Penal transportation

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Women in England mourning their lovers who are soon to be transported to Botany Bay, 1792

Transportation or penal transportation is the sending of convicted criminals to a penal colony. For example, France transported convicts to Devil's Island and New Caledonia, and Great Britain to its colonies in the Americas (from the 1610s until the American Revolution in the 1770s) and Australia (1788–1868).

Origin and implementation[edit]

Banishment or forced exile from a polity or society has been used as a punishment from Roman times or before. It removed the offender from society, possibly permanently, but was seen as a more merciful punishment than execution.

Under British law, transportation was a sentence imposed for felony, and was typically imposed for offences for which capital punishment was deemed too severe; for example, forgery of a document was a capital crime until the 1820s, when the penalty was reduced to transportation. The sentence was imposed for life or for a set period of years. If imposed for a period of years, the offender was permitted to return home after serving out his time, but had to make his own way back. Many offenders thus stayed in the colony as free persons, and might obtain employment as jailers or other servants of the penal colony.

In Australia, a convict who had served part of his time might apply for a ticket of leave permitting some prescribed freedoms. This enabled some convicts to resume a more normal life, to marry and raise a family, and to contribute to the development of the colony.

North America[edit]

This notice on a bridge in Dorset warns that damage to the bridge can be punished by transportation.

North America was used for transportation from the early 17th century to the American Revolution of 1776. In the 17th century, it was done at the expense of the convicts or the shipowners. The first Transportation Act in 1718 allowed courts to sentence convicts to seven years' transportation to America. In 1720, an extension authorised payments by the state to merchants contracted to take the convicts to America. Under the Transportation Act, returning from transportation was a capital offence.[1][2]

The gaols became overcrowded and dilapidated ships were pressed into service, the hulks moored in various ports as floating gaols. The number of convicts transported to North America is not verified although it has been estimated to be 50,000 by John Dunmore Lang and 120,000 by Thomas Keneally. These went originally to New England, the majority of prisoners taken in battle from Ireland and Scotland. Some were sold as slaves to the Southern states.[3][page needed]

From the 1620s until the American Revolution, the British colonies in North America received transported British criminals. The American Revolutionary War brought that to an end and, since the remaining British colonies in what is now Canada were close to the new United States of America, prisoners sent there might become hostile to British authorities. Thus, the British Government was forced to look elsewhere.

Australia[edit]

In 1787, the "First Fleet" departed from England, to establish the first British settlement in Australia, as a penal colony. They arrived at Port Jackson (Sydney) on 26 January 1788, a date now celebrated as Australia Day. Norfolk Island served as a convict penal settlement from 1788 until 1794, and again from 1824 to 1847. They also brought boats providing food and animals from London. The ships and boats would help discover the coast of Australia better by sailing all around Australia looking for suitable farming land and resources. In 1803, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) was also settled as a penal colony, followed by the Moreton Bay Settlement (Queensland) in 1824. The other Australian colonies were "free settlements", as non-convict colonies were known. However, the Swan River Colony (Western Australia) accepted transportation from England and Ireland in 1851, to resolve a long-standing labour shortage. Until the massive influx of immigrants during the Australian gold rushes of the 1850s, the settler population had been dominated by English and Irish convicts and their descendants. However, compared to America, Australia received a significantly higher number of English prisoners.

Transportation from Britain and Ireland officially ended in 1868 although it had become uncommon several years earlier.[4]

Other[edit]

New Caledonia became a French penal colony from the 1860s until the end of the transportations in 1897. About 22,000 criminals and political prisoners were sent to New Caledonia.

In British colonial India, opponents of British rule were transported to the Cellular Jail in the Andaman islands.

The most famous transported prisoner is probably French army officer Alfred Dreyfus, wrongly convicted of treason in a trial in 1894, held in an atmosphere of antisemitism. He was sent to Devil's Island, a French Caribbean penal colony. The case became a cause celebre known as the Dreyfus Affair, and Dreyfus was fully exonerated in 1906.

Literature[edit]

The British author William Somerset Maugham set a number of his short stories in the French Caribbean penal colonies. Franz Kafka's story In the Penal Colony is set in an unidentified penal colony. It was later adapted into several other media including an opera by Philip Glass.

Timberlake Wertenbaker's play Our Country's Good, based on Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmaker, is set in the first Australian penal colony.

Penal transportation, typically to other planets, sometimes appears in works of science fiction. A classic example is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein, in which convicts and political dissidents are transported to lunar colonies. In Heinlein's book, a sentence of lunar transportation is necessarily permanent, as the long-term physiological effects of the moon's weak (about 1/6 that of Earth) surface gravity leave "loonies" unable to safely return to Earth.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Punishments at the Old Bailey". Old Bailey Proceedings Online. Retrieved 2008-04-20. 
  2. ^ R v Powell, Sixth session Proceedings of the Old Bailey 10th July, 1805 t18050710-23, page 401 (Old Bailey 10 July 1805).
  3. ^ Ekirch, A. Roger (1990). Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718–1775. Oxford University. ISBN 0-1982-0211-3. 
  4. ^ McConville, Sean (1981). A History of English Prison Administration: Volume I 1750–1877. London: Boston & Henley. pp. 381–385. ISBN 0-7100-0694-2. 
  • Pardons & Punishments: Judges Reports on Criminals, 1783 to 1830: HO (Home Office) 47 Volumes 304 and 305, List and Index Society, The National Archives, Kew, Surrey, TW9 4DU.

External links[edit]