02 September 2005

Transportation to America and the West Indies, 1615-1776

Transportation to America and the West Indies, 1615-1776

Legal Records Information 16

1. What Was Transportation?

Transportation was a system that exiled convicts to the American and West Indian colonies for a period of years.

2. Why Was It Introduced?

Until the Restoration in 1660, the only punishment available for people convicted of treason or felony was, with one exception, the death penalty. The exception was petty larceny for which the punishment was to be whipped. Large numbers of those convicted had their lives saved by a legal fiction called benefit of clergy. This originated in the claims of churchmen to be exempt from the jurisdiction of the king's courts, even if they had been accused of ordinary crimes. Benefit of clergy provided a compromise solution, whereby churchmen were tried in the king's courts but were handed over to the ecclesiastical authorities for punishment. After 1576, those who had successfully claimed benefit of clergy were simply discharged.

As early as the fourteenth century, the king's courts were prepared to accept that any male who could read must be a clergyman. Similar privileges were extended to women during the seventeenth century. Claiming benefit of clergy became something of a formality, and it was often granted to illiterate convicts even before the literacy test was formally abandoned in 1706. Even those who were denied benefit of clergy and were therefore sentenced to death had a good chance of securing a royal pardon - which also meant that they would be discharged without further punishment.

Transportation provided a useful compromise for the authorities ensuring that individuals could be punished without actually killing them.

3. When Was It Introduced?

Although benefit of clergy and unconditional pardons continued to be used, after 1615 it became increasingly common for convicted individuals to be offered a pardon on condition of transportation. After 1718 transportation was to America and was standardised at 14 years for those entitled to conditional pardons. Transportation for 7 years was also introduced as a sentence in its own right for non capital offences.

Transportation to the Americas was ended on the outbreak of the rebellion in 1776.

4. Tracing Named Individuals

Start with the book by Peter Wilson Coldham called The Complete Book of Emigrants in Bondage, 1614-1775 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co. Inc, 1988) which contains an alphabetical list of men and women transported in this period. A copy is available in The National Archives Library. This book will also tell you where your person was tried.

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