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Convict Voyages: Overview

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

Popular characterizations of early immigration to America give the impression that most of the people who made the trip across the Atlantic either belonged to religious groups looking for a place where they could freely practice their beliefs, such as the Pilgrims, or were brave men seeking unlimited opportunity in a new land. These notions fall far short of the truth.

Without Their Freedom

From the time of the first settlers to the American Revolution, close to three quarters of all immigrants to the thirteen American colonies arrived on American shores without their freedom, coming over as slaves, convicts, or indentured servants. Even during the seventeenth century only 33 percent of immigrants to America were free. The vast majority of immigrants who arrived without their freedom were African slaves, accounting for a full 47 percent of all immigrants during the eighteenth century. About 150,000 immigrants, or 27 percent of the total, arrived as convicts or indentured servants during the same time.

British convicts formed a significant proportion of immigrants to early America. One quarter of all British immigrants arriving in the American colonies in the eighteenth century were transported convicts, most of them ending up in the labor-hungry colonies of Maryland and Virginia. After 1745, half of all indentured servants who arrived at Annapolis were convicts, and in 1755, 22.4 per cent of all white employees in Maryland were transported felons.

A Diverse Group

Criminals from all over Great Britain were transported to America, making them the most diverse of all groups who emigrated from Great Britain to America. In Ireland, large numbers of vagabonds were transported along with ordinary criminals, and more than 16,000 people were transported from Ireland between 1718 and 1775.

In Scotland, only 700 to 800 criminals were transported during the same time period. Transportation in Scotland was generally reserved for more serious criminals, and those coming to trial could ask to be banished before the trial began in the hope of avoiding a death sentence. The Scottish transportation system was more decentralized than it was in England, and most convicts had to make their own arrangements for passage to America. Unless they happened to be wealthy and could pay for their own trip, they generally were forced to become bound to a ship captain as an indentured servant.

The majority of convicts sentenced to transportation were native Englishmen, who totaled about 34,000.

The Transported Convicts

Most of the people who ended up being transported to America for their crimes were petty criminals who mainly came out of the ranks of the destitute poor. The economic situation in England generally offered those who could not find work two choices. They could either sell themselves into indentured servitude in America or risk transportation by stealing and be shipped to America anyway. Many chose to take the risk and maintain their freedom in England as long as possible–and lost.

Transported convicts were colloquially known as “His Majesty’s Seven-Year Passengers,” given that most of them received seven-year sentences away from England for their crimes. A large majority of those transported were male, especially since they tended to commit the most serious crimes and the courts often avoided sentencing women to transportation. Transports were typically in their early twenties, and most ranged from fifteen to twenty-nine years old.

Unfortunately, due to its very nature, convict transportation left few documents behind that chronicle the experiences of those involved in it. Transported convicts were generally illiterate and did not have the skill or desire to write down their experiences. Merchants involved in transporting convicts tended to keep a low profile, being careful to shield their methods and profits. And the general public seemed to be uninterested in what happened to convicted criminals once they left the British shores for America. Any attempt to discover the experiences of these malefactors needs to be pieced together from the scattered surviving documents and extrapolated from those who participated in related or similar practices.

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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