England, like many societies throughout history, has had to struggle with what to do with their criminal population. For a good chunk of English history, punishment was harsh and severe. Executions were common for a number of offenses. The fundamental question of how justice is best served has been explored throughout English history and influenced by shifts in historical, philosophical, and religious beliefs.
With the expansion of British colonial holdings in the 17th century, another option arose: transportation. The idea was simple in concept if occasionally more complicated in execution. Transportation at its core was exile. Instead of local imprisonment, execution, or another punishment, an offender was sent to a distant overseas holding. In this way the home country depleted their criminal population and minimized the resource impact of a growing criminal population.
Transportation was not reserved for the most heinous of offenses such as murder. A variety of crimes, both major and relatively minor, could end up with a criminal being sentenced to transportation. For example, in 1723 one man was sentenced to transportation and an accompanying seven years of labor for stealing a book.
Initially, many criminals were transported to colonies in continental North America and the West Indies. The American Revolution complicated things and ended North America as a popular choice for transportation even for non-rebellious areas. By 1787, British transportation was focused instead on Australia and some other smaller colonial holdings.
Transportation may have been exile at its core, but it was also supposed to serve the needs of the home country beyond that. In addition to the restrictions one might expect, such as the death penalty for those returning from transportation, these sentences typically carried with them a hefty labor requirement. The services expected from the convicts might be directed toward what we’d now call public works projects, or the convicts might end up as indentured servants to free citizens in a colony.
As one might expect, sending a person thousands of miles away and never allowing them to return home was going to predispose them to even more anti-social behavior than whatever got them in trouble initially. If they had no hope of any sort of normal life, it would only contribute to the kind of instability and revolts one witnessed with completely enslaved populations. One way of combating this, and also serving the general idea of some form of semi-merciful justice, was to limit the main criminal penalty period to a defined number of years. After the prisoners served their sentences, they would not typically regain all of their rights, but, at minimum, would have enough that they could live a semi-normal life.
Related to the exile of general criminals, a variation on transportation was also used to sell people directly into slavery. Though your standard-issue English criminal probably would end up an indentured servant on a plantation or digging a canal or what not, hundreds of thousands of Irish and Scottish political and war prisoners taken during the 17th-century ended up being sold into slavery in the West Indies and this, in some cases, continued in some forms even until nearly the end of the 18th century. Please note that in most cases these were, for all intents and purposes, true slaves and not simple indentured servants. The interbreeding of Irish and African slaves (who were initially considerably more expensive than Irish slaves) in the West Indies became so extensive that by the end of the 17th century, specific laws were passed to prohibit it. Admittedly, the issue with the Irish and Scottish was more an offshoot of war (and rebellion) between England, Scotland, and Ireland, and even many of the laws concerning their handling were distinct from the various transportation acts passed to cover non-political/war-offenses.
Given our modern view of a more rehabilitative justice system, transportation may seem cruel. Indeed, even being a child did not necessarily protect one from a transportation sentence, though age and size (tiny laborers aren’t efficient, after all) were somewhat taken into account. There are, however, documented cases of children as young as seven years old being transported to Australia. It is important to keep in mind, though, that by the standards of the time, transportation was often considered somewhat more lenient than one of the more common punishments: execution or being sentenced to a disgusting and overcrowded prison on land.
Then, as now, the building of more prisons to give convicted criminals more space wasn’t high on the list of societal priorities. In addition, the general English (or general world) attitude toward punishment from the 17th through 19th centuries could more generally be defined as retribution-based rather than rehabilitation-centered. There were such severe issues with prison space that even more disgusting and overcrowded prison ships were used as supplements. That being said, it’s hard not to notice the national self-interest served by thousands upon thousands of cheap laborers being available to help develop new colonies. Transportation would linger, as a punishment, officially until 1868, but for several reasons, including socio-economic and geopolitical changes, it had de facto ended years before.