Although Queen Elizabeth I of England introduced the notion of punishing criminals by sending
them to another country as early as 1619, the term transportation seems to have come into vogue
around 1680 during Charles II's reign. It was intended to be an alternative to execution and it
became a formal concept in 1717 with George III's 'Transportation Act'. It was refined even more
in 1767 when a 14 year sentence was added to it. At the time, judges could hand down a death
sentence but could recommend mercy and if the King agreed, it could be commuted to
transportation. Interestingly, it is said that in 1788 there were 160 crimes that were
punishable by hanging in England. They included stealing sheep, cattle, clothes and goods worth
£2 or more.
A person sentenced to transportation was handed over to the master of a ship which was leaving
Britain and generally they were sold into slavery at the other end of the voyage. American
colonies were the main recipients and by 1770, around 1000 convicts were being sent to America
each year - most to work on plantations in Virginia and Maryland. With the outbreak of the
American Revolution in 1775, transportation came to an abrupt halt as British ships were turned
away from American shores.
Charles Bateson's "The Convict Ships 1787-1868" is regarded as the definitive guide to
Australia's period of transportation. Information is given about voyages to New South Wales,
Tasmania, Norfolk Island and Western Australia and accounts range from the life on board for
both crew and convict right through to records of deaths, numbers of convicts, and the length of
each voyage. A comprehensive series of lists that Bateson referred to are presented on our
convict shipping pages.
Ship naming patterns
One thing that confuses many researchers is the naming of the convict transports. A system
adopted by Charles Bateson is in common use today and makes provision for the multiple voyages
made by some ships, the use of different ships with the same name, and the changing description
of some ships after they underwent a refit. The shipping lists on the shipping pages describe
when the ships were built and where, their size and their type.
Name-wise, the Roman Numeral after the ship's name describes the individual ship, while the
number in brackets describes which voyage the ship was making. As an example, three different
ships called 'Mary' were sent to Australia with convicts and although the first two vessels only
made one voyage each, the last one made five. In some cases, extra confusion arises when two
ships with the same name were in active service at the same time.
Another point of confusion that often arises with convict voyages is the route they took. The
convict shipping lists indicate if a ship travelled via other ports. That was especially so in
the early days when ships were smaller and took longer and had to put in for supplies and
repairs along the way. In later years, after other Australian settlements had been established,
the transports often stopped at more than one destination to land convicts. From England the
transports may have stopped off at Gibraltar, a port in the West Indies, South America, the Cape
of Good Hope, and any one of the Australian penal settlements.