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Prisons: History

The Rise Of The Prisoner Trade

From the time of Christopher Columbus, prisoners of various kinds figured in the exploration and colonization of the New World. Spain and Great Britain (among others) sent convicts to help settle North America; they also seized some indigenous peoples (Indians) to use as slaves. Starting with Portugal in the early sixteenth century, the major western European powers also imported African men, women, and children to serve as slaves in the Caribbean and American colonies.

Starting in the early seventeenth century, Britain carried out an international prisoner trade for more than one hundred and fifty years. After 1650, in fact, most emigrants to the American colonies went as prisoners of one sort or another. Some were forcibly kidnapped or arrested and shipped against their will; some were tricked or enticed into giving up their liberty; others bound themselves as indentured servants to work on foreign plantations. Throughout many ports in England and Ireland, persons nicknamed "spirits" illegally took up all the powerless persons they could entice to sign up as servants in America. In 1680 the Reverend Morgan Godwyn estimated that ten thousand souls were being spirited to the colonies each year. Oftentimes these recruits were held in private jails until their ships were ready to leave, to prevent them from changing their minds.

Starting in the early seventeenth century, Britain also started an organized system of convict transportation, which sent convicted felons to America as punishment for crime. In 1717 Parliament passed an act empowering courts to sentence noncapital offenders directly to transportation for seven years. Anyone who returned before his or her term expired or who helped a convict to escape was liable to be hanged. In addition, by 1723, more than fifty crimes in Britain were punishable, at least in statute, by the death penalty. Some of these offenses included poaching fish, damaging trees, or stealing a silver spoon. Yet many of those convicted of these capital crimes were allowed to escape the noose by agreeing to voluntary exile. As a result, the overwhelming number of those condemned to death were pardoned and shipped to America, where they were sold as servants for fourteen years. Between 1717 and 1775, Britain alone transported more than fifty thousand convicts to America. France also utilized transportation to its colonies throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Moreover, others were compelled to enter military service (impressed), some of them after being forcibly taken into custody by press gangs. Many of these persons were used to man the fleets that transported the human cargoes and other goods between the mother country and the colonies.

Some of the vessels used in the trade carried convicts or other servants as well as slaves, and some companies and agents involved in trafficking prisoners of various types. By the eighteenth century, General James Edward Oglethorpe, an English prison reformer and director of the Royal African Company, founded the colony of Georgia in 1732–1733 with colonists obtained from English prisons; South Carolina's Henry Laurens (later president of the Continental Congress) also trafficked servants and slaves. And many leading colonists, including George Washington, bought and sold both white convicts and African slaves.

Convicts and indentured servants often experienced a comparable crossing. Shipboard losses among convicts averaged fifteen to thirty percent during the seventeenth century, dropping to as low as 3 percent by the last quarter of the eighteenth. As many as five thousand convicts or more may have perished en route to America. Indentured servants were forced to endure most of the same conditions.

Being sold was a common experience of white convicts, indentured servants, and redemptioners, as well as black slaves. To the extent that American history is the story of immigration, then American colonial history is largely the story of the immigration of prisoners of one sort or another. On both sides of the Atlantic, prisons of various sorts were an essential part of the prisoner trade.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPrisons: History - Early Jails And Workhouses, The Rise Of The Prisoner Trade, A Land Of Prisoners, Enlightenment Reforms