Scottish convict transportation to North America

While the majority of Scots in Australia in the first decades of European settlement after 1788 were convicts, penal transportation from Scotland had begun many decades before Britain’s pivot to the Antipodes. Indeed, from 1700 to 1775, 10 per cent of migrants to the American colonies were convicts, along with 18 per cent who were indentured servants, and 47 per cent who were slaves; just 26 per cent of those who arrived in North America in those years were free migrants.

Early Transportation from Scotland

Authorities in Scotland began sentencing felons to transportation and exile as early as the middle of the seventeenth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century, ‘banishment’ had become a central punishment in Scotland’s penal code; one commentator observed in 1767, “It came by degrees to be considered as one of the ordinary and established punishments of our Law.”

Nevertheless, very few courts had the power to sentence a criminal to deportation. One such court was the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh. Between 1718 and 1775, the court prosecuted 395 people. Nearly one-half of these were sentenced to transportation to North America, only 93 received the death penalty, 54 were simply banished from Britain or a smaller region, and the remainder were given punishments such as whipping and imprisonment.

Overall, the best estimates indicate Scottish courts transported somewhere between seven- and eight-hundred Scots out of Britain to North America up until 1775.

Paying Their Own Way

Throughout the eighteenth century, unlike England, Scotland did not contract the transportation of its convicts to merchants, who would subsequently sell them as servants in the colonies. The arrangements for transportation in Scotland were much more decentralised because of both the small number of convicts and the government’s reluctance to subsidise their transportation.

Most convicts would be confined while they made private bargains for a passage to North America. In Edinburgh, Alexander Karr was remanded in 1764 until “any merchant Shipmaster or other person” who was able to “find Sufficient Caution and Surety” agreed to “transport and land him” in one of “his majesty’s plantations.”

In addition to this, if prisoners were not wealthy enough to pay for the passage to North America, shipmasters were usually in a position to force them to sign servant indentures. Furthermore, the departure of private ships to America from Scotland was sporadic, and convicts could be confined in prison for months or years until they could strike a deal with a willing captain.

Women and the elderly faced unique hardships in trying to find a passage because they were not considered to be as valuable as young men who were more marketable in the North American colonies where skilled and heavy labour were in demand.

Selling Convicts To North America

Noting that the “effectual transportation of offenders” from Scotland had been “often disappointed” so far, in 1766 the British Parliament extended the provisions of the Transportation Act of 1718 to Scotland.  This required Scottish courts to consign convicts and transports to specialised contractors who, like those from England, would recoup their expenses by selling the convicts as servants in the colonies.

The system was gradually centralised and, by 1771, Glasgow trader Patrick Colquhound had been contracted to arrange for the transportation of all of Scotland’s convicts, which he did until the outbreak of the American Revolution.

The British system of transportation was intricately linked to labour demands in America, where a private market existed for indentured labour; the market model of transportation was so effective that a Treasury subsidy to merchants was removed in 1772.

In effect, as well as to create a deterrent for crime, the British government was using the market for labour and servants in North America to dispose of convicts at a cheap and efficient rate. Unlike convicts transported to Australia, those transported to North America were sold as labourers to private individuals, often as field hands alongside slaves.

The extension of the Transportation Act to Scotland in 1766 brought Scottish practices in line with those of Britain. Although the British parliament subsequently repealed the Act in 1773, Patrick Colquhound retained all contracts to manage the transportation of Scottish convicts until the American Revolution broke out in 1775.

Convicts from Britain, as we know, were then sent in their droves to Australia when it became apparent that the American colonies would no longer take British felons. While Scotland sent perhaps 800 convicts to North America in the eighteenth century, ten times as many were sent to Australia after 1788.

Hidden Histories

Although we know all about convicts in Australia, the criminal side of early colonial history in America is not as widely known. Convict merchants and plantation owners in North America benefited greatly from the British transportation system, while the British government itself was able to sell its unwanted felons at a good price and ease pressures on goals at the same time.

Convicts themselves sometimes prospered in the new country, but many died on the voyage to North America, and many who made it that far were mistreated by their masters.  In any case, most Scottish convicts to both North America and Australia were petty thieves, driven to crime out of desperation, and their skills and labour were integral to the early development of both societies.

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One comment

  1. My Scotts came to East Jersey (New Jersey) in 1685 with 1700 other prisoners from Edinburgh’s Canongate Tolbooth Prison.

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