Criminal Travels in the Regency Era

Patricia Haverton

Some of us dream our entire lives of a journey abroad; a coast somewhere far from home where every day is sunny and untroubled! Uh…

But for certain people in Britain, during the 18th and 19th centuries, this was their worst fear realized. Of course, I am referring to penal transportation that the British Empire imposed on convicted criminals and other people, that were specified as “undesired”. 

Penal transportation was a tactic that the British implemented to exile people that were convicted of a crime. It has its origins in the ancient years and specifically the Hellenistic period of the Roman Empire when undesired individuals were exiled from Rome as a form of punishment. Sometimes, this was even an indirect tactic; they would send officers that were deemed “dangerous” for Rome, to serve in remote provinces. 

The British borrowed quite a few strategies from the Romans (one might also take account of their name “Pax Britannica” which derived from “Pax Romana”). Transportation was a form of punishment as well, imposed by the United Kingdom to convicted criminals and at first, it had a specific term and duration. The time spent abroad had to be equal to their sentence. However, even after serving the years of their sentence, most of the prisoners did not have the financial means to return home, so they stayed in exile for the rest of their lives.

Even though the death penalty was in use, penal transportation was first used for convicted felons whose crimes were not considered so significant to deserve the capital penalty. So exile, in a sense, was a better fate for some! However, legislation concerning crime conviction was changing from year to year, making it difficult to assess a person’s sentence. For example, forgery was considered a serious crime and signified the end of a person’s life. Near the end of the Regency Era, 1820, though, the capital penalty was reduced to transportation for the same felony.

The Status Of The Prisoners

The prisoners were moved to the British colonies, like North America or specifically-made settlements called “penal colonies”, like the ones in Australia (New South Wales) or New Zealand. The latter were custom made establishments constructed to receive such criminals and exploit them in terms of dependent work.

The people arriving in such places were considered to have the status of an indentured laborer. This meant that the subjects were unfree workers bound by a contract to work without pay for a certain period of time. 

This sounds quite fair for someone that has committed a crime, does it not?

However, there is an ugly face as well…

Due to the Industrial Revolution, that started in the middle of the 18th century, people who were deprived of work in the countryside, often decided to move to urban centers for better job opportunities. This resulted in big cities like London being congested and consequently crime rates going extremely high. 

By the time we reach the first years of the 19th century, our very own Regency Era, jails are overflowing, the United States – having gained their independence – refuse to accept more convicts, and there is not enough coin to built new ones. Thus, transportation wasn’t really a favor to the criminals, but a necessity for the British Crown. 

The most horrible part of the story is, though, that most of these convicts were exploited by their “employers” in their new settlements. There are examples of people that were lied to regarding their sentence just to remain in plantations or other businesses as unpaid workers. Allegedly, “letters” would come from the Kingdom, informing the criminal of an increased sentence due to undisclosed reasons. 

Most of these people were illiterate and could neither read the supposed letter nor write in protest. Thus, they remained employed and exploited.

An ugly fate awaited some of the convicts arriving in West Africa. The British Empire, having previously established colonies, protectorates and other forms of rule in the African continent, attempted to direct some of the convict ships there. However, most of the people died due to the hard conditions of living in Africa; convicts and personnel as well, died of disease, starvation, and desertion. The rest of them were exploited by the slave trade and were transported to places like the Caribbean, or the southern states of the USA as slaves.

Imagine one day being a British citizen, and the next a slave! Oh my! 

The Bright Side

After adopting New South Wales as a destination point, some convicts were actually treated humanly and were able to live a better life. In Sydney Cove, Australia, for instance, the convicts were held in “open-air” prisons. They were surrounded by wilderness, outdoors, but within a designated area.

Some of them were offered the opportunity to learn a new skill or sharpen an old one, such as carpentry. However, these offers were influenced by personal gain too, as the skilled convicts were used in building and other labor works in nearby towns. And the hot climate of New South Wales made their exertion even harsher.

Penal transportation was terminated by the Penal Servitude Act of 1856. This brought, though, good news and bad news. The good news was that people stopped being moved overseas as a form of punishment. The bad news was, that unfortunately in most crimes, the penal transportation was yet again replaced by the capital sentence. 

Thank goodness these years are behind us! 

Written by Patricia Haverton

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