THE HULKS ACT 1776: TRANSPORTATION – AMERICA & AUSTRALIA – DIFFERENCES & SIMILARITIES

‘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, 1969

Following the death of Elizabeth Tudor, King James I of England (1603 – 1625), interpreted transportation ‘out of the realm’ as ‘tempering justice with mercy’.

‘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,  1981.

1718 – England: The Transportation Act 1717[18] introduced ‘systematic exile as punishment for serious crime’ and was regarded ‘a severe mode of punishment short of death’.

‘The set of trials…that took place on February 27th of that year [1718] turned out to be the last Old Bailey Session that was held before the British Parliament passed the Transportation Act, which transformed sentencing practices in Great Britain.

On 28th August 1718  Eagle, a ship originally used in the slave trade [with 106 convicts] became the first to be transported to America under the Transportation Act’. Anthony Vaver, Bound With Iron Chains, The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 convicts to Colonial America, Pickpocket Publishing, 2011.

Between 1718 and 1775 convicted criminals sentenced for banishment, ‘out of the realm’ known as ‘transports’, were shipped from London and Bristol bound for America, mainly to Virginia and Maryland, where their labour was sold to plantation owners.

Unlike Australia…once the convicts left the ship [in America] they also ceased to be of any concern to the British government….As eager as 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’. Vaver. ibid.

Once in America English prisoners worked alongside Negro slaves shipped in from Africa to work Britain’s colonial cotton and tobacco plantations.

A prisoner’s sex, skill, physical and mental condition determined sale price. The majority of men were unskilled and could be purchased cheaply. Those with useful trades fetched higher prices bringing between £25 to £35.

Women and girls sold for an average of £8 and less if pregnant. The old and sick who survived the voyage of 6-8 weeks were often given away or ‘disposed’ of.

‘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 ever looked on’. Kenneth Morgan, The Organisation of the Convict Trade To Maryland, William and Mary Quartley.

Slavery was in perpetuity. When a Negro slave was purchased the owner’s ‘investment’ entailed not only the individual, it included that individual’s progeny.

While the English criminal, exiled for thieving, pick-pocketing, housebreaking, smuggling, poaching and violent highway robbery, having served his or her sentence, was set loose. Degraded and brutalised many ex-convicts went on to carouse, rob and rape.

[However] ‘if the owner of a [serving] 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 Convicts, 1718-1783, University of Alabama Press, 2014

1718 -1775: Between 1718  and 1775, prior to the commencement of the America’s Revolutionary War of Independence (1718 -1775), Britain transported 50,000 criminals to America, at the rate of 1000 per year.

For government transporting convicts to America was a win-win. Relieved of responsibility to house, feed, clothe and guard its criminals government saved money and made money.

Based on fixed sessions of Assize and County Court Circuits transporting merchants paid Treasury through a local Sheriff’s Office. The transaction bought them a saleable asset –  a prisoner’s ‘service’. In America that ‘service’ – his or her labour – was sold to the highest bidder at a regular ‘slave scramble’.

Duncan Campbell Superintendent of Hulks, a former transporting merchant, gave evidence before a House of Commons Standing Committee on Transportation. Campbell estimated the convict trade had an annual worth of £40,000, reckoned presently at more than £4,000,000.

‘In comparison with the slave trade, the capitalization required by transportation was modest…studies of the British slave trade during the second half of the eighteenth century have concluded that merchants earned profits of less than 10 percent.

Meanwhile [merchants trading in convicts] earned an estimated profit of roughly 26 per cent from sixteen trips from Bristol to Maryland, not including fees paid by localities for the removal of their transports’. Kenneth Morgan. ibid

1775 – Lexington: War between Britain and her rebellious American colonists, War of American Independence (1775-1783) interrupted the regular twice yearly flow of convicts.

1776 – Westminster: The Hulks Act of 1776 – provided England’s judges with a ‘severe mode of punishment short of death’ as required by the Transportation Act of 1718. Prisoners sentenced  ‘for transportation to America’ were deemed by the Solicitor-General to be in ‘a state of transportation’ stock on hand ready for shipment at war’s end.

The legislation also changed the status of prisoners sentenced ‘for transportation’ they became ‘Servants of the Crown’. From Governor Arthur Philip (1788) onwards this change was clearly understood. 

‘The convicts being servants of the Crown till the time from which they are sentenced expires…their labour is for the public’. Governor Phillip Gidley King, 9 May 1803, Instructions to Lieutenant John Bowen, Historical Records of Australia.

The Hulks Act allowed male prisoners to be confined on floating prison ships moored along the River Thames. John Howard, philanthropist and prison reformer, considered isolation from kith and kin; the ‘severest aspect of [hulk] incarceration’.

Female prisoners were excluded from the hulks. When New Holland, now Australia, replaced America as Britain’s off-shore prison this caveat gave rise to a genocidal imbalance in the sexes transported to Australia – one hundred and thirty-eight thousand (138,000) men and twenty-five (25,000) thousand  women. See: G for Gender

1781-82 – Africa: Meanwhile the American war dragged on. The hulks were soon over-crowded. To relieve the pressure government transported convicts to Senegal, West Africa. Most died of starvation, brutality and disease but three (3) survivors  Thomas Limpus, John Rugless and Samuel Woodham, returned to England ‘before expiry of sentence’. See: Three Amigos + One

As the number of convicts multiplied pressure again mounted to send prisoners to Africa. Edmund Burke, in the House of Commons, led parliamentary  opposition to Africa as a penal destination and forced government abandon plans to send more convicts there.

Between 1718 and 1775 five (5) international wars disrupted the convict trade. The Seven Years’ War (1756 – 1763) being the most significant. At the end of each conflict transportation had resumed and Britain could not see why it should ever be otherwise.

‘During the final months of the American Revolution, the British government decided to reopen the convict trade to its former colonies’. “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 III to North, July 2, 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.

However Benjamin Franklin, statesman and leading American revolutionary, had other ideas. Franklin had long opposed the convict trade he; ‘described transportation as “insult and contempt”, the cruellest perhaps ever one people offered another and advocated exporting rattlesnakes to Mother England’.

1783 – September, Paris: Patriot America won the war. Britain, via the Treaty of Versailles signed on 3 September 1783, lost her off-shore prison and ‘thirteen middle colonies’ Connecticut, Carolina North and South, Delaware, Georgia, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.

America’s legislators refused to admit more convicted criminals. Undaunted, the Home Office ignored Congress, and took up where it had left off.

‘By then (July 12 1783) 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: Government made at least two (2) attempts to restore the convict trade. In 1783 with the George, renamed  Swift to create confuse, and in 1784 with Mercury. Mutinies occurred on both ships and many lives were lost. See: Mutiny on Swift and Mercury

1786 – 18 August, London: With Africa and America out of the equation Home Secretary Lord Sydney advised Treasury; ‘His Majesty has thought advisable to fix upon Botany Bay’.

1787 – 22 January, London: At State opening of Parliament – 22 January 1787 – King George III announced Government’s intention to have New Holland replace America as Britain’s place of permanent exile.

But first New Holland had to be invaded, conquered, occupied and its peoples subdued. England was in a hurry. France with similar ideas of colonial expansion had New Holland in her sights and already had two (2) ships La Bousolle and L’Astrolabe, on the high seas.

Captain Arthur Phillip RN – linguist, sailor, spy, strategist farmer and warrior – a man of steely determination, was selected to undertake the invasion of New Holland.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: The ‘First Fleet’ a large armed convoy of  eleven (11) vessels sailed from Portsmouth bound for Botany Bay in mid-May 1787.

Of its complement, 1500 souls, approximately seven hundred and fifty (750) were convicted criminals; ‘removed from the overcrowded gaols in different part 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

The ‘First Fleet’ was without doubt an invasion fleet. All males, soldier and convict alike, were fed as combatants. 1788 – 18 January, Botany Bay: Within thirty-six (36) hours, between 18 to 20 January 1788, the ‘First Fleet’ anchored in Botany Bay.

There would be ‘some justification for the saying that England won Australia by six days’. Edward Jenks, History of Australian Colonies, Cited in British Colonial Policy, Hugh E. Egerton, Metheun, 1928

1788 – 23 January, Botany Bay: Two (2) French ships, L’Astrolabe, La Boussole, under command of Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse appeared in the entrance to Botany Bay. See: Britain By A Whisker

1788 – 26 January, Port Jackson: Among ‘First Fleet’ convicts who landed at the permanent settlement of Sydney Cove deep within Port Jackson, at least ninety (90) prisoners, eighty (80) men and ten (10) women, had escaped Swift and Mercury en-route to America in 1783 and 1784. Known as ‘the Mercuries’ they were Sydney’s most feared convicts.

1788 –  27 February, Sydney: One (1) month after reaching Botany Bay, a ruthless Governor Phillip chose three (3) ‘Mercuries’ to demonstrate his absolute authority over life and death.

Arthur Phillip had a score to settle. In August 1787 while at Rio he had been embarrassed when counterfeit coins, hastily fashioned from marines’ buttons and buckles, were used to buy goods at a local market.

Phillip, in a sadistic and macabre pantomime, played out over three (3) days – 27, 28, 29th of February – exacted revenge. Under the gallows-tree two (2) ‘Mercuries’ were forgiven, the third Thomas Barrett the counterfeiter, was executed. See: Betrayed

1788 – 27 February, Sydney Cove: Charismatic Thomas Barrett, a talented engraver, was hanged soon after he had fashioned the Botany Bay Medallion, known also as the Charlotte Medal.

In July 2008 the Medallion, arguably European Australia’s most iconic artefact, was purchased for the nation at the cost of  one (1) million Australian dollars  (Au$1000,000). It is on permanent display in the National Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour, Sydney. See National Maritime Museum http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/irish_in_australia/exhibition_overview/arriving

 ‘Unlike Australia once the convicts left the ship [in America] they also ceased to be of any concern to the British government.’ Anthony Vaver. ibid.

The Hulks Act made convicts sentenced for transportation to Australia ‘Servants of the Crown’. Their actions remained the ‘concern’ of the British government.

Between 1790 and 1868 Britain transported approximately 163,000 convicted criminals to Australia. Of these only 25,000 were women. Of that number 12,500 by-passed the mainland and went directly to Tasmania.

West Australia, where the first convicts from England arrived about 1858 and, where transportation to Australia ended in 1868, received 10,000 male and ZERO female convicts.

‘Without a sufficient proportion of that [female] sex it is well known that it would be impossible to preserve the settlement from gross irregularities an disorder’. Heads of a Plan for Botany Bay, Whitehall London, 1786

The ‘gross irregularities and disorder’ so clearly flagged in Whitehall’s Heads of a Plan for Botany Bay came near to destroying the future biological integrity of Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples.

See: G is for Genocide  

 

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