03/13/07 - exporting criminals

In today's excerpt - Britain exports its criminals:

"Informally, transportation of [British] convicts to the colonies had been going on since the 1600s, though it did not become a formal part of the penal system until 1717. For the next century and a half, the law stated that minor offenders could be transported for seven years instead of being flogged or branded, while men on commuted capital sentences could be transported for fourteen years. By 1777, no fewer than 40,000 men and women from Britain and Ireland had been transported on this basis to the American colonies. ... With the American colonies now lost, somewhere new had to be found to prevent British prisons ... from overflowing with untransportable inmates. ...

"With its weird red earth and its alien flora and fauna—the eucalyptus trees and kangaroos—Australia was the eighteenth century equivalent of Mars. This helps explain why the first official response to the discovery of New South Wales by Captain Cook in 1770 was to identify it as the ideal dumping ground for criminals. ...

"On May 13, 1787, a fleet of eleven ships set sail from Portsmouth, crammed with 548 male and 188 female convicts, ranging from a nine-year-old chimney sweep, John Hudson, who had stolen some clothes and a pistol to an 82-year-old rag-dealer named Dorothy Handland who had been found guilty of perjury. They arrived at Botany Bay, just beyond what is now Sydney harbour, on January 19, 1788, after more than eight months at sea.

"In all, between 1787 and 1853, around 123,000 men and just under 25,000 women were transported on the so-called 'hell ships' to the Antipodes for crimes ranging from forgery to sheep stealing. With them came an unknown number of children, including a substantial number conceived en route. ... At a time when private property was the holiest of holies, British criminal justice routinely convicted people for offences that we today would regard as trivial. Although between half and two-thirds of those transported were 'repeat offenders', nearly all of their crimes were petty thefts. Australia literally started out as a nation of shoplifters."


Niall Ferguson


Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power


Penguin Books, Ltd


Copyright Niall Ferguson, 2002


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