Let’s turn to a little background on the subject of penal transportation. It is a subject that will soon come to play a major role in our History of Australia journey. Let’s turn to England in the late 16th and 17th Century…
In 1600 the population of England and Wales is growing along with the port of London and London itself, the latter reaching a population of half a million towards the end of the 1600’s. The English nation, as it moves from Elizabethan times, is also becoming wealthier with the advent of improved trade and the establishment of new industries.
However, beneath this economic success, there are social tensions. England at this time is a land of “haves”, and “have nots”. The “have nots”, or poor account for some fifty percent of the population (for example, the latter were unable to afford to eat meat more than once per week). It was an issue that parliament sought to address in the latter part of the 16th century.
In 1601 the first overseers of the poor is appointed by Parliament as a part of a series of Poor Laws. The 1601 Act creates a national requirement for compulsory local taxes to fund support of the poor. Although support was a little different in those days. Help typically came in two completely different ways – for the infirmed and deserving unemployed, daily support in the form of food, while for the vagrant a good whipping or incarceration in a local correctional institution was provided.
These local correctional institutions were quite new at the time, established only some 25 years prior by the first of the Poor Laws. These so called correctional institutions were established under local Justices of the Peace specifically so that able body vagrants, harlots and the like might be removed from the streets and “corrected in their habits by laborious discipline”. These institutions could be described as the for-runners of today’s prisons, with the exception that they were not run by the state at this time. They were (under) funded via local taxation, and, as we know today, were often poorly run.
Without digressing too far, the rise of the visible and vagrant poor had a number of causes. Major events like Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monastery’s in the 1530′s (monastery’s did much to support the poor in local communities), the breakdown of the hierarchical feudal system which supported the peasant classes, along with Land Enclosure Laws designed to support such things as sheep grazing all contributed to a rise in the number of poor, and particularly the visible urban poor.
It is also interesting to note that before this time sanctions or punishments for crimes were generally public events; such as a community hanging or a good public flogging. A correctional facility was generally only for holding people prior to their public sanction, rather than being a punishment in itself (an exception to this were those held for outstanding debts; they had to pay there own board and lodgings). It is around this time that Thomas More writes his book Utopia and first suggests imprisonment as a punishment and alternative to death via execution (and thieves be reduced to the status of a slave).
But back to our journey of discovery which is in the vicinity of 1620.
Countries such as Portugal, Spain, and France had all used criminals and vagrants to help populate their colonies in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the idea was taken up by the writer and explorer Richard Hakluyt in a treatise he laid before Queen Elizabeth I in 1584. Hakluyt argued that the Crown should support populating vacant parts of North America with the English race.
Up until this time (and going forward for quite a while) there were really only two sentencing options available for capital crimes. A first time offender could receive the “Benefit of the Clergy” and be released back into society, or alternately, death. However, a new statute of 1584 opened up another option of deportation (although not forced labour at that time).
Soon after, over in North America, Virginia found itself struggling in its endeavours to exploit the land and realise its abundant commercial opportunities (we should never underestimate the power of “commercial opportunity” to influence the law at this time). In 1611 there was a request from Governor Dale to King James I for convicts sentenced to die to be shipped to his colony. Able men were needed. Finally on January 23, 1615, the Privy Council issued a warrant that enacted a forced labour option (in the colonies) as a punishment for those found idle or committed mis-demeanours.
So here in 1615 we have the creation of a formal system of transporting convicts to overseas colonies, basically by granting them a reprieve on the condition that felons remove themselves to one of the colonies. The concept of a reprieve was to get around the common law of the Habeas Corpus Act which made outright sentencing of transportation illegal at that time, but not the act of providing a pardon based on the accused removing themselves from the country.
And as brutal as transportation sounds, it must be said, it was often the chosen alternative over execution, and generally undertaken at the cost of the convict (or the shipowner). On the other hand, as we shall see, often the crime did not match the punishment.
The penal system as it evolved required convicts to work on government projects, or they were provided as unpaid labor to local colonists. In Virginia convicts were sold to private individuals, basically as slaves, or at least to work along side slaves.
The practice of transportation to North America continued until the War of Independence with the number of convicts transported during this time estimated to be up to 50,000 people…
So over the 17th century the English became increasingly well practiced at the art of penal transportation. And it will not be long until they turn their eyes and expertise to a new penal opportunity, deep in the southern oceans…