Convict Labor during the Colonial Period


In 1615, English courts began to send convicts to the colonies as a way of alleviating England’s large criminal population. This practice was unpopular in the colonies and by 1697 colonial ports refused to accept convict ships. In response, Parliament passed the Transportation Act of 1718 to create a more systematic way to export convicts. Instead of relying on merchants to make arrangements on their own to ship felons to the colonies, the British government subsidized the shipment of convicts through a network of merchants, giving a contract for the service to one individual at a time. Between 1700 and 1775, approximately 52,200 convicts sailed for the colonies, more than 20,000 of them to Virginia. Most of these convicts landed and were settled along the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. Although many were unskilled and thus put to work in agriculture, particularly tobacco production, others with skills were sold to tradesmen, shipbuilders, and iron manufacturers, and for other similar occupations. Convict laborers could be purchased for a lower price than indentured white or enslaved African laborers, and because they already existed outside society’s rules, they could be more easily exploited. Nevertheless, Virginia tried repeatedly to pass laws to prevent England from sending convicts, though those laws were overturned by the Crown. At the beginning of the American Revolution (1775–1783), colonial ports virtually ceased accepting convict ships. By 1776, when the last boatload of convicts arrived on the James River, many of the convicts had served their seven- to fourteen-year terms and returned to Great Britain, while a few who had become honest citizens moved to distant parts of the colony with the hope of blending in.

Beginning of Convict Transportation

King James I

Between 1615 and 1699, English courts sent approximately 2,300 convicts to the American colonies. In the 1700s, prior to the end of the practice in 1776, another 52,200 or more arrived—only about 30 percent of the number of white indentured servants and less than 20 percent of the number of enslaved Africans who entered the colonies at the same time. Eighty percent of transported convicts were sent to Maryland and Virginia. Of the approximately 41,760 convicts sent to those two colonies, Virginia received a little less than half, or about 20,000 felons. Prior to the Transportation Act of 1718, the shipment of convicts to the colonies had been conducted in a haphazard way by merchants who received them from the courts or by the convicts themselves. King James I had begun the process in 1615 by authorizing the transportation of convicts who could “yeild a profitable service to the Common wealth in parts abroade where it is found fitt to imploie them.” By 1634, perhaps as many as sixty convicts had been sent to the colonies. By 1697 the process had ceased to function because the colonies were refusing to take convicts and there was a dearth of merchants willing to pay to ship felons to America.

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

Flowers of the Tobacco Plant

In addition to ridding Great Britain of unwanted criminals, the 1718 act was also intended to help the colonies with their labor problem. In Virginia, tobacco had become the main source of cash after John Rolfe shipped the first marketable harvest of Nicotiana tabacum to England in 1614. Tobacco is a notoriously labor-intensive crop. The steps by which tobacco is cultivated from seed to market have changed little over the centuries, because most of the work does not lend itself to mechanization.

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 enslaved labor. Between about 1607 and 1699, approximately 96,600 indentured servants entered the colonies, along with about 33,200 enslaved people. 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 enslaved labor.

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 enslaved labor, 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.

John Tayloe II

Among the Northern Neck iron manufacturers who used convict labor was John Tayloe at his Neabsco Company iron mine in Prince William County. In mid-August 1766, Tayloe advertised in the Virginia Gazette for the return of one of his convict laborers, Arundell (Arundale) Carnes, aged about seventeen. Tayloe noted that Carnes had arrived in Virginia in April 1766 and escaped late in July. If dressed, Tayloe noted, Carnes possessed a “genteel enough appearance.” While Carnes claimed to know something about being a doctor, he also knew “how to wait on a Gentleman,” but would probably try to pass as a sailor and get on a ship. Tayloe warned all ships’ masters to beware of Carnes. He had escaped in a large canoe and perhaps headed for the Maryland shore. If anyone caught Carnes and returned him to Neabsco, that person would receive forty shillings if in Virginia or four pistoles and whatever the law allowed if he was from some other colony. Carnes’s story would appear to support Bitto’s thesis since Carnes obviously possessed more skills than an agricultural worker.

Contrasting Indentured, Enslaved, and Convict Servants

William Buckland, Indentured Craftsman

Indentured servants voluntarily entered into the master-servant arrangement for a specified number of years (between five and seven), made the decision themselves to go to the colonies, and had to be given a freedom fee, clothes, and seeds at the end of their service. Thus, it was more economical for some planters to purchase British felons who also served for seven years in most cases, but who did not have to be paid at the end of their term of labor. The purchase price of convicts was also lower than that of indentured white and enslaved African laborers. Late in the colonial period, a male enslaved person cost between £35 and £44. Most male convicts sold for less than £13 and the women for £7 to £10. Even semiskilled convicts could be purchased for £7 to £14 and skilled felons for £15 to £25. A final inducement for buying convicts came from the fact that because they were already outlaws from society’s rules, they could more easily be exploited.

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.

Sir William Berkeley

Many of Virginia’s early records were destroyed in fires at the statehouse in Jamestown, but, of those that survive, mention can be found in 1671 of an order in the king’s Council. For once the king and Council had decided in the colonists’ favor with an order stating that “noe Newgate or Goale [jail] birds should be imported into this Collony or other parts of America.” Thus, the Virginia governor, Sir William Berkeley, and Council ordered that no ship’s master should discharge the servants on board ship until the master had asked the collector (on the river where they were at anchor) whether any of the servants were covered by the king and Council’s order. In October 1671, the governor and Council revisited the situation after Hugh Nevett, a merchant, had been caught importing some Newgate “Goale birds.” A month later, the two captains involved with Nevett posted security in the amount of 100,000 pounds of “Tobacco & Cask,” so that Nevett would “send out the Newgate birds within 2 months,” according to the order of the Virginia General Court. The Virginia governor and Council had been motivated to pass this act, which the king and his Council affirmed, because of lingering fears caused by a planned September 1663 mutiny by both Africans and convict servants (former Oliver Cromwell soldiers) in Gloucester and York counties, which was prevented when indentured servant John Berkenhead told the authorities what was afoot.

Advertisement for Runaway Servants

After the 1718 transportation act, the number of convict arrivals greatly increased. John Clayton (ca. 1666–1737), attorney general of Virginia, saw the regular business of his office rise so much that he petitioned the lords of the treasury in London in 1733 for an extra stipend for his annual £100 salary and was rewarded with £40 more per year. The treasury officials agreed that the large influx of criminals had burdened the colony’s courts with much more business. More than thirty years later, the colony was still grappling with convicts, passing an act in November 1766 to quarantine those who arrived in Virginia’s ports suffering from “gaol fever,” or typhus. The ships’ captains were to swear an oath to the naval officers at the ports that no one on board had typhus, with a penalty of £50 for making a false oath. The same act was passed again at the February 1772 session of the General Assembly.

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

A Survey of the Northern Neck of Virginia

Most of Virginia’s convicts landed at the Northern Neck ports along the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, especially at private plantations (in 1774 George Washington purchased some convicts for his Mount Vernon plantation), and at Dumfries and Alexandria on the Potomac and Leedstown, Hobb’s Hole, and Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock. In the 1730s, Lieutenant Governor Sir William Gooch described the area as “the Place of all this Dominion where most of the transported Convicts are sold and settled.” The majority of them labored there in the rapidly expanding tobacco and grain fields. Between 1725 and 1753, eighteen of the twenty-six ships carrying convicts landed in the Rappahannock District and the rest in the South Potomac District to the north of the Rappahannock. By the later years of the colonial period, however, growing numbers of convicts moved into the colony’s backcountry. In 1773, for example, “soul drivers,” as the traders who sold convicts in the less-developed parts of the colony were called, from Augusta County bought part of a thirty-nine-convict convoy that had arrived at Baltimore.

Living Conditions of Convict Transportees

The History of Moll Flanders, &c.

In 1722 Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe (1719), published The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders. At the end of the story, after some years of criminal behavior, the protagonist is found guilty of robbery and condemned to be transported to Virginia. Because she has accumulated enough money to pay for her passage, her voyage to Virginia does not entail the miserable suffering of the poverty-stricken felon, but instead a cabin of her own. Once Flanders arrives in a Potomac port, she pays the ship’s captain for her passage, is “sold” by him to work in a tavern, pays the tavern keeper for her “service,” and is immediately released. The real-life well-off felons probably managed their own transportation and subsequent freedom in Virginia in such a way.

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, most of them young English men or boys, attempted to escape their masters. 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."
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."
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.
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.
Jonathan Forward, a London merchant, contracts with the British treasury to ship convicts to America. This arrangement is the first of its kind.
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.
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.
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 gaol 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.
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APA Citation:
Salmon, Emily. Convict Labor during the Colonial Period. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/convict-labor-during-the-colonial-period.
MLA Citation:
Salmon, Emily. "Convict Labor during the Colonial Period" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2023, March 03
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