Beginning of Convict Transportation
Transportation Act of 1718
An intervening war and the 1715 Scottish rebellion prevented an immediate solution to the convict problem, but by 1718, those distractions had ceased. At the same time, the English penal system was in such a state of flux that a new solution had to be found for the increasing numbers of felons overrunning London. The English people were exceedingly conscious of their rights and reluctant to warehouse criminals for long periods at hard labor like slaves. They also feared giving the state so much power that their freedoms could be threatened. Moreover, city jails were so unhealthy that many inmates died from disease or starvation. The localities also lacked sufficient funds to care for convicts, and the growth of population centers meant that the old public punishments of whippings, brandings, and the pillory no longer had the effect of shaming criminals into reforming their behavior. Rather than spending money for more jails, Parliament decided to make a great financial commitment and underwrite a systematic approach to transporting noncapital felons to the colonies, which resulted in the 1718 act. Over the previous twenty years, government revenues had grown to a point where such an act had become feasible. By sending so many felons to the colonies, England could rid itself of a problem it did not want to face and avoid use of the death penalty insofar as possible.
While England's population had grown from less than three million in 1500 to more than five million by 1650, a similar rise in employment opportunities for the poorer elements of society did not occur. Moreover, wages did not match the cost of living expenses, so that between one-fourth and one-half of the population subsisted in poverty, leaving many of them little alternative but turning "to pilferinge and thievinge and other lewdnes." Thus, many of those arrested for crimes were guilty of trivial offenses that today would be considered petty larceny or shoplifting and would be punished by a warning, a small fine, or probation—for example, stealing some small food item or a handkerchief worth less than a shilling. By 1769, however, the English penal code's list of criminal acts that could lead to transportation had grown to 169.
Employment of Convict Laborers in Virginia
As the cultivation of tobacco spread, the demand for workers increased as well. In Virginia as in Maryland, this labor demand at first was satisfied by indentured servants who came mostly from England, worked for a fixed number of years for those who paid their passage, and then became "free" planters themselves. Especially during the middle decades of the seventeenth century, crop failures in England and Wales prompted many to leave for the New World. Later, as economic and political conditions in the mother country improved, this source of workers began to dry up and be replaced with slave labor. Between about 1607 and 1699, approximately 96,600 indentured servants entered the colonies, along with about 33,200 slaves. Between 1700 and 1775 those numbers grew to approximately 103,600 indentured servants and an estimated 278,400 enslaved Africans. Clearly, the comparatively small number of convicts immigrating between 1607 and 1699 (2,300) played a lesser role in the economic life of the colonies in the 1600s. By the 1660s, most indentured Africans had generally become bound for life. In 1705, various Virginia laws passed in the latter half of the seventeenth century were combined into the "slave code," thus institutionalizing the system of African enslavement. While Virginia was home to approximately 300 Africans in 1649, that number grew to roughly 3,000 by 1677, to perhaps 13,000 by 1700, and to about 27,000 by 1720. Despite the increasing African population, smaller planters and various tradesmen, shipbuilders, and iron manufacturers retained a need for cheap white labor. Although the market price of tobacco fluctuated, it remained high enough to justify the acquisition of indentured servants or the purchase of slaves.
Using British genealogist Peter Wilson Coldham's volumes of convict lists and runaway ads, among other sources, to analyze the British convicts sent to Virginia, the historian Lyda C. Bitto found that at least 20,000 felons arrived in Virginia between 1718 and 1775. She concluded that, in spite of past studies suggesting that the majority of felons had no skills and were employed as agricultural workers, most of the convicts she analyzed had been sentenced in the London area and surrounding counties and possessed some kind of skill. Thus, she determined that, contrary to popular belief, the felons did make a significant contribution to Virginia's labor force and were not guilty of the majority of the crimes committed in the colony.
While many of the convicts (especially young, unskilled men) were put to work in agriculture for middling planters who could not otherwise afford slaves, other felons were bought by merchants, tradesmen, shipbuilders, and iron manufacturers. An investigation of the skills held by one shipload of convicts revealed that of ninety-eight felons, forty-eight possessed no recognizable trade: sixteen of them were too young to have learned a trade and the other thirty-two were too old to ply one. Of the other fifty, twenty-one had acquired low-level skills and the other twenty-seven were skilled in trades such as barbering, carpentering, and shoemaking.
Contrasting Indentured, Enslaved, and Convict Servants
Virginia's Attempts to Stop Convict Transportation
Despite the inducements to purchase convict labor, the two colonies that received 80 percent of the convicts, Virginia and Maryland, tried repeatedly to pass laws to prevent England from sending felons to their shores. Few legislative enactments survived into law, however. The 1718 arrangement with Jonathan Forward, the first merchant to receive a contract with the British treasury to ship convicts to America, was too profitable for the British government to allow the American colonies to impede the practice. While colonial governors and Councils objected to the shipping of felons, repeated passage of legislation for ending the process or for placing taxes or other strictures on transportation were overturned by the Board of Trade or other agents of the king, especially after 1718's act of transportation. When Virginia passed an act in 1722 to set fees and restrictions designed to make it too costly for merchants to send convicts to the colony, Forward complained to the Board of Trade, which overturned Virginia's law.
Displeasure with the number of convicts transported to the colonies was not limited to Virginia. Benjamin Franklin also objected several times to the great influx of convicts from Great Britain, in 1751 railing against the British government's refusal to allow the American colonies to legislate against the importation of convicts "for this kind Reason, 'That such Laws are against the Publick Utility, as they tend to prevent the Improvement and Well Peopling of the Colonies.'" Franklin suggested that since the British thought that convicts could reform themselves in a new climate, perhaps sending England shipments of rattlesnakes might "possible change their Natures, if they were to change the climate." It seemed only reasonable to exchange America's rattlesnakes for Britain's human snakes. But again, Franklin stated, Britain would get the better of the trade, "without equal Risque of the Inconveniencies and Dangers, For the Rattle-Snake gives Warning before he attempts his Mischief; which the Convict does not."
Locations of Convict Transportees in Virginia
Living Conditions of Convict Transportees
The story was quite different for the poorest felons, who were kept in chains in the hold of the ship, in filthy conditions, poorly fed, and subject to life-threatening diseases. Many of them died on the voyage to the colonies. Of those who survived, the conditions of their servitude were frequently as bad as the voyage over had been. William Eddis, a young Englishman who visited Maryland between 1769 and 1777, noted in a September 1770 letter that, while laborers were often victims of abuse, convicts made especially easy prey since they were "marked with the 'stamp of infamy.'" For that reason, he stated, if the convicts survived their servitude, most of them returned to Great Britain, while a few who had learned to behave honestly moved to distant, less-populated areas and started anew while hoping to escape their pasts.
As the eighteenth century went on, more and more convicts attempted to escape their masters, most of them young English men or boys. Many were ordinary workers attempting to escape the misery of manual labor in the fields. A number of them attempted to board a ship and return home to Great Britain, which offered the best opportunity for permanent escape. Ultimately, the British authorities tried to turn to imprisonment in Britain and hard labor instead of shipment to the colonies, but were thwarted by Parliament.
End of Convict Transportation to Virginia
After April 18, 1775, when fighting broke out between the British and Americans at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, acceptance of convict ships in colonial ports virtually ceased. The last boatload of convicts arrived in the James River in April 1776 and was apparently allowed to land. Over the fifty-eight years since the passage of the Transportation Act of 1718, Virginia had become a temporary home for about 20,000 convicts, most in the area of the Northern Neck. Once the Revolution broke out, Britain could no longer ship its felons to America and in 1786 Parliament passed an act to begin transporting them to Australia instead.
January 24, 1615 - King James I authorizes the transportation of convicts who could "yeild a profitable service to the Common wealth in parts abroade where it shall be found fitt to imploie them."
1617 - Transportation of British convicts to the colonies begins.
September 1663 - Enslaved Africans and British convict servants (once soldiers of Oliver Cromwell's) in Gloucester and York counties plan a mutiny. Their plan is exposed by John Berkenhead, an indentured servant.
April 6, 1671 - The Virginia General Court reads an order from the king's Council stating that "noe Newgate or Goale [jail] birds should be imported into this Collony or other parts of America."
October–November 1671 - Hugh Nevett, a merchant who owns a Gloucester County plantation, is caught importing some Newgate "Goale" birds. A month later, the Virginia General Court orders Nevett to "send out the Newgate birds within 2 months."
1697 - The process of transporting British criminals to America ceases to function because the colonies refuse to take them and few merchants are willing to pay for the passage.
1718 - Parliament passes "An Act for the further preventing Robbery, Burglary and other Felonies, and for the more effectual Transportation of Felons," which begins British government–subsidized transportation of felons to Virginia. By 1775, Britain will have sent about 20,000 convicts to Virginia under this law.
1718 - Jonathan Forward, a London merchant, contracts with the British treasury to ship convicts to America. This arrangement is the first of its kind.
1722 - The Virginia Assembly passes an act to set fees and restrictions on the shipment of British convicts to Virginia—fees that would make the practice cost-prohibitive. The law is overturned by the Board of Trade.
1722 - Author Daniel Defoe publishes The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, in which the heroine is convicted of stealing and sent to Virginia.
1733 - The rise in the number of convict arrivals to Virginia motivates John Clayton, Virginia's attorney general, to petition the lords of the treasury in London for a salary increase. The treasury officials grant his request, agreeing that the influx of convicts has increased the colony courts' business.
May 9, 1751 - The Pennsylvania Gazette publishes a letter by Benjamin Franklin, writing under the name "Americanus," in which he rails against the practice of shipping convicts to the colonies.
November 1766 - The General Assembly passes an act to quarantine those who arrive in Virginia's ports suffering from "goal fever," or typhus. Ships' captains are required to swear upon arrival in Virginia that no one on board has goal fever; the penalty for making a false oath is £50. The law is renewed at the General Assembly's February 1772 session.
March 13, 1774 - Captain William McGachen (McCachen) writes to George Washington that Washington's secretary Valentine Crawford has bought "four men convicts, four indented servants for three years, and a man and his wife for four years" on Washington's behalf.
Spring 1775 - With the outbreak of rebellion against Great Britain, most colonial ports cease accepting convict transportees.
April 1776 - The ship Jenny arrives on the James River bearing the last boatload of convicts from Britain, and is apparently allowed to land them.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Salmon, E. J. Convict Labor during the Colonial Period. (2015, October 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Convict_Labor_During_the_Colonial_Period.
- MLA Citation:
Salmon, Emily Jones. "Convict Labor during the Colonial Period." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 27 Oct. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: July 5, 2011 | Last modified: October 27, 2015
Contributed by Emily Jones Salmon, retired senior editor in the Education and Outreach Division of the Library of Virginia, co-editor of The Hornbook of Virginia History (3rd–5th editions: 1983, 1994, and 2010), and co-author with John S. Salmon of Franklin County, Virginia, 1786–1986: A Bicentennial History (1993).