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’. Anthony Vaver, Bound With Iron Chains, The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 convicts to Colonial America, Pickpocket Publishing, 2011.

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

‘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

1718 – America: ‘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. ibid.

Post 1718 most convicted criminals sentenced for banishment, ‘out of the realm’ known as ‘transports’, were shipped from London and Bristol bound for America, mainly to Virgina and Maryland, where they were sold generally to plantation owners.

‘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’. ibid.

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

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 English pounds.

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

See: Roots.

‘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. ibid

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

By contrast English criminals exiled for thieving, pick-pocketing, housebreaking, smuggling, poaching and violent highway robbery,  were set loose at the end of their sentence usually terms of seven (7) or fourteen (14) years, some for life.

[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

Degraded and brutalised many ex-convicts went on to rob and rape.

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

Unlike Australia…once the convicts left the ship [in America] they also ceased to be of any concern to the British government’. Anthony Vaver, Bound With Iron Chains. ibid.

Shipping convicts to America was a win-win for government. Money was made and government was relieved of its responsibility to house, feed, clothe and guard its criminals.

And it was profitable for merchants who having purchased the criminal through the local Sheriff’s Office arranged the transport and sale of their asset –  the prisoners’ labour.

Duncan Campbell Superintendent of Hulks, a former transporting merchant, gave evidence before a House of Commons Standing Committee on Transportation and 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, The Organisation Of The Convict Trade to Maryland, William and Mary Quarterly. ibid.

1775: War between Britain and her rebellious American colonists, War of American Independence, interrupted the regular flow of convicts based as it was on fixed sessions of England’s extensive Assize and County Court Circuit.

1776: 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.

Prior to the war most short and medium term criminals were confined in local gaols close to support from family and friends and where men and women mixed more or less freely.

Conflict and the Hulks Act changed all that. Many male prisoners, deemed by the Solicitor-General to be in ‘a state of transportation’ were removed from overcrowded gaols and confined in prison ships ‘hulks’ moored along the River Thames close to the heart of London.

Stock-on-hand they were ready for shipment at war’s end. 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 in 1790 New Holland replaced America as Britain’s off-shore prison this caveat gave rise to a genocidal imbalance in the sexes transported to Australia.

The American war dragged on, the hulks too were soon overcrowded. To relieve the pressure government transported convicts from the hulks to Senegal, West Africa to the fort settlements of Goree and Cape Coast Castle.

Most prisoners transported there died of starvation, brutality and disease. But three (3) survivors of Goree, Thomas Limpus, John Rugless and Samuel Woodham, returned to England ‘before expiry of sentence’.

Under the Transportation Act 1718 ‘return before expiry’ attracted the death penalty.  Sentenced to death, reprieved again returned to the ‘dreaded‘ hulks, they were reunited at Botany Bay in 1788.

As numbers of convicts multiplied pressure mounted to again transport to Africa. Edmund Burke, in the House of Commons, led parliamentary  opposition to Africa as a penal destination forcing government to abandon its plans to send more convicts there.

As the convict population grew additional hulks were added to house them.

Between 1718 and 1775 five (5) international wars had 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, American statesman and leading revolutionary, had other ideas.

Benjamin Franklin had long opposed the convict trade he; ‘described transportation as “insult and contempt”, the cruelest perhaps ever one people offered another and advocated exporting rattlesnakes to Mother England’.

1783 – America:  Britain lost the American War, 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.

American legislators, having won independence from Britain refused to admit more of England’s convicted criminals. Undaunted, the Home Office ignored Congress, and took up where it had left off in 1775.

1783: Government made at least two (2) unsuccessful attempts to restore the convict trade with America, in 1783 with the Swift and 1784 with 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. And England was in a hurry.

France with similar ideas of colonial expansion had New Holland in her sights and two (2) ships La Bousolle and L’Astrolabe already on the high seas.

‘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, 1928.

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

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: The ‘First Fleet’, an armed convoy of  eleven (11) vessels with a complement of 1,500 souls sailed from Portsmouth bound for Botany Bay.

Of the 1500, approximately seven hundred and seventy (770) 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 and many of its five hundred and eighty (580) male prisoners were on the cusp of freedom.

One hundred and ninety-three  (193) females convict/camp followers made up the fleet’s complement of convicted criminals.

‘Several of the First Fleet convicts had been tried as early as 1781 and 1782…many had already served five-sevenths of their time on embarkation and six-sevenths on disembarkation at Sydney’. Dr John Cobley, Crimes Of The First Fleet, Angus and Robertson, 1982

Those male prisoners who boarded the troop transports from hulks, some as early an 6th of January 1787, had not set foot on dry land for up to six (6) years.

1788 – 18 January, Botany Bay: Within thirty-six (36) hours, between 18 to 20 January 1788, the ‘First Fleet’ ships anchored in Botany Bay.

Among ‘First Fleet’ convicts were at least ninety (90) prisoners, eighty (80) men and ten (10) women, who had escaped from 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.

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

In a sadistic and macabre pantomime, played out over three (3) days, 27, 28, 29th February, Phillip exacted revenge. Under the gallows-tree he forgave two (2) ‘Mercuries’ and executed the counterfeiter – Thomas Barrett.

1788 – 29 February, Sydney Cove: Charismatic Thomas Barrett, a talented engraver, was hanged soon after he had completed the million dollar Botany Bay Medallion, known also as the Charlotte Medal.

In July 2008 the Medallion, arguably European Australia’s most iconic artifact, was purchased for the nation. It is on permanent display in the National Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour, Sydney.

 ‘Unlike Australia once the convicts left the ship [in America] they also ceased to be of any concern to the British government.’ Anthony Vaver, Bound With Iron Chains, 2011

Australia’s convicts were, by legislation, designated ‘Servants of the Crown’ they and their actions remained the ‘concern’ of the British government.

‘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

Between 1790 and 1868 Britain transported approximately 163,000 convicted criminals to Australia. Of these only 25,000 were women. And of these 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.

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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