Thursday, June 28, 2012

Steal a book, seven-years' hard labor overseas: Transportation as punishment in the 17th-19th centuries

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.


  1. Enjoyed this post... so true, and great to remember...

  2. Living in one of the states settled in Australia purely as a convict territory, and indeed living only 40 minutes from the infamous penal settlement of Port Arthur, one is conscious every day of the legacy of transportation and penal servitude. One of our favourite boating destinations, 20 mins from where I sit now, is also a former penal settlement and at the far end of that tiny island called Maria Island are a set of solitary confinement cells, still standing and able to be viewed.
    It's a rather disturbing heritage in so many ways...

  3. It was not just thieves who got transported. And I remember reading about a noble at the Court who got a choice of spending a certain time on the pillory or being transported. Needless to say, he chose the pillory! And then the ships carrying the convicts were not exactly cruise liners. Many of them died en voyage. Life was a toughie then!

  4. Thanks for posting this very informative article, which I have shared on all the social media sites. The history of White People has seldom, if ever, been told in any coherent form, largely because most modern historians have, for reasons of politics or psychology, refused to recognize White Slaves in early America as just that. Most Historians of Today Are Total Cowards, and Are Not Willing to Present Anything That Might Upset the Establishment. And if they do display the courage necessary to present the truth, they will be ridiculed and driven from the faculties of the so called halls of learning. Others have their own agenda, which has nothing to do with truth; an agenda to present a false historical perspective so as to destroy the faith of White Americans and so destroy their pride in the process. "They were of two sorts, first such as were brought over by masters of ships to be sold as servants. Such as we call them my dear,' says she, 'but they are more properly called slaves.'" Today, not a tear is shed for the sufferings of millions of our own enslaved forefathers. Two hundred years of White Slaver in America has been almost completely obliterated from the collective memory of the American people. "Who wants to be reminded that half perhaps as many as two thirds of the original American colonists came here, not of their own free will, but kidnaped, shanghaied, impressed, duped, beguiled, and yes, in chains?...we tend to gloss over it...we'd prefer to forget the whole sorry chapter..."


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