Old World Criminals, New World Citizens

In 1717, the British Parliament passed the Transportation Act, which made the punishment of transportation to the New World the preferred method of punishment for felons. Criminals transported from Great Britain and Scotland were forced to sacrifice all they knew, only to be dumped onto strange shores under the thumb of the highest bidder. Although the novel Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe, takes place before the passage of this act, it still contains an example of this punishment in practice. Defoe posits, primarily through the character of Moll’s mother, that transportation is actually a useful and good thing, and that the people sent to America are inevitably better off than they were when they left. The truth is, inevitably, much more complex; contrary to Defoe’s statements, many convicts were not any better off and certainly were not treated any better than they were in Britain.

Defoe’s statements on life for criminals in the New World are found primarily during Moll’s conversation with the woman she later learns is her mother. During this first trip to America, Moll gets a taste of the upper-class life that was possible for criminals to build. The woman gives Moll a short description of the type of people that come to the Americas, saying that “they were of two sorts; either, first, such as were brought over by masters of ships to be sold as servants; or, second, such as are transported after having been found guilty of crimes punishable with death” (Defoe 78). Defoe portrays the majority of American immigrants as lower-class people sent there more or less against their will; they come either to make a living or because they are forced to. By portraying Americans in this way, Defoe is making a clear statement that people in America are made up of the downtrodden from England. America, for these people, is, to use a modern and optimistically ideological phrase, a land of opportunity.

Moll’s mother continues by describing what life is like for those newly transported. She says, “When they come here. . . we make no difference; the planters buy them, and they work together in the field till their time is out. When ‘tis expired. . . they have encouragement given them to plant for themselves; for they have a certain number of acres of land allotted them by the country” (78-9). This is an important statement for getting an idea of how Defoe wanted to portray American life. Those sent to America were, according to Defoe, treated as common workers no matter how they were sent there. Even if a person was a criminal, they were treated no different than any normal person looking for work. The most important part of this statement is the idea that, once their term of servitude ran out, the people were given land from the government to own for themselves. If this were true, then the local governments of America all the way up to the monarch of England wanted the people to succeed and work for the betterment of all society. Not to accept and work the land would be a near folly, because there is little other way that these people would ever become landowners due to impoverished or criminal lives.

The old woman then explains what can happen to the transported convicts and servants if they lead proper lives in the New World. She says that “Many a Newgate-bird becomes a great man, and we have. . . several justices of the peace, officers of the trained bands, and magistrates of the towns they live in that have been burnt in the hand” (79). She later gives specific examples, “There’s Major —. . . he was an eminent pickpocket; there’s Justice Ba—r, was a shoplifter, and both of them were burnt in the hand; and I could name you several such as they are” (79). Clearly, the idea is that America has none of the social constructs built up that would keep people from succeeding just because of their past. The New World is a new opportunity and a near paradise for those disenfranchised by Old World policies and social structure. Newgate prison itself is singled out as a place “that half peoples this colony” (80). Defoe, in this single conversation expresses his feelings about transportation and life in the New World very clearly; namely, that transportation is more of a privilege than a punishment, and that those sent to the New World as petty criminals can easily turn their lives around and make respectable names for themselves.

Based on Defoe’s clearly pro-transportation stance, one must wonder whether or not his portrayal of the punishment and its aftermath is actually accurate. In order to be able to determine the accuracy of his statements within Moll Flanders, it is necessary to examine each of his premises, of which there are three. Defoe argues that those transported were (1) criminals that had committed property crimes punishable by death; (2) that once the convicts arrived they were accepted and treated in the same manner as free servants and eventually cut loose to make their own way; and (3) that once the criminals had served their time, they thrived and became upstanding and respectable citizens capable of benefitting society. In order to examine these premises, it is also necessary to look at the legal reasoning behind transportation and the lifestyles of the criminals before they were transported. Lastly, the actual economic value of the convict trade must be looked at in order to determine how or whether both the criminals and the British Empire benefitted from this trade.

The punishment of transportation was not an uncommon method of punishment before the passage of the Transportation Act in 1717, but it was with this act that transportation became “the legal sentence for the majority of felons convicted of noncapital crimes against property” (Morgan, “The Organization” 201). The act defined the punishment as one for those who had committed the most common form of crime tried in the court system, those who were “grand larcenists and petty larcenists (or those convicted respectively of stealing goods worth more than a shilling or less than a shilling)” (Morgan, “Petitions” 110). This is not an insignificant amount of money because to “an unskilled laborer, whose daily income did not much exceed a shilling, the loss of that sum or more to a thief did not represent a trifling crime” (Ekirch 190). Any felony not punishable by death, or any capital offense given a pardon by the crown, was able to be punished by transportation.

It becomes clear that those subjected to this punishment were of the lower class; since there is no reason for a member of the higher class ever to steal something worth so little. Defoe provides a sample of the daily cost of living in Moll Flanders when Moll checks in to live with a woman for the duration of one of her pregnancies. Moll is presented with three payment plans for her stay there, the cheapest of which, and therefore the one most affordable to the poor, says that “For three months’ lodging in her house, including my diet, at 10s. a week” (Defoe 151) would cost her six pounds. This averages out to approximately one shilling, four pence a day; while the most high-class arrangements in this house, for mistresses of rich gentlemen and the like, would cost six shilling, eight pence a day, and grant the woman two rooms and a bed for a servant for a total of thirty pounds. If this is the amount of money that must be spent in the room and board of a pregnant woman for one day in a place tailored specifically to that purpose, it is easy to see how a shilling would be necessary for the poor who would live day-to-day without a proper place to live. It is also easy to see how a single shilling would be nowhere near as important for the rich who would already own their own boarding. To get an idea of the type of person that would receive this punishment, one must look no further than a woman who, “pregnant and famished. . . had perpetrated a felony by stealing bacon and a mess of soup” (Ekirch 190).

It is likely that the majority of those punished for stealing were merely trying to survive in a new Britain. There was a massive “rise in crime as the wool industry increasingly broke up rural communities and eventually turned cities into seething centers for the wretchedly poor” (Balak 879). These people came from all over Great Britain, but primarily from Ireland since “swarms of immigrants eager for work were crossing the Irish Sea, many of whom turned to crime. . . London reputedly served as a magnet to rogues on the run from Irish authorities” (Ekirch 187). The end of English wars on the continent also “brought widespread unemployment, as large numbers of workers in war-related industries found themselves out of work, along with thousands of soldiers and sailors hardened by the brutality of military service” (198). Life was not easy on a small island with the limited resources controlled by the ruling monarchy, and a great number of people were forced into the criminal life in order to survive.

However it must also be noted that there existed many ways for criminals to get out of the punishment. Many criminals “were never formally tried because victims of crimes were responsible for bringing prosecutions. Frequently they chose not to do so because of the trouble and the expense” (191). There was also the question of social consequences, such as being “sent to a house of correction or a local manor court, bound over by a magistrate to keep the peace, exhorted by the parish priest, or ostracized by the community” (191). It was also possible for judges to take mercy on first-time offenders and give them a lesser sentence, and the monarch himself could pardon someone. It becomes evident that, more or less, “those who failed to receive mercy at some stage of the judicial process were reasonably serious criminals” (192).

“Serious criminals” were not in any way limited to those forced to steal to make a living who had just happened to have been caught multiple times. As is seen in Moll Flanders, there were those who joined organized gangs and planned their heists in advance. It must be pointed out that Moll herself is not transported until she makes a name for herself in the criminal underworld and becomes a well-known fixture to those in the courts. Moll, like some of these criminals, “though sometimes drawn to thieving by necessity, crime for them constituted a more regular means of income. Often belonging to organized gangs, experienced felons committed particularly serious offenses such as horse theft and highway robbery that demanded skill and planning” (198). Professional thieves, driven to crime due to their poverty, eventually decided that they liked the lifestyle robbery afforded them. Moll is no exception to this, as “by necessity, professional thieves employed an extended network of informants, fences, and quasi-legitimate contacts” (198). In this instance, Moll is a fairly standard felon who received the fairly standard punishment.

However, unlike Moll, the vast majority of those transported were males between the ages of 15 and 30, constituting over 72% of those sent to the New World (194-5). Most of these men had various backgrounds from “soldiers and silversmiths to coopers and chimney sweeps” (196), and the majority “were those of the lower callings” (196). Until the American Revolution, Great Britain had sent upwards of 50,000 of these lower working-class people to the New World to be sold into servitude for the remainder of their sentence.

But if the Crown transported so many people, how was it possible to afford if it was already considered too expensive to imprison them? While there were other methods of punishment available, “removal of noncapital offenders through mass hangings or employment as chain gangs was considered too barbaric and too politically risky. Removal through imprisonment was [also] too expensive given the absence of penitentiaries designed for long-term incarceration” (Grubb 295). In order for transportation to have been held in such high regard by the courts, there must have been some economic incentive behind the punishment. Conveniently, this is exactly the case.

The settlement of the New World was already well under way by the end of the 17th century. Plantations had already been springing up and providing the homeland with raw materials to be sold in the marketplace and made into a healthy profit for the owners. It is not hard to imagine that it was no easy task to convince people to just pack up and leave for the Americas and risk a lengthy and dangerous voyage across the Atlantic just to toil for the benefit of someone else. Luckily for England, “transportation was conceived not only as a means of reform and punishment, but even more as an opportunity for profitably employing and thereby saving much waste and expense caused the state by its offenders” (Gillespie 360). What better place to find a pool of workers than from among those convicts who had already shown they either would not or could not live in peace in society, and what better way to dispose of them than by sending them a whole world away, out of sight and out of mind?

Yet the issue of cost would still exist. Shipping 50,000 people over the course of the nearly sixty years that transportation was the preferred punishment would be no cheap task. But the government found a creative and simple way to dispose of these people, they “channeled convicts through the existing transatlantic market for voluntary servant labor” (Grubb, “The Market. . .” 295). Rather than fronting the costs of shipment, the government merely sold them off in the shipping market and washed their hands of the whole thing. The only thing the government did was to fix “the length of all convict labor contracts prior to embarkation” (295) and then sold them off to private shippers who in turn “auctioned convicts upon arrival in America to the private employers who bid the highest, with the monies received going to defray the shippers’ transportation expenses” (295). This method of disposing of the criminals proved a profitable one, “due to the privatization of punishment, which. . . meant state seizure of the convict’s human capital, while privatization encouraged and freed jailers, merchants, and farmers to maximize extraction of the human capital at lowest cost” (Balak 880).

Convicts were not, however, the only people being shipped to the colonies. Besides the obvious slave trade, there were still people who wanted to immigrate but could not afford to, and “immigrants who could not afford [the price of the transatlantic voyage] could acquire passage by voluntarily entering servitude. Prior to embarkation they would give shippers forward contracts on their labor in exchange for passage to their chosen destination” (Grubb, “The Transatlantic” 98). It is interesting to note however, that convicts and indentured servants were not considered any different under the law, “while under contract in America indentured and convict servants were largely indistinguishable with regard to fulfillment of their contracts, the legal and customary rights and restrictions placed on their and their masters’ behavior, the range of work performed, and the restoration of freedom” (95). This does not mean, of course, that the convicts were actually treated in the same way. The differences between the convicts and actual slaves meant that the convicts would have to do more work in order to make up for the capital owners had invested into them. This major difference was “because convicts and their children were not owned in perpetuity like African slaves, convict owners had the economic incentive to work convicts to death. The result was brutal, short-term slavery that killed more than 50% of the convicts in just a few years” (Balak 880).

The actual prices for the convicted differed depending on multiple factors. One of the major factors was the length of time the felons were banished from England; whether they were banished for seven years, fourteen years, or life. Those sentenced for seven years, the most common type of banishment, represented the median cost to buy a contract. Those sentenced for fourteen years were the most expensive to buy, while those banished for life were the cheapest. Those sentenced for fourteen years were sentenced in such a way because of “the English courts’ perception of the severity of harm inflicted by, and the incorrigibility of, the convict” (Grubb, “The Market” 298). However, the actual auction price of these fourteen year convicts was “only 4.9 percent higher than that of convicts with 7 years to serve, 13.47 versus 12.84 pounds sterling” (298-99). Those banished for life, on the other hand, only cost 11.75 pounds (299). Interestingly, the prices for all convicts were lower than the three-month fee for rich mistresses to give birth in the safe house in Moll Flanders. To get an idea of how much cheaper this was than buying a slave for life, Olaudah Equiano purchased his own freedom from his master for “seventy pounds current money” (Equiano 137) in 1766, and this price is ignoring any further cost of feeding, clothing, and housing a slave.

Another monetary comparison that must be made is between that of convicts and the indentured servants whom they were often shipped and sold alongside. These servants were often cut from the same cloth as the convicts when it came to their social class and standing, but they managed to find a more legal and preferable way to escape from their poverty. The convicts were considered “a better bargain. The seven-year service of most convicts was nearly twice the term of most indentured servants; convicts did not have the right to freedom dues; and the contract for labor was not made between the convict and the buyer” (Morgan “The Organization” 215). It is easy to see why buyers would prefer convicts in pure economic terms, no matter what they might feel personally about the type of people they were buying.

The majority of convicts shipped to America were sold in Maryland and Virginia, with “more than two-thirds of the transported felons [being sent] to the Chesapeake” (202). While there are many of other places these convicts could have been sold, “it was there that business connections and arrangements for disposing of them were established in a satisfactory manner. It was there, too, that the importation of convicts was generally accepted, whereas some other colonies passed laws to restrict the traffic” (203). It is likely that the convicts were sold for work on tobacco plantations, and the tobacco from these plantations then made its way back to England on the very same ships that sent the labor.

Convicts pressed into service were originally treated by their owners in much the same way as indentured servants. In a time when corporal punishment was common, convicts and servants alike were kept in line by beatings, “Discipline was enforced through whipping and the use of chains, although they could petition the courts for relief against excessive punishment or non-supply of food and clothing. The penalty for running away was a whipping, plus an increase in the period of service, a multiple of the days missing” (Kercher par 15). While convicts were, for a time, granted freedom dues and “before the 1740s convicts were seen principally as common indentured servants, but thereafter they were assimilated with slaves. Convicts in Virginia lost their rights to freedom dues in 1753” (16). After this time, convicts were not required to be given anything from their masters upon the end of their term, unlike indentured servants. It is hard to believe that the majority of convicts would be given anything upon the end of their service, and it is far more probable that they were simply cut loose and allowed to go their own way. In Moll Flanders, Moll’s mother mentions that the convicts are given a parcel of land to work for themselves upon freedom, and this would probably have held true until the convicts lost their freedom dues. Furthermore, “An act of 1748 prohibited them from giving evidence in court, by analogy with Africans, and another in the following year disqualified them from voting.” (16),

It is also important to note the similarities between slaves and convicts. Obviously both were transported against their will, but the convicts had done something to “deserve” it beyond simply being born of a different race. Convicts, much like slaves, were not able to marry without their masters’ knowledge or consent, and they owned no property. Any money that a convict made while in service was immediately the property of their master, making the convicts themselves more or less legal property, “As a result, when a court ordered that the services be terminated, it often ordered the payment of compensation to the master” (18).

By looking at these facts about the lives of prisoners before and after transportation, many of the questions brought up by Defoe’s statements on American convicts can be analyzed. It is clear that many of the offenses committed were indeed property crimes punishable by death; that until a period of time many years after Moll Flanders takes place, the transported were indeed treated no differently than common servants; and that, again until a period of time after the novel takes place, the criminals could have easily found a way to thrive and become upstanding citizens by receiving their freedom dues. Although things changed for the transported many years after the novel takes place, it is hard to discount Defoe’s assertions for those banished at the time the novel takes place. All evidence however points to America not necessarily being the mythical land of opportunity to convicts because they are still trapped in the very same system that failed them in the first place. While many must have ended up succeeding through hard work, there is absolutely no reason to believe that many did not fall back into their old ways or simply perish due to the harsh conditions of work and life on the frontier.

While it is obvious that many in the colonies took advantage of the transported convicts, there is still the question of how most people in the colonies actually felt about those transported. It is hard to believe that those owning land given by the Crown or purchased with their own money and hard work would just sit back and happily let in the riff-raff of the very society that they had all already left behind. While many of the colonies’ “legislatures tried to restrict transportation, [they] were unsuccessful in the face of the Parliament’s clear intention in its favor under the 1718 Act, and the refusal of royal assent to some of these colonial acts” (Kercher 14).

Despite the Crown ignoring colonial attempts to block transportation, “lawyers, politicians, pamphleteers and colonial commentators were not shy in expressing their views” (Morgan “Petitions” 110). One example of this is Benjamin Franklin, “who advocated exporting rattlesnakes to Mother England, [and] called transportation an ‘insult and contempt, the cruelest perhaps that ever one people offered another” (Ekirch 199). An example outside of the thirteen colonies that would eventually become the United States is from the provincial council of Jamaica who said if “it be prudence in England to banish rogues; it must certainly be prudence here to endeavor to keep them out” (199). Obviously, the recipients of the criminals were far less happy to receive them than the sender was to be rid of them.

The truth behind the value of transportation is a much grayer area than presented in Moll Flanders. While the punishment was certainly beneficial from England and Britain at large, it still merely passed the buck in how to deal with the people to the colonies. Defoe’s assertions do not hold over time, as the convicts’ rights were eventually eroded, and transportation eventually became just another method of punishment in an already overloaded system.

Works Cited

Balak, Benjamin. “The Dismal Science of Punishment: The Legal-Economy of Convict Transportation to the American Colonies.” Journal of Law & Politics Fall (2002): 879-. Drake Memorial Lib., Brockport, NY. 27 Oct 2008 .

Dafoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. Signet Classics, NY. 2005.

Ekirch, A. Roger. “Bound for America: A Profile of British Convicts Transported to the Colonies, 1718-1775.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 42.2 (1985): 184-200. Drake Memorial Lib., Brockport, NY. 10 Oct 2008 .

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings. Penguin Books, 1995.

Gillespie, James Edward. “The Transportation of English Convicts after 1783.” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology 13.3 (1922): 359-81. Drake Memorial Lib., Brockport, NY. 10 Oct 2008 .

Grubb, Farley. “The Market Evaluation of Criminality: Evidence from the Auction of British Convict Labor in America, 1767-1775.” The American Economic Review 91.1 (2001): 295-304. Drake Memorial Lib., Brockport, NY. 27 Oct 2008 .

Grubb, Farley. “The Transatlantic Market for British Convict Labor.” The Journal of Economic History 60.1 (Mar 2000): 94-122. Drake Memorial Lib., Brockport, NY. 1 Dec 2008 .

Kercher, Bruce, Perish or Prosper: The Law and Convict Transportation in the British Empire, 1700-1850. Law and History Review 21.3 (2003): 154 pars. 11 Dec. 2008 .

Morgan, Kenneth. “Petitions against Convict Transportation, 1725-1735.” The English Historical Review 104.410 (1989): 110-13. Drake Memorial Lib., Brockport, NY. 10 Oct 2008 .

Morgan, Kenneth. “The Organization of the Convict Trade to Maryland: Stevenson, Randolph and Cheston, 1768-1775.” The William and Mary Quarterly 42.2 (1985): 201-227. Drake Memorial Lib., Brockport, NY. 10 Oct 2008 .