Convict Labor Systems

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CONVICT LABOR SYSTEMS. In 1718 the British government decided that "transportation," the banishing of convicts to work in the colonies, created a more effective deterrent to recidivism than the standard punishments of whipping and branding. This change in policy was favored because of high demand for labor in the colonies, and because facilities for long-term imprisonment were lacking. Between 1718 and 1775, approximately 50,000 British convicts were sentenced to long-term labor contracts, transported to America, and sold to private employers. They represented a quarter of all British and half of all English arrivals to British North America in this period. Most were convicted of some form of property crime, including horse and sheep stealing. While transported convicts were predominantly English and male, approximately 13 to 23 percent were Irish and 10 to 15 percent were female.

Convict transportees were given one of three possible sentences—namely seven years, fourteen years, or a lifetime of banishment—that became the length of their labor contracts. Among those transported, 74 percent had seven-year sentences, 24 percent had fourteen-year sentences, and 2 percent had life sentences. Once convicts had served their sentences (contracts), they were free to return to Britain or to stay in America. The number who eventually returned to Britain is unknown. Convicts caught returning to Britain before completing their sentences were hanged.

To minimize the cost of transportation, the British government channeled convicts through the existing transatlantic market for voluntary servant labor, which served those who wanted to emigrate but lacked sufficient cash to pay the cost of passage. Emigrants could secure passage to the colonies of their choice by negotiating long-term labor (servant) contracts that they would fulfill in America as payment for their passage. The typical voluntary servant negotiated a four-year contract. By contrast, British courts fixed the length of convict labor contracts and turned the convicts over to private shippers who would transport and dispose of the convicts for profit in the colonies chosen by the shippers. The typical convict was sentenced to a seven-year contract. Colonists mockingly referred to arriving convicts as "His Majesty's seven-year passengers."

Shippers carried both voluntary and convict servants, and upon arrival auctioned both to the private employers who bid the highest. The monies received defrayed the shippers' transportation expenses. By law, shippers had to show employers the conviction papers that stated each convict's sentence and crime. While convicts sold for higher prices than voluntary servants, on average for 11 versus 8.5 pounds sterling, in most cases profits from shipping convicts did not exceed what was earned shipping other immigrants. The higher sale price was matched by the higher costs involved in chaining convicts during shipment and paying delivery fees to county jailers in England, who played one shipper off another. The British government subsidized one shipper in the London market and he was the only one to realize excess profits on transporting convicts—at least before factoring in the cost of political bribes.

The vast majority of convicts were landed in Virginia and Maryland, and were employed in agriculture or at iron forges, often alongside slaves and other servants. Post-auction, with the exception of having a longer contract, convicts were largely indistinguishable from voluntary servants. A convict lived in the employer's house and ate at the employer's table. Criminal conviction, however, carried a stigma for which employers demanded compensation, in the form of price discounts received from shippers in the convict auction relative to what was paid to shippers for comparable voluntary servant labor. Per year of labor, the typical convict sold for a 21 percent discount, and convicts guilty of crimes that signaled greater destructive potential or professional criminality, for example arsonists or receivers of stolen goods, sold for even greater discounts. Convicts also ran away from their employers more often than did voluntary servants, at a rate of 16 versus 6 percent.

Convict sentences were not rigidly tied to particular crimes. For example, highway robbers received either seven-year, fourteen-year, or life sentences (38, 50, and 12 percent, respectively). Per given crime, a fourteen-year versus a seven-year sentence signaled the British courts' perception of the severity of the harm inflicted by, and

the incorrigibility of, the convict. American employers responded to this information by demanding greater discounts. Per year of labor, convicts sentenced to fourteen years and to life, as opposed to seven years, for the same crime, sold for an additional 48 and 68 percent discount, respectively. Employers also paid premiums or received discounts for certain convict attributes. For example, convicts who were significantly taller than average sold for a 20 percent premium, and female convicts who had venereal disease (8 percent of the females) sold for 19 percent less than females without disease.

While individual colonies tried to legally prevent convict labor from being imported, the British government disallowed such laws. However, with independence, the United States legally stopped convict importation. The resulting penal crisis in Britain was solved by shifting convict transportation to Australia in 1788. Australia eventually received more than three times as many convicts as colonial America.


Coldham, Peter Wilson. Emigrants in Chains: A Social History of Forced Emigration to the Americas of Felons, Destitute Children, Political and Religious Non-Conformists, Vagabonds, Beggars, and Other Undesirables, 1607–1776. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1992.

Ekirch, A. Roger. Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718–1775. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Grubb, Farley. "The Transatlantic Market for British Convict Labor." Journal of Economic History 60, no. 1 (March 2000): 94–122.

———. "The Market Evaluation of Criminality: Evidence from the Auction of British Convict Labor in America, 1767–1775." American Economic Review 91, no. 1 (March 2001): 295–304.

Smith, Abbot Emerson. Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607–1776. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2000.


See alsoIndentured Servants .