The Transportation Act of 1718: Indentured Servitude for criminals

During the early parts of the seventeenth century, as the cities continued to grow, Britain began to see a dramatic increase in the crime rate. This problem coincided with the problem of how to find adequate manpower to make the dangerous journey across the ocean to work in the new colonies in America and the West Indies. The solution was obvious.

Around the year 1615 it became more and more common for people convicted of series crimes to be offered a choice between death and exile to the New World. However, the system was completely unregulated. Criminals were expected to find and pay for their own transportation and no one actually kept track of where they went. Many criminals took a short boat ride to Ireland and then quickly snuck back into the country.

This finally changed with the Transportation Act of 1718. This new piece of legislation standardized the process by which criminals were sentenced and shipped to the New World. Under the Transportation Act, the government paid merchant companies a fixed amount to ship the convicts to the New World. It was a brutal and nasty business, full of abuses. Many ship captains treated their convict cargos as little better than slaves, keeping them chained below decks. Then again, captains had reason to be worried as it was not uncommon for a group of convicts to try and take over the ship by murdering the captain and her crew.

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When the merchants arrived in the New World, they were able to sell the convicts. Convicts were sentenced to serve either seven or fourteen years, depending on the severity of their crime, as indentured servants. Richer convicts were able to buy their own freedom in this way.

Since most convicts were unskilled labour, they were generally bought by plantation owners, and of course, young men were preferred.

Once in the colonies, many convicts worked out their sentence and then stayed on to start a new life for themselves. However, a large percentage returned to their criminal ways and helped to make the New World a wild and dangerous place. This was especially true in the West Indies where there was no chance for a convict to ever buy or claim any land of his own, which lead many to turn to piracy as the best way to make a living.

The Transportation Act saw tens of thousands of convicts transported to the New World, and the flow only stopped with the American Revolution in 1776. Although, this cost Britain and easy place to dump its criminals, it soon found another in Australia. MrSpeedy API