The short history of banishment

Even in primitive societies, the threat of exile struck terror into people’s hearts and minds. A savage punishment, it snatched men from their wives and children, so condemning even the innocent who were left behind to a precarious existence. A few who were banished survived the perils of isolation.

A group of men in prison garb with their guards

A group of men in prison garb with their guards

Yet out of this suffering a new world was born. Petty criminals were dispatched in their thousands to America and Australia. Against all odds, some felons became frontiersmen. Responding to the challange of unconquered lands, they stayed, laboured hard and laid the foundations for affuent societies.

In ancient times, exile was much the same as a death sentence – but with an added frisson. The unfortunate victim banished forever from his home and community never new when and how death would occur in the lawless rural outbacks. Lone travellers, universally loathed and distrusted, were easy prey. In Anglo-Saxon times the hunting and killing of those who had been banished was encouraged.

Napoleon's exile to Elba

Napoleon’s exile to Elba

The exile of occasional troublesome sects or hardened convicts seemed too good an idea to waste. In 1579 plans were drawn up in Britain for galley fleets to rid the country of the bulk of its worst criminals. Naval personnel decided that galley should remain the preserve of the French and Spanish, however, and expressed a preference for sails over oar-power.

Within 20 years the first law permitting transportation was confirmed. In the final years of Elizabeth I’s reign, banishment went international. The destination for British convicts was America, discovered by Columbus in the previous century.

African slave labour

African slave labour

From the authorities’ point of view, there was much in favour of transportation. Troublesome criminals were phisically removed from Britain, so safeguarding society. The government was saved the expense of building new prisons to house the expanding convict population. By way of retribution, the convict had to endure an arduous Atlantic crossing, not to mention the back-breaking labours on plantations on his arrival.

Here was an opt-out for the judiciary seeking a suitably stern penalty for those who arguably did not deserve the death penalty. Successive monarchs were delighted. They could magnanimously issue reprieves for those guilty of capital offences, replacing death with transportation, without appearing soft on criminals.

A studio photograph of Tasmanian convict Bill Thompson, 1880s.

A studio photograph of Tasmanian convict Bill Thompson, 1880s.

Yet there was a sizeable body of opposition. Some critics considered it a slight punishment, particularly for those convicts without homes and families. What purpose could this penalty serve when it left the criminal no worse off than he was before? Sometimes felons were hung for offences while others guilty of similar crimes received only transportation orders, so the system seemed bleakly unfair.

Many favoured swapping those due to be transported with the Christian slaves held in North Africa by its Islamic rulers. Others questioned the wisdom of sending Britain’s workers abroad when public works at home could benefit from their labor.

As time went on, the convict could find himself healthier and probably happier being transported than the law-abiding workers he left behind him. His family was cared for by the parish so was in no undue danger. When bigger, faster ships were built to cross the Atlantic, many of the horrors of the voyage were wiped out. Some ministers came to suspect that criminals actively sought the penalty to improve their lives.

Compulsory bath on the ship 'Success'

Compulsory bath on the ship ‘Success’

Transportation was subject to severe disruption durin times of war. The Seven Years War between 1756 and 1763 hampered the exile of hundreds of men and women. Another difficulty proved to be the reluctance of the settlers in America to have hardened criminals on their soil. They were unconvinced as to the quality of the labour. As early as 1723 the burghers of Virginia attempted to stop the transportation of British convicts although the attempt was rejected in London. latter, plantation owners found a much cheaper source of labour, the slaves shipped in from Africa. Even before the War of Independence, which began in 1775, convict labour from Britain was virtualy obsolete.

This sign is fixed to many bridges in Dorset

This sign is fixed to many bridges in Dorset

Transportation timeline

1597 – Transportation begins

1685 – Transportation of convicts to America wanes following hostility from colonialists

1718 – A revival in transportation courtesy of an Act of Parliament

1775 – Transportation to America stopped by War of Independence

1776 – Criminals once liable for transportation given har labour instead

1786 – British government agree to establish a colony at Botany Bay, Australia

1868 – Transportation ends