‘Transportation marked a profound transition in the history of British criminal justice’. Roger Ekirch, Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to America 1718-1775, Clarendon Paperbacks, 1990

1603 – England: Following the death of childless Elizabeth Tudor in 1603 her second cousin, King James VI of Scotland, inherited the English Crown and reigned as James I of England and Scotland from 1603 to 1625.

‘Slavery as punishment…a king or magistrate could mercifully spare and enslave a man whose crime had forfeited his right to life’. Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black, 1550-1812, Pelican Books 1969  

James the First deemed transportation ‘out of the realm’ for those reprieved death as ‘tempering justice with mercy’. 

‘The strict legality of these measures may be questioned as Blackstone plainly states that no power on earth, except the authority of Parliament, could lawfully send a criminal out of England against his will’. Blackstone Commentaries; adapted by Kerr, 1862, cited in Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, Library of Australian History, 1990

Nevertheless under the auspices of James I an already existing irregular trade transporting convicts to America as slave labour flourished.

1717 – England: A century later Parliament legislated a ‘legal‘ framework for removal from ‘the realm’ to serve as ‘a severe mode of punishment short of death’.

‘Strict legality’: The Transportation Act 1717]18] Geo. I, Act 4, c. 11, replaced irregular with ‘systematic exile as punishment for serious crime’.

Under the Transportation Act sailing dates were fixed, tied to regular sittings of Assize and the County Court Circuit Sittings.  Government now relieved of responsibility to house, feed, clothe and guard criminals ‘for transportation’ saved money.

‘Much like African slaves convicts found themselves chained below deck in damp quarters with little light or fresh air…..A visitor after viewing a transport exclaimed: 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, chained to five of the most dreadful creatures I every looked on’. Kenneth Morgan, The Organisation of the Convict Trade to Maryland, William and Mary Quartley, 3rd Series.

Government made money from the convict trade. Transporting merchants paid Treasury through a local Sheriff’s Office and bought an asset. In America that asset, the prisoner’s service, was sold at regular ‘slave scrambles’ to the hight bidder, usually plantation owners.

‘Unlike Australia…[in America] once the convicts left the ship they also ceased to be of any concern to the British government….As eager planters were to buy up convicts, captains were just as eager to sell them off…as soon as convict ships emptied their holds of human cargo, they filled up the space with tobacco to take back to London, Bristol, or another British port’. Anthony Vaver, Bound With Iron Chains, The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 convicts to Colonial America, Pickpocket Publishing, 2011

Slavery was an ‘investmentin perpetuity; entailing not only the purchased individual, it extended to any progeny.

In contrast buyers of criminals were required to relinquish their ‘investment‘ at the end of sentence. However; ‘ if the owner of a convict…died his investment was not necessarily lost but merely passed to the owner’s estate, their labour was disposable property’. Edith Ziegler, Harlots, Hussies & Poor Unfortunate Women, Crime, Transportation & the Servitude of Female Convict, 1718-1783, University of Alabama Press, 2014

Between 1717 and 1775 England exiled 50,000 English criminals to America at the rate of 1000 per year. As disposable property’ many were treated with savage cruelty, brutalised degraded then let loose to carouse, rob and rape.

Benjamin Franklin, American statesman and leading revolutionary, had long resisted the convict trade describing ‘transportation as “insult and contempt”, the cruellest perhaps ever one people offered another and advocated exporting rattlesnakes to Mother England’.

1775 – April, Lexington: Conflict, the War of American Independence 1775-1783, broke out between England and Patriot colonists at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 interrupting the twice yearly flow of prisoners.

England’s urban and county gaols were soon crowded with those sentenced for ‘transportation to America’ but with nowhere to go.

1776 – April, Westminster:  Legislation the Hulks Act, 16 Geo. III, c. 43, permitted male criminals ‘for transportation’  be confined on prison-ships moored along the Thames River.

1776 – May, 1776:  The Hulks Act received Royal Assent on 23 May 1776. It created two (2) distinct category of prisoner; those who remained on home soil and those sentenced for banishment ‘out of the realm’.

The latter were deemed ‘servants of the Crown till the time from which they are sentenced expires…their labour is for the public’. Governor Phillip Gidley King RN, Cited in Historical Records of Australia  

1781-82: Africa: The hulks were soon overcrowded. To relieve pressure government transported convicts to Goree and Cape Coast Castle in West Africa where most prisoners died of starvation, brutality and disease.

Edmund Burke in the House of Commons led opposition to Africa as a penal destination forcing government to abandon its plan to send more convicts there.

Meanwhile the American war see-sawed until the English were defeated at Yorktown assuring a Patriot victory. The shooting war was over before the end of 1782 and protracted bargaining over terms of treaty began.

“Undoubtedly the Americans cannot expect nor ever will receive any favour from Me, but the permitting them to obtain Men unworthy to remain in this Island I shall certainly consent to’. George to [Lord] North, 2 July 1783, reprinted in Sir John Fortescue, ed. The Correspondence of King George the Third. Cited in A. Roger Ekirch, Great Britain’s Secret Convict Trade to America, 1783-1784, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series.

Britain arrogantly presumed convict transportation would be reinstated. Between 1718 and 1775 five (5) international wars had disrupted the convict trade, the Seven Years’ War (1756-1753) being the most significant.

At the end of each conflict convict transportation had resumed. Britain could not see why it should be otherwise and moved to; ‘reopen the convict trade to its former colonies’ . This time government was prepared to pay ‘five hundred pounds’ (£500) to get rid herself of the ‘unworthy’. 

‘During final months of the American Revolution, the British government decided to reopen the convict trade to its former colonies. By then North had enlisted George Moore, a London merchant whose vessel, the George was ready within weeks to sail with a cargo of 143 prisoners. Moore was promised five hundred pounds from the English treasury and whatever profits the convicts fetched’. Ekirch. op. cit.

1783 – 12 August, Gravesend: Subterfuge – to confound and confuse – the George was renamed  Swift. With one hundred and forty-three (143) convicts taken off hulks and from Newgate prison Swift departed for the six-week voyage to Baltimore in mid August 1783.

1783 – 16 August, Sussex: Some prisoners ‘rose on the crew’ and escaped at Rye. All were recaptured eight (8) hanged, most were ‘remanded to former orders‘.

Swift continued onto America where permission to land was refused. The prisoners were sold illegally from the ship at a discounted price over a protracted period during a particularly bitter winter.

1783 – September, Paris: The Treaty of Versailles that brought a formal end to the American War was not signed until September 1783. Under its terms Britain lost her thirteen (13) American colonies and the right to export her criminals there.

1784 – March, Gravesend: Nevertheless Government issued George Moore a further contract to ship one hundred and seventy-nine (179) convicts in Mercury another of his vessels. However in light of the Versailles Treaty both government and Moore indulged in chicanery and deception.

1784 – March, Devon: At Torbay some prisoners mutinied ‘rose on the crew’ and escaped into the Devon countryside. All were recaptured and ‘remanded to former  orders’.

When Mercury reached Maryland port authorities drove her back out to sea. The captain made for Honduras where it is thought all prisoners and most crew died of starvation disease or were murdered by local mahogany loggers.

1786 – 18 August, London: Lord Sydney advised Treasury, with Africa and America out of the equation, ‘His Majesty has thought advisable to fix upon Botany Bay’, New Holland. But first the island continent of New Holland had to be invaded, occupied and its peoples subdued.

1786 – 12 October, London: Captain Arthur Phillip RN, a man of steely determination, was selected to lead that invasion.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: A large armed convoy of eleven (11) ships, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ sailed for Botany Bay in mid May 1787.

One half, seven hundred and fifty (750) of its overwhelmingly male complement, 1500 souls, were convicted criminals taken from hulks and ‘overcrowded gaols in different parts of the kingdom’.

‘In determining the daily ration no distinction was drawn between marines and the [male] convicts…the standard adopted was that of the troops serving in the West Indies’. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1990

Under the Hulks Act of 1776 the fleet’s male convicts; ‘servants of the Crown till the time from which they are sentenced expired…their labour is for the public’ were combatants. See: All The King’s Men, Arthur Phillip and the Criminals of the First Fleet

1788 – 20 January, Botany Bay: All eleven (11) ships of the English fleet were at anchor in Botany Bay by 20 January 1788. Captain Phillip decided the area had insufficient fresh water for permanent settlement and ordered the fleet sail to Sydney Cove nine (9) miles (14km) north of Botany Bay.

1788 – 26 January, Port Jackson: In contrast to Botany Bay – wide open and difficult to defend  – Sydney Cove, situated deep within Port Jackson, was protected by towering headlands; ‘here’ Phillip wrotea Thousand Sail of the Line may ride the most perfect Security’.

1788 – January, Sydney: Among those convicts who disembarked in Sydney Cove in January 1788 at least ninety (90)  – eighty (80) men and ten (10) women had, en-route to America, escaped from Swift and Mercury. Known collectively as ‘the Mercuries’ they were most feared of convicts. See: A Vicious Circle – The Hangman’s Noose

1788 – 7 February, Sydney Cove: Captain, now Governor Arthur Phillip RN, raised the Union Jack and, without consent of its First Peoples, claimed British sovereignty over New Holland; ‘from Cape York in the most northern extremity to…South Cape’. See: A Cracker Jack Opinion – Your Land is My Land 


1789 – June, Westminster: Lord Sydney, ‘Tommy’ Townshend, resigned as Home Secretary in June 1789 and was succeeded by William Wyndham Grenville, a young cousin of Prime Minister William Pitt.

Grenville contracted a second fleet ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ to Camden, Calvert and King a firm of Guinea slavers working out of London.

1790 – June, Sydney: The fleet brought mainly male prisoners. Treated with savage cruelty 25% died during the voyage and a further 15% within weeks of reaching Sydney.

The second fleet also brought the first contingent of the New South Wales Corps. See: A Tale of Two Fleets

‘Military and police raids against dissenting Aboriginal groups lasted from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries…These raids had commended by December 1790. Professor  Bruce Kercher, History of Law in  Australia, Allen and Unwin, 1995 See: A Hatchet Job – Heads Off The Bidgigal of Botany Bay


America: Britain’s convicted criminals were not held in prisons. On arrival they were sold, along with their labour, at regular ‘slave scrambles’ mainly to plantation owners. Turned loose on serving their full sentence they simply blended, for better or worse, into well established ‘English’ communities.

Australia: Here, Britain’s convicted criminals were not held in prisons. Most, once the full sentence was served, had their villainy  rewarded with grants of Aboriginal land. Later England’s brutal ‘penal code’ was introduced and gaols built to punish re-offenders.

Along with concerted military efforts prisons were used to crush the resistance of Australia’s First Nation’s Peoples.


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