The Transportation Act 1717 (1718 in New Style[1]) was an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain that established a regulated, bonded system to transport criminals to colonies in North America for indentured service, as a punishment for those convicted or attainted in Great Britain, excluding Scotland. The act, (4 Geo. 1 c. 11) is long titled An Act for the further preventing Robbery, Burglary, and other Felonies, and for the more effectual Transportation of Felons, and unlawful Exporters of Wool; and for declaring the Law upon some Points relating to Pirates. The act established a seven-year transportation sentence as a punishment for people convicted of lesser felonies (those under the benefit of clergy), and a fourteen-year sentence for more serious crimes, in lieu of capital punishment. Completion of the sentence had the effect of a pardon; the punishment for returning before completion was death. An estimated 50,000 convicts (women, men and children) were transported to the British American colonies.[1]

The act established that merchants and others could contract transport convicts, after giving a surety bond that the transport would be made and the term of service would be completed. To accomplish this, the act declared that the contractor had a property and interest in the convict's transport and service. Significantly under section five, and after noting the many idle youth "lurking" about London and elsewhere, wanting employment, and otherwise tempted toward crime "if not provided for," the Transportation Act included that merchants and others could also contract with 15-20 year-olds, who were willing to be transported and serve up to eight years indentured service. Other sections of the act imposed stricter measures against fencing stolen goods, making them fourteen-year sentences instead of mere accessories to theft;[2] imposed a seven-year transportation sentence for those imprisoned for, or breaking, the long-time prohibition on exporting wool in violation of the acts of trade. Unrelated to transportation, section seven concerns the suppression of piracy. The death penalty for most kinds of piracy was abolished by the Piracy Act 1837, which preserved the death penalty for piracy with intent to kill. The death penalty for piracy was abolished altogether in 1998. The 1717 Act was repealed in 1993.[citation needed]

Development and passage

Although the sentence of transportation with the royal prerogative of mercy had been granted as an alternative to a death sentence for a century,[3] its usage was irregular and subject to abuse. Several sections of the Habeas Corpus Act 1679, as originally passed, contained provisions related to its then-current usage.[4]

The act was introduced into the House of Commons in 1717 under the Whig government by William Thomson, the Solicitor General, who became "the architect of the transportation policy" as developed under the act.[5] The act mandated transportation as a direct sentence, thus simplifying and hastening the process of criminal sentencing.[6]

The reasons for passing the act, as stated in the preamble, include the insufficiently effective sentencing, recidivism, the fact that many offenders previously extended this mercy had not transported themselves, "and whereas in many of his Majesty's colonies and plantations in America, there is great want of servants, who by their hard labour and industry might be the means of improving and making the said colonies and plantations more useful to this nation." Passage also derived from the convergence of a number of events at the time, including fears over rising crime and disorder, following the discharge of soldiers after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, a contested Hanoverian accession to the British throne, inappropriate punishments for lesser felonies (misdemeanours), concern over crowd behaviour at public punishments, and a new determination by parliament to push through the legislation despite colonial opposition. Transportation thus became a regularly available and normal sentence for the courts to hand down to those convicted of non-capital offences as well as capital crimes.

Later acts and general results

Following the initial passage of the 1717 act, several other statutes regulating and related to the penal transportation system to America were passed.[7] The Robbery, etc. Act 1719 (6 Geo. 1 c. 23)[8] amended the previous act, authorized payments by the state to the merchants who contracted to take the convicts to America,[9][10] and broadened the types of crimes subject to transportation. The Return of Offenders from Transportation Act 1742 (16 Geo. 2. c 15)[11] reinforced the death penalty for transportees returning early. Following the Jacobite rising of 1745, the Traitors Transported Act 1746 (20 Geo. 2. c. 46)[12] was passed, among other things, to deal mercifully with many of those detained. The Transportation Act 1768 (8 Geo. 3 c. 15) [13] was passed to make the existing transportation process faster and more effectual.

The Transportation Act, with the system that developed in North America, are generally considered a success; it became a popular method for criminal punishment, as well as for dealing with the poorer and younger elements of British urban society at the time. One reason for the success of this act was that it obviated the financially costly voyage itself; the existing system of sponsorship by merchants had not worked effectively and needed improvement. The government eventually accepted Thomson's proposal to pay merchants to transport convicts, with the Treasury contracting London merchant Jonathan Forward.[14] The business was entrusted to Forward in 1718. Initially he was paid £3 for each prisoner transported, but the price was raised to £5 in 1727.[6] Despite some complaints from colonial governments, the system was favored by the British government. In exchange for relatively small monetary subsidies, contractors relieved the government of convict maintenance costs. Contractors then sold transported prisoners in labour-starved colonial markets, such as the Chesapeake, for an average price of £10.

Over the six decades of the 1717 act's use to its American colonies, transportation of convicts and others helped supply the much needed colonial labour, which in turn increased its production and benefited the realm as a whole. Given the ability to transport “beyond the seas” those who ran afoul of the law, or might likely do so, or had “prayed” to be transported when pressed, the pressure was greatly relieved on the rudimentary domestic county systems of workhouses, poorhouses, and houses of correction then in use. The transported labour was far more beneficial and productive.

Suspension and significance

As thus developed, the established system for transporting convicts to the British American colonies continued until 1776 when its use was temporarily suspended by the Criminal Law Act 1776 (16 Geo. 3 c. 43).[15][16] The outbreak of the American Revolution had made continuing transportation there unfeasible, and recently illegal.[17] The last convict ship to depart Britain docked in Virginia in April that year.[18] Under the Criminal Law Act, felons continued to be sentenced to transportation, but with no place to go, were liable instead to a sentence at hard labour until alternative provisions could be made. The rebellion and the end of transport to America in part prompted the British use of prisons for punishment and the start of prison building programs (as opposed to the use of gaols related to trial or sentencing) because the important transportation alternative to the death penalty had been removed. The Criminal Law Act is also referred to as the "Hard Labour Act" and the "Hulks Act" due to the change in punishment and the overcrowded conditions that resulted[19][9] While initially suspended for two years by the 1776 act, it would be continued until 1779 by the Criminal Law Act 1778 (18 Geo. 3 c. 62) and the Criminal Law Act 1779 (19 Geo. 3, c. 54), with little resolution of the developing accommodation problems.[19]

This situation would continue without any resolution until orders in council on 6 December 1785 which mandated the establishment of a penal colony in New South Wales.[20][21] In 1787 British transportation of criminals resumed with the departure of the First Fleet to colonies being established in Australia; its usage would be greatly reduced in the 1850s, but continue until the last arrived in 1868.

See also


  1. ^ a b Ekirch, Roger (1987). Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775. New York: Clarendon/Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0198202110.
  2. ^ Beattie, J. M. Crime and the Courts in England 1660 - 1800. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986, pp.189-90.
  3. ^ Acts of the Privy Council of England Colonial Series, Vol. I, 1613-1680, p.12. (1908)
  4. ^ "An Act for the better secureing the Liberty of the Subject and for Prevention of Imprisonments beyond the Seas.”
  5. ^ Beattie, 2001, p. 429
  6. ^ a b Beattie, J.M. (1986), Crime and the Courts in England 1660–1800, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-820058-7, p.503-504
  7. ^ Hugh Edward Egerton, A short history of British colonial policy, p.262-269 (1897)
  8. ^ "An act for the further preventing robbery, burglary, and other felonies, and for the more effectual transportation of felons."
  9. ^ a b Transportation
  10. ^ John Hostettler, A History of Criminal Justice in England and Wales, p.157
  11. ^ "An act for the easy and effectual conviction of offenders found at large within the kingdom of Great Britain, after they have been ordered for transportation."
  12. ^ "An act to prevent the return of such rebels and traitors concerned in the late rebellion, as have been, or shall be pardoned on condition of transportation; and also to hinder their going into the enemies country."
  13. ^ "An act for the more speedy and effectual transportation of offenders."
  14. ^ Beattie, J.M. (2001), Policing and Punishment in London 1660–1750, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-820867-7, p.429-430
  15. ^ "An act to authorise, for a limited time, the punishment by hard labour of offenders who, for certain crimes, are or shall become liable to be transported to any of his Majesty's colonies and plantations."
  16. ^ Marilyn C. Baseler, "Asylum for Mankind": America, 1607-1800, p.125, Cornell University Press (1998)
  17. ^ See: Prohibitory Act
  18. ^ Emily Jones Salmon, Convict Labor During the Colonial Period, Encyclopedia Virginia
  19. ^ a b Drew D. Gray, Crime, Policing and Punishment in England, 1660-1914 p.298 (2016)
  20. ^ "Historic Landmarks". Townsville Daily Bulletin. Qld.: National Library of Australia. 2 October 1952. p. 5. Retrieved 22 January 2012.
  21. ^ "Australian Discovery and Colonisation". The Empire. Sydney: National Library of Australia. 14 April 1865. p. 8.

Further reading