Sailing Away: Exiled Convicts

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Sometimes criminals and debtors weren’t simply sent to prison—they were shipped to another continent. Britain began exiling convicts to the Americas, including Virginia and Maryland, in the 1700s. James Oglethorpe advocated the establishment of a colony, which in 1732 became Georgia, as an alternative to the teeming debtors’ prisons of England. Though promoted as a destination for the “worthy poor,” Georgia was never exclusively a penal colony.
Historian Peter Wilson Coldham puts the total number of convicts conveyed from the British Isles to America at almost 50,000, which would represent as much as one-quarter of all 18th-century British emigration. France also shipped some of its convicts abroad to its territory in Louisiana.
Coldham’s listing of convicts sent to the Colonies, collected as British Emigrants in Bondage, 1614 to 1788, has been reproduced on a CD (Genealogical Publishing). For background, you can also consult Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718 to 1775 by A. Roger Ekirch (Clarendon). See our article on for more on tracing British convicts.
“Transported” convicts in the Colonies were little different from slaves, assigned to work without wages for a master for a term of seven or 14 years. During that time, they couldn’t marry or own land. They often ran away, so you might find a convict ancestor in newspaper runaway advertisements of the period. When their bondage term was done, the convicts were simply released to make their own way, without receiving the “freedom dues” paid to indentured servants.
Britain’s prisons grew ever more crowded after American independence shut off its prisoner dumping ground. Old ships—called “the hulks”—were converted into floating prisons, moored along the coast. But Capt. James Cook, in 1770, had already discovered a possible solution when he mapped New South Wales and claimed Australia for Great Britain. In 1787, the First Fleet set sail from England for the new penal colony. By the end of “transportation” in 1857, roughly 40 percent of the English-speaking population of Australia consisted of transported convicts. has four online collections of Australian convict registers, divided by time period. You also can consult an 1828 census of New South Wales and three convict lists/musters, which include Tasmania, all searchable on The UK national archives has an online database of Irish convicts transported to Australia. See Convict Central for more resources.
From the November 2009 Family Tree Magazine