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Transported Convicts in the New World: At Auction

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

Once transported convicts arrived in America and were prepared for sale, prospective buyers were invited on board to enjoy some rum punch and inspect them.

The Sale

Potential buyers examined the convicts in the same way as they did slaves: feeling their muscles, looking into their mouths to evaluate the condition of their teeth, and asking them questions to determine their morals and potential obedience.

In one of the few surviving accounts of the experience of a transported convict, William Green compares his sale to a livestock auction:

. . . we were put all on shore in couples, chained together and drove in lots like oxen or sheep, till we came to a town called Fike, where was a great number of men and women, young and old, came to see us; they search us there as the dealers in horses do those animals in this country, by looking at our teeth, viewing our limbs to see if they are sound and fit for their labour, and if they approve of us after asking our trades and names, and what crimes we have been guilty of to bring us to that shame, the bargain is made.

Buyers had to be careful, because sometimes prisoners claimed they had skills in handicrafts for which they had little or no experience in the hope of procuring a more desirable position. Sellers of convicts might also try to hide the true origins of their cargo and pass them off as regular indentured servants. In order to prevent such deception, Maryland passed an act requiring that copies of felons’ convictions had to be presented upon the arrival of a convict ship, with a fine of ₤10 for failure to do so.

The Sale of James Revel

James Revel was sentenced to transportation for 14 years in Surrey in 1771 and traveled to Virginia on board the Thornton. He provides a more complete description of his sale than William Green, albeit in doggerel verse:

The women from us separated stood,
As well as we by them to be thus view’d,
And in short time some men up to us came,
Some ask’d our trade, others ask’d our name.

Some view’d our limbs turning us around,
Examining like horses, if we were sound,
What trade my lad, said one to me,
A tin man, sir. That will not do for me.

Some felt our hands, others our legs and feet,
And made us walk to see if we were compleat,
Some view’d our teeth to see if they were good,
And fit to chew our hard and homely food,

If any like our limbs, our looks and trade,
Our captain then a good advantage made,
For they a difference make it doth appear,
‘Twixt those of seven and those of fourteen years.

Another difference too there is allow’d,
Those who have money will have favour shew’d,
But if no cloaths nor money they have got,
Hard is their fate, and hard will be their lot.

At length a grim old man unto me came,
He ask’d my trade, likewise my name
I told him I a tin-man was by trade,
And not eighteen years of age I said.

Likewise the cause I told which brought me here,
And for fourteen years transported were;
And when from me he this did understand,
He bought me of the captain out of hand.

The Exchange of Convicts and Tobacco

Captains were eager to sell off their cargo, both to relieve them of the responsibility for the welfare and feeding of the convicts and to make sure that the sale did not interfere with their plans for the trip back to England. Convicts could be purchased for cash, bills of exchange, credit, or produce, such as tobacco.

The convict trade and the tobacco trade worked particularly well together. Ships from Great Britain brought over cheap labor in the form of transported convicts to work in the tobacco fields; then, the ships filled the empty space created from the sale of the convicts with tobacco to take back to London, Bristol, or another British port for auction.

Once the convicts left the ship, they ceased to be of any concern to the British government. Unlike in Australia, they were not officially watched over or disciplined by any government authority, which is why it cannot be said that convicts transported to America were sentenced to, or served in, a penal colony.

Special Note: To read more about the sale of transported convicts in America, see my previous post, “The Business of Convict Transportation (8): The Sale of Convicts in America.”

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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