the contract for transporting them. However, nothing was ever stated about the quality of the food that was to be given to them. In order to increase their profit margin, some captains of convict ships cut corners by buying old provisions for the voyage at a discount rate or by ignoring the stipulations regarding food in the contract and underfeeding convicts during the trip.

Ships were generally provisioned with food that tended to keep well– bread, biscuits, salted meat, peas, and cheese–which made for a monotonous diet. Even though such food resisted spoilage, it was sometimes carried by ships for years, until the meat went putrid and the biscuit was full of worms. Any fresh provisions brought on board, such as beef, water, and beer went bad after the first month. Since voyages across the Atlantic could last anywhere between 6 and 12 weeks, passengers were practically guaranteed to be eating spoiled, rotten food by the end of the trip.

Convicts were fed in groups of six with set amounts of food for each group. Francis Place, who in the nineteenth century collected records relating to convict transportation to America, itemized the weekly amount of provisions given to a group of six convicts on one particular voyage: “34 lbs. of bread, 19 lbs. of beef, 11 lbs. of pork, 7 lbs. of flour, 2 lbs. of suet, 5 gills of brandy [1 gill = 4 oz. or 1/4 of a pint], 134 quarts of water, and 4 quarts of pease.” By Place’s reckoning, each convict received 1 lb. and 4 oz. of food per day. This store of food was supposedly shelled out to each six-man mess over the course of the week in roughly the following manner:

  • Sunday: 4 lbs. of bread, 3 lbs of pork, 1 1/2 qts. of pease , and 18 quarts of water.
  • Monday: 4 lbs. of bread, 2 qts. of oatmeal, 1 1/2 ozs. molasses, 1 lb. cheese, 18 quarts of water.
  • Tuesday: 4 lbs. of bread, 4 lbs. of beef.
  • Wednesday: 1 1/2 qts. of pease.
  • Thursday: 18 quarts of water.
  • Friday: 4 lbs. of bread, 2 qts. of oatmeal, 1 1/2 ozs. of molasses, 1 lb. of cheese, 18 quarts of water.
  • Saturday: 4 lbs. of bread, 2 qts. of oatmeal, 3 gills of Geneva at night.

(Source: Peter Wilson Coldham, Emigrants in Chains, pp. 103-104)

This diet was quite possibly more balanced and more plentiful than what some of the convicts were used to eating back in England. The amount of alcoholic spirits given to them on board the ship, however, was certainly much less than what they were used to enjoying.


Many of the convicts who were cooped up in crowded, filthy jails before being piled into ships brought jail fever, smallpox, and other diseases on board with them. Needless to say, these diseases spread rapidly through the convict ships. Even regular passengers sometimes contracted disease from the convicts and died before reaching their destination. The mortality rate for transported convicts was usually around 11% to 16%, although the rate declined near the end of its practice. About 1 out of every 7 convicts, then, did not last the journey to America, and disease was by far their greatest killer.

Death, no matter how low the percentage, would have been traumatic for the convict passengers, given the tight, crowded conditions in which they traveled. The sick would have had to endure their agony connected by iron to five other passengers on a ceaselessly rocking ship with no bedding on which to lie down. Convicts undoubtedly would have woken up in the morning to find themselves chained to a corpse and wondered if they were next in line for such a fate. The dead were removed, wrapped in a sack weighted down with stones, and thrown overboard with little ceremony.

Worried that convicts were bringing infectious diseases on shore with them, the Maryland Assembly in 1766 passed an act requiring any ship that arrived with sick passengers to be quarantined to help prevent the spread of diseases among the colony. Convict merchants fought the act, arguing that it seriously affected the convict trade. The act stood, however, prompting convict merchants to furnish their ships with ventilators and to open port holes in order to air out the decks holding the convicts. These measures greatly reduced disease among the convicts, and their mortality rate fell to 2.5% just before the American Revolution

The sight of land was indeed an occasion for great rejoicing, since it meant that those on board had survived the perilous journey.

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).

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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.

Visit Pickpocket Publishing for more details.

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