Transporting Convicts: The Impact of the American Revolution on the Pacific

By Scott Craig

From 1775 to 1783, Americans fought and won a War of Independence against Great Britain – a nation that was arguably the world’s most powerful in the late eighteenth century. This event not only created the new United States, but also reverberated across the Atlantic World and inspired radical intellectuals like Thomas Paine to spread their revolutionary message to the people of France. Though historians agree that the effects of the Revolution were not confined to North America, few have looked at its impact on the Pacific. And yet, it was the independence of the United States that directly led to Britain’s first attempt to create penal settlements in the antipodes. As such, the founding of Australia can be seen as a prime example of the way the revolutionary era was globally transformative.

Long before the battle of Lexington and Concord, a rift had developed between the legislatures of the American colonies and the home government over the issue of convict transportation. Simply referred to as “transportation” by contemporaries, this form of exile and forced labor was passed down through the courts, and was commonplace for petty offenders in the eighteenth century. By the start of the American Revolution, scholars have estimated that perhaps as many as 50,000 convicted felons were transported to the colonies. This figure may not sound like much at face value, but in fact, one out of every four British immigrants who came to America during the eighteenth century was a transported felon.[1] This meant that next to African slaves, convicts constituted the second largest body of immigrants ever to be forcibly transported to America. Perhaps this was why Samuel Johnson, the great eighteenth-century English author, lexicographer, and poet purportedly told one of his colleagues that he believed Americans were “a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.”[2]

Mercantilists considered convicts a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. The vast majority of felons were non-violent offenders. In fact, 98% of the offenders who were sentenced to transportation were found guilty of such non-violent crimes as theft or forgery (theft being predominately the crime people were sentenced to transportation for).[3] Perhaps unsurprisingly, many colonists resented the home government for dumping its crime problem on the other side of the Atlantic. In fact, it appears that colonial governments actively passed legislation to either restrict the business completely, or regulate it so heavily as to become prohibitive to merchants dealing in the convict trade. Almost universally, their attempts to protect themselves from transportation were overridden by the home government.[4]

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 10.11.53 AMWhen the American Revolution began in 1775, transportation to the colonies was temporarily suspended. Believing the war would be short and that the business would resume in quick order, the British government found ways to alleviate the buildup of convicts sentenced to transportation by sending them to remote outposts in Africa, and using decommissioned ships called “hulks” as temporary prisons on the River Thames.

After the defeat of General Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, however, it became increasingly clear that the Americans would remain independent, and therefore, unlikely to agree to receive convicts transported from Britain. This, of course, meant that Britain had to find something else to do with its felons. One option was the penitentiary, but with the nation in significant debt after the war, the government was not financially prepared to take on the cost of building the infrastructure necessary to house felons. As such, the most logical thing to do was to redirect transportation to a new location. After considering several proposals for transporting convicts to locations in the Atlantic, the British government chose a site in the antipodes: Botany Bay. On January 26, 1788, the first convict transports arrived on the coast of what would eventually become the colony of New South Wales. Thus, the revolution in the Atlantic World, in large part, can be seen as the catalyst for the founding of Britain’s colonial empire in the Pacific in general, and its Pacific penal endeavors in particular.[5]

Scott Craig is professor of history at Central Texas College. He specializes in the history of British penal colonies in America and Australia. Feel free to email him at winfield.craig@ctcd.edu.

[1] A. Roger Ekirch, “Exiles in the Promised Land: Convict Labor in the Eighteenth Century Chesapeake,” Maryland Historical Magazine 82 no. 2 (1987), 95; Ekirch, “Bound for America: A Profile of British Convicts Transported to the Colonies, 1718-1775,” William and Mary Quarterly XLII no. 2 (1985), 188.

[2] As quoted in James Davie Butler, “British Convicts Shipped to American Colonies,” The American Historical Review 2 no. 1 (1896), 12.

[3] J. M. Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England, 1660–1800 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 500-504.

[4] Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1990), 24.

[5] Emma Christopher, A Merciless Place: The Fate of Britain’s Convicts after the American Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 170-178.

Further Reading:

Christopher, Emma. A Merciless Place: The Fate of Britain’s Convicts after the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Ekirch, A. Roger. Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Mackay, David. A Place of Exile: The European Settlement of New South Wales. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Smith, Abbot Emerson. Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America 1607-1776. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Virginia by the University of North Carolina Press, 1947.

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