‘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) who succeeded her, saw 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 England’s convicted criminals reprieved death on condition of banishment, ‘out of the realm’ – known as ‘transports’ – were shipped from London and Bristol bound for America, mainly to Virginia and Maryland.

‘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 Quarterly.

Their ‘service’ labour was sold to cotton and tobacco planters and they worked alongside African slaves shipped in to work Britain’s colonial plantations.

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.

A prisoner’s sex, skill, physical and mental condition determined purchase price. The majority of men were unskilled and went cheaply. Those with useful trades fetched a higher price – between £25 to £35.

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

‘Africans were imported as slaves: that is as chattel slaves. Chattel slavery, the most debased form of bondage…in its most extreme form evolved in British America, took form in British-American law, in response to the need for a totally reliable, totally exploitable, and infinitely recruitable labor force’. Bernard Bailyn, The Peopling of the British Peripheries, Australian Academy of Humanities, Esso Lecture, 1988 

Chattel – ‘moveable possessions’–  perpetuity – when a Negro slave was purchased the owner’s ‘investment’ entailed not only the individual but their progeny.

Not so the English criminal, exiled for thieving, pick-pocketing, housebreaking, smuggling, poaching and violent highway robbery who was turned loose at the end of sentence.

[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, America: 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.

‘I have never found a single reference to a convict in any genealogy or history of an American family, nor, in any other way, does a single one of the 50,000 convicts sent to America appear as such in American history…there are  simply no records of the convicts at all…They faded into the general population: they left no shadows no traces; they disappeared’. Bailyn. ibid.

In Australia all was meticulously documented. On emancipation convicts had their villainy rewarded with grants of Aboriginal land. Each male given thirty (30) acres, with an additional twenty (20) for his ‘wife’, an additional ten (10) acres for each child.


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

Sailing dates were allied to fixed sessions of Assize and County Court Circuits and Treasury paid transporting merchants through a local Sheriff’s Office.

That transaction bought a saleable asset –  a prisoner’s ‘service’.  In America that ‘service’ – his or her labour – was sold to the highest bidder at regular ‘slave scrambles’.

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 Patriot colonists interrupted the regular twice yearly flow of prisoners but reluctant judges continued to commute death ‘for transportation to America’.

1776 – Westminster: Legislation, 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.

The Hulks Act changed the status of prisoners sentenced ‘for transportation’ they became ‘Servants of the Crown… their Service is for the State’. England’s Solicitor-General ruled such prisoners to be in ‘a state of transportation’ stock- in-hand ready for shipment at war’s end.

‘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.

Australia: This change of ‘status’ was clearly understood by Governor Arthur Philip RN in December 1790 as expressed by Governor King in May 1803. See: A Tethered Goat – John M’Entire – 10 December 1790.

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

1781-82, Africa: Meanwhile the American war dragged on. The number of convicts multiplied soon the hulks were over-crowded and pressure mounted to send prisoners to Africa. Government transported convicts to Senegal, West Africa where most died of starvation, brutality and disease.

Edmund Burke, in the House of Commons, led parliamentary  opposition to Africa as a penal destination forcing government abandon any further plans.

‘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.

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.

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 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 English ‘rattlesnakes’. Undaunted, the Home Office ignored Congressional legislation and took up where it had left off pre 1775.

‘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 failed with at least two (2) attempts to restore the American trade. In 1783 with the George, renamed  Swift to create confusion and, in 1784, with Mercury. Mutinies occurred on both ships with many lives lost. See: Mutiny on Swift and Mercury

1786 – 18 August, London:  Home Secretary Lord Sydney, with Africa and America out of the equation, 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.

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

The Hulks Act of 1776 excluded confinement of female prisoners and when New Holland (Australia) replaced America this caveat gave rise to a genocidal imbalance in the sexes transported.

Britain between 1788 and 1868 transported one hundred and thirty-eight thousand (138,000) men and twenty-five (25,000) thousand women to Australia, of these twelve thousand five hundred (12,500) went directly to Tasmania.

Ten thousand (10,000) male convicts and zero (0) female prisoners went to West Australia where transportation ended in 1868. See: G for Gender

The ‘gross irregularities and disorder’ flagged so clearly 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  

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

1786 – October, Whitehall: 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. See: Arthur Phillip the Spy Who Never Came In From The Cold

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

All males, soldier and convict alike were combatants the ‘First Fleet’ was without doubt an invasion fleet.

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: Within thirty-six (36) hours, between 18 to 20 January 1788, the ‘First Fleet’ anchored in Botany Bay. See: Lieutenant William Dawes – The ‘Eternal Flame’ & ‘Universal Terror’  

Captain Phillip judged Botany Bay’s wide open face susceptible to attack. The area also lacked an adequate supply of fresh water for such a large number so unsuitable for permanent settlement.

1788 – 21 January: In two (2) long boats Phillip set out with Captain Hunter RN, Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN and Lieutenant Kellows and Dawes to explore the surrounding countryside. Using Captain Cook’s charts of 1770 they sailed south as far as Point Sutherland but were not impressed by what they saw.

1788 – 22 January, Port Jackson: The following day they sailed north nine (9) miles (14 km) to the Port Jackson where they found a large harbour guarded by two (2) towering sandstone headlands and ‘a good five (5) nautical miles within’ a sheltered deep-water cove.

1788 – 23 January, Sydney Cove: Phillip and his men returned to Botany Bay on the 23rd of January with good news – the fleet had found a home – Sydney Cove.

‘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 – 24 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 but Sirius’ guns, rough seas and strong winds forced them to seek safety and shelter at Sutherland Point.

1788 – 25 January, Port Jackson: Phillip quit Botany Bay in HMS Supply and returned to Port Jackson arriving there just on night-fall at 7 pm. ‘Foul weather’ prevented the other vessels from leaving Botany Bay.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove:  The following morning Phillip landed from Supply, raised the Union Jack and claimed Britain’s victory over France in the race for New Holland.

‘Phillip did not consider the land terra nullius (nobody’s land)….Raising the flag was one of the acts recognised as an assertion of a prior claim against other colonial powers eyeing off the same land’. Larissa Behrendt, Settlement or Invasion, The Honest History Book, Ed. David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, New South Publishing, 2017

The weather having abated the remaining fleet made a dramatic exit that same day – 26 January – arriving to anchor alongside Supply by 6 pm that evening.  See: Australia Britain By A Short-Half Head

1788 – 27-28, January: Marines and male convicts landed and set about unloading stores, clearing a parade ground and erecting tents.

1788 – 6 February: The fleet’s female component two hundred and twenty- two (222) and about thirty-two (32) free children disembarked on the 6th of February.

1788 – 7 February:  Without consent of Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples or entering into treaty with them, Captain, now Governor Phillip, read his commissions and formally proclaimed British sovereignty over New Holland.

At least ninety (90) of the fleet’s prisoners, eighty (80) men and ten (10) women, had escaped Swift and Mercury en-route to America in 1783 and 1784.

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 over these ‘servants of the Crown’.

Governor 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.

Now in a sadistic and macabre pantomime, played out over three (3) days – 27, 28, 29th of February – he exacted revenge. Thomas Barrett the Rio counterfeiter, one (1) of the three (3) Mercuries, was executed. See: Betrayed

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

In July 2008 the Medallion, arguably white Australia’s most iconic artefact, was purchased for the nation for 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


‘The short term consequences [loss of American colonies] were less dramatic than many expected. Though Britian’s eclipse as a world power was confidentially predicted economic recovery was swift and the colonial development of Australia, New Zealand, Indian and part of Africa went some way to compensating for the loss of the first British Empire’. Professor J.A. Cannon Emeritus Professor Modern History, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Oxford Companion to British History 1997

Under the Hulks Act convicts transported to Australia remained of ‘concern to the British government [as] Servants of the Crown [their] service [was] for the public’. See: John M’Entire – Death of a Sure Thing

‘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.


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