Make me work if you can

T.H. Breen

  • Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775 by Roger Ekirch
    Oxford, 277 pp, £25.00, November 1987, ISBN 0 19 820092 7

Not until the 18th century did ordinary Europeans discover America. New World staples flooded into their homes, fibres, sugar, tobacco, affordable consumer items that made their lives a little more pleasant. Production of these goods, of course, required huge numbers of labourers, most of whom had travelled to America as bondsmen, as servants and slaves. About the African migrants, we now know a good deal. But curiously, until quite recently no one paid much attention to the hundreds of thousands of European migrants who crossed the Atlantic as indentured servants.

It was easy, I suppose, to take these anonymous individuals for granted. They fit conveniently into a mythology in which the poor of the Old World become prosperous in the New. To be sure, just enough migrants clambered up the social ladder to give credibility to the notion that colonial America was a land of opportunity. Everyone seemed able to identify a successful farmer or flourishing tradesman who had originally migrated as a servant – in other words, as an unfree person who owed his or her master several years’ hard labour in exchange for the cost of transportation. There is no question that those people who had already acquired skills, especially as artisans, stood a good chance of receiving higher wages in America than they would have in London. And, with a little money in his pocket, a former servant could always purchase land on the frontier, becoming in only a few years an independent yeoman farmer.

The question is not, therefore, whether indentured servants actually prospered in America. Rather, the problem for historians has always been to separate the winners from the losers. How many people in fact found Britain’s mainland colonies a land of opportunity? The late Richard Hofstadter suggested that the answer would almost certainly not sustain the success myth. In America at 1750: A Social Portrait, a wonderfully sensitive piece of writing, he observed that the servants as well as the slaves had been commodities, goods sold in a global marketplace just like sugar and tobacco. Hofstadter argued that ‘the transportation to the English colonies of human labour, a very profitable but also a very perishable form of merchandise, was one of the big businesses of the 18th century.’ The celebration of the success of a few men and women, he argued, served only to divert attention from the many thousands who suffered a crushing denial of their dreams. Indeed, when Hofstadter reviewed this record, he concluded sombrely that ‘one is deeply impressed by the measure to which the sadness that is natural to life was overwhelmed in the condition of servitude by the stark miseries that seem all too natural to the history of the poor.’ This passage refers principally to the experiences of those Europeans who volunteered to become servants, who freely chose to come to America in the hope of improving their lives.

But, as Roger Ekirch now explains in his splendid new book, a very large number of migrants did not want to leave 18th-century Britain at all. These were the convicts. Historians once thought that no more than thirty thousand felons were transported to the New World. When Ekirch re-examined the records, however, he discovered that the figure was closer to fifty thousand. Stated somewhat differently, one out of every four British migrants between 1718 and 1776 was a convicted felon. What historians once treated as a kind of curiosity suddenly becomes a major chapter in the story of the peopling of North America. In fact, this book should be of particular interest to anyone curious about the first British settlement of Australia, for as Robert Hughes and others have so forcefully reminded us, the closing-off of the North American market for felons after 1776 compelled London officials to find other locations where convicts could be dumped. As James Matra explained in 1783, the British turned to Botany Bay to ‘atone for the loss of our American colonies’.

Ekirch opens his fascinating account with the 1718 passage of the Transportation Act. The Members of Parliament, like many substantial citizens throughout Great Britain, expressed concern bordering on hysteria about the rising incidence of crime. Ekirch does not know whether in fact more felonies occurred during this period than at any other time. Statistics did not really matter. The authorities believed that there was more crime, especially against property, and they set about to stamp it out.

The law became a ferocious instrument. Each year the number of capital offences increased. No one in the government, however, seriously thought that the English people would tolerate mass executions, particularly for relatively minor crimes against property. Such brutality, they knew, would only undermine popular respect for the law. As Ekirch argues, in this particular social context transportation seemed the perfect answer. His analysis draws, of course, on the seminal work of E.P. Thompson, Douglas Hay, J.M. Beattie, and others who have shown how judges used their discretion to banish persons who might well have been hanged. ‘The Liberties of a free people,’ wrote William Paley, ‘permit not those precautions and restraints, that inspection, scrutiny, and control, which are exercised with success in arbitrary governments.’ The Transportation Act rid the country of troublemakers, saved the government the cost of building effective prisons, and supplied the Colonies with much-needed labourers. Some even claimed that banishment might restore lost virtue. As one pamphleteer crowed in 1731, transportation drained ‘the Nation of its offensive Rubbish, without taking away their lives’.

The process of 18th-century justice weeded out a good number of people before they faced transporation. The most notorious criminals were hanged. Others successfully petitioned the court for pardons or for lesser charges that did not mandate banishment. Those who remained came from all regions and backgrounds. One Middle Temple barrister, for example, was dispatched to America for stealing rare books from the library at Trinity College, Cambridge. Most convicts transported to the New World, especially the large percentage sentenced at the Old Bailey, were young, single males, as were the great mass of indentured servants who freely decided to come to America. There was, however, a significant difference. Most of the men who freely signed contracts in London possessed skills. They had been apprenticed. By contrast, the convicts seldom enjoyed such training, and because of this, their chances in America were severely circumscribed. Whatever their prospects may have been, they complained loudly, and not a few begged for harsh corporal punishment, even for death, instead of being sent to the Colonies.

Ekirch might have depicted these people as primitive bandits resisting the oppressive forces of capitalism. He wisely resisted that temptation. Some of these men and women were genuinely nasty characters who had committed frightful crimes. And though the value of purloined goods seems insignificant when compared to the punishment meted out by the courts, Ekirch observes that the poor often preyed upon the poor. ‘For an unskilled labourer, whose daily income did not much exceed a shilling,’ he writes, ‘the loss of that sum or more to the thief did not represent a trifling crime.’ Still, it is unsettling to read about the scores of young people transported for stealing a bit of food or cloth. Not surprisingly, crimes against property paralleled the rise of unemployment.

Ekirch suggests in passing – and one wishes that he had developed this insight – that the convicts were generally charged with grand larceny. Often the items that they stole were the products of an expanding consumer economy, small baubles displayed in shop windows: in moments of weakness, they apparently gave in to temptation. As the editor of Hawkins’s Pleas of the Crown reported in 1788, England’s ‘increase of commerce, opulence and luxury’ created a ‘variety of temptations to fraud and rapine’.

The most original sections of Bound for America are those that follow the convicts after they had been sentenced. Indeed, this book and a series of excellent articles by Kenneth Morgan should become mandatory reading for those who imagine that privatisation might represent an improvement over a state-run penal system. The British government negotiated contracts with merchants who specialised in the convict trade. It was a lucrative business. The authorities provided a handsome susbidy for each person transported to the New World. In addition, the merchant kept whatever sum he could obtain for the convicts in America. It was in the interests of the businessmen to keep these men and women alive, at least until they could be marketed in the Colonies. But the entire process was degrading. As Ekirch explains, ‘transportation, from the time ships left British harbours, became a high-stakes enterprise, and as a consequence, involuntary servitude became a way of life for thousands of men and women. Profit, not penal policy, set the fate of British exiles.’ Those few convicts who recorded their experiences in America claimed that they had been displayed before potential buyers ‘in lots like oxen or sheep’.

The convicts shipped out of England, Scotland and Ireland during the 18th century almost always ended up in the Chesapeake colonies. Ekirch estimates that approximately 80 per cent of the transported servants were sold in Maryland and Virginia. In fact, even within this region the convicts were concentrated within a rather small area. In a few Maryland counties 10 per cent of the adult white male population consisted of transported felons. This raises an interesting question. Both colonies had large numbers of slaves. By mid-century about 40 per cent of population of Virginia was black. Who then bought the convicts? The answer seems to be middling planters who could not afford the increasingly expensive African slaves and who therefore were willing to accept even a convict in hope of obtaining seven years of hard labour in return for an initial investment of ten to fourteen pounds.

Colonial authorities occasionally complained to Whitehall about transportation. They found it embarrassing – not to mention frightening – that America had become a dumping ground for Britain’s criminals. In a celebrated essay written after an outbreak of robberies in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin suggested that the Americans might send rattlesnakes to Great Britain in exchange for ‘the human serpents sent us by the mother country’. But neither sarcasm nor petition slowed the trade. Too many people were making too much money off the convicts.

Ekirch does a masterful job tracing the transported felons in the New World. Those men who possessed skills continued their trades in America. Many others went to the ironworks that were just then being established in Maryland. These were the lucky ones. Most transported servants worked as common field hands, often assigned to do the same tasks as the blacks. Virginia’s Governor Gooch reported that labouring ‘in the Field with the Slaves ... [was] the common Usage of Convicts’. Not only was this kind of work regarded as degrading, it was also extremely hard. Driven to the limits of endurance by masters anxious to ‘make a tobacco crop’, the servants occasionally became unhinged. That is what occurred on one small plantation in 1751. A convict threatened his owner’s wife with an axe, and then having second thoughts about murdering the woman, he cut off his own hand. ‘Now make me work if you can,’ he shouted, before running north to Pennsylvania. Later the man died of gangrene. The Maryland Gazette concluded that this was a suitable penalty for such a ‘fit of Laziness’.

For those convict servants who survived these conditions for seven years, the prospects were none too bright. To be sure, a few managed to forge successful careers. In Virginia Moll Flanders learned that ‘many a Newgate Bird becomes a great Man.’ But as Ekirch carefully documents, Daniel Defoe and many subsequent historians have greatly exaggerated the possibilities for upward mobility. Most former convicts ended their days as marginal farmers, desperate men and women driven to drink and occasionally to suicide by the hardship that they had experienced. The most ambitious convicts seem to have devoted their energies not to making a new life for themselves in America but to returning to Great Britain.

My major regret after reading Bound for America is that Ekirch did not write a longer book. He chose to stick close to his sources. Nevertheless, this powerful account of the transported felons returns us to the global migrations of the 18th century, a massive movement that brought Africans and Europeans together in various degrees of un-freedom. How did these different people interact in the New World? How did strangers establish the boundaries of race and class?

In response to such questions Ekirch offers some intriguing suggestions. The convicts were viewed by their masters as essentially white slaves. Though they escaped the most demeaning expressions of racism, they found themselves assigned to an underclass, hated and feared by the very persons who profited from their labour in the tobacco fields. This in itself is not surprising. But Ekirch also speculates that the degradation of the convicts subtly affected the status of many servants who had freely signed indentures in Great Britain and who had travelled to America in the hope of bettering their lives. As he says, there is ‘tantalising evidence that some servants were gradually becoming associated, in the public mind, with convicts, and, further, that many convicts were already viewed in much the same way as slaves ... By the late colonial period, thousands of convict servants and perhaps others toiled under debased conditions not altogether different from black slavery.’

But if the masters sorted out migrants in terms of class as well as colour, the convicts themselves held the blacks in utter contempt. Indeed, by the time Parliament passed the Transportation Act, racism divided the labour force of the Chesapeake, and though unhappy, lonely people sometimes crossed the colour line, it was inconceivable that white labourers would make common cause with the slaves. As one British visitor to America observed, ‘a white servant, no matter who, would consider it a dishonour to eat with coloured people.’

Forces beyond their control shaped the lives of the dependent workers of the Chesapeake, black as well as white. The same could be said of their masters. By the mid-18th century, all these people had been integrated into an expanding mercantile empire, one that promoted freedom and slavery. Indeed, the two were interdependent. As 18th-century British writers declared, it was unthinkable that human bondage could co-exist with traditional English liberties. ‘The English are free,’ one announced in 1733, ‘and should never be Slaves; they should not be accustomed to the sight of Chains, which are the badges of Slavery.’ But America was different. As a contributor to the Gentleman’s Magazine explained, we choose ‘America for the theatre of our shame’. It was there that Africans could be enslaved, convicts put to hard labour, and servants abused.

Out of sight, out of mind. But, it would seem, not wholly unappreciated. Both slaves and convicts participated in a system of exchange, and if the British could not bear to see them suffer, they delighted in smoking American tobacco.