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The land of the ‘free’: Criminal transportation to America


Not many people know that between 1718 and 1775 over 52,000 convicts were transported from the British Isles to America, mainly to Maryland and Virginia, to be sold as slaves to the highest bidder. It is reckoned that transported convicts made up a quarter of the British immigrants to colonial America in the 18th century.

Before the Transportation Act of 1718, criminals either escaped with just a whipping or a branding. They were then released back onto the streets to commit more crimes. Or they were hanged. Because the jails were not intended for long-term incarceration, there was nothing in between.

After the passing of the Act, transportation became the main punishment at the courts’ disposal. From May 1718 to the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775, over 70 per cent of those who were found guilty at the Old Bailey were sentenced to be transported, compared with less than one per cent in the period from 1700 to March 1718.

According to the vicar of Wendover, transportation served the purpose of ‘draining the Nation of its offensive Rubbish’. While some saw transportation as a severe punishment by exiling convicts to seven or fourteen years of slavery, others regarded transportation as offering rehabilitation to the convicts by giving them the opportunity of making a new life in a new country away from the temptations of their old haunts.

Moll Flanders, published in 1722, was a piece of propaganda supporting transportation’s supposed redemptive powers. Defoe compared the destructiveness of imprisonment with what he saw as the benefits of transportation. He was careful to show Maryland and Virginia in a favourable light.

While the plantation owners and ironmasters of Maryland and Virginia welcomed the influx of cheap labour, other Americans were less enthusiastic. Benjamin Franklin suggested that America should export rattlesnakes in return for the convicts. He said that the emptying Britain’s jails into the American settlements was ‘an insult and contempt, the cruellest perhaps that ever one people offered another; and would not be equal’d even by emptying their jakes on our tables’.

Duncan Campbell, the transportation contractor for ships leaving London during the final years of transportation to America, told a House of Commons committee that, by the time they had reached America, ‘rather more than a Seventh Part of the Felons died, many of the Gaol Fever, but more of the Small Pox’.

Although it was in the captains’ interest to make sure the convicts survived the voyage so they could receive their share of the sale proceeds, the convicts on board ship in many cases were treated worse than slaves. The captains had more reasons for trying to make sure the slaves survived. The death of a slave was a more material loss than the death of a convict. Slaves commanded a much higher price. Slaves were more attractive to potential buyers than convicts. They were more trustworthy as they didn’t have a criminal record and they were generally fitter, stronger and healthier. Slaves were sold for life whereas most convicts were sold for seven-year terms. Slaves were sold for between £30 and £60. Most male convicts were sold for between £10 and £14, while most women went for between £5 and £9. Convicts were often bought by poorer planters who could not afford to buy slaves.

Once the ships arrived at their destination, the convicts were lined up on deck to be inspected by potential buyers. Any convicts who were left over after the sale were sold in bulk at a cheap price to dealers who were known as soul-drivers.

The soul-drivers chained the convicts together and herded them inland to the backcountry like oxen or sheep. They sold the convicts singly or in groups as they passed each settlement. This method meant that small planters and farmers who were unable to travel to the ports where the convict auctions took place were still able to buy convict workers.

Sarah Wilson was among those who were transported to America. She may also have been one of those who fell into the hands of the soul-drivers.

Sarah was an impostor and a fraudster. Beginning in her late teens Sarah wandered alone all over England, living on her wits, inventing new identities for herself, often as an aristocrat’s daughter with great powers of patronage, embroidering her story to suit different audiences in order to fool people into providing her with food and shelter, money and expensive clothes. A Coventry J.P. who interviewed Sarah in 1766 described her as ‘The greatest Impostress of the present Age’.

After four or five years on the road one of her crimes caught up with her. In 1768 Sarah was sentenced to be transported. In America she escaped from her master and began a new set of adventures. In Virginia and the Carolinas she was passed from one plantation house to another as an honoured guest in the guise of Queen Charlotte’s sister. Sarah later moved north while still acting the part of a princess. She was in Boston when the Tea Party took place.

Sarah was a real life Moll Flanders who created a remarkable series of different lives for herself on both sides of the Atlantic. Her story could form the basis of a terrific film.

By R. J. Clarke

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