On this date in 1783, six men were hanged at Tyburn for “returning before expiry” from convict transportation.
This was a neat little euphemism covering a very desperate act at the sundering of the American colonies from their mother country.
We’ve previously covered in these pages the underappreciated extent of convict transportation from the British Isles in populating the future United States. Anthony Vaver, who blogs at Early American Crime, in his recent book Bound With An Iron Chain pegs convicts as the second-largest bloc of American “immigrants,” (after African slaves) to the tune of 50,000 souls in the 18th century.
The American Revolution put a halt to that human traffic.
In time, London would transition to dumping its criminal cargo on Australia.
But at the moment the colonies broke free, the Down Under wasn’t yet fulfilling that role, and policymakers faced a conundrum. The judicial machinery continued to sentence thieves to transportation; without an outlet, those unfortunates accumulated cheek to jowl aboard stinking prison hulks on the Thames.
What to do? In 1785, a Parliamentary committee looked back wistfully on the good old days:
That the old system of transporting to America answered every good purpose that could be expected from it; that it tended directly to reclaim the objects on which it was inflicted, and to render them good citizens; that the climate being temperate, and the means of gaining a livelihood easy, it was safe to entrust country magistrates with the discretionary power of inflicting it … that it tended to break, in their infancy, those gangs and combinations which have since proved so injurious to the community; that it was not attended with much expense to the public …
(cited in Botany Bay: The Real Story)
Well, it so happened that this effective and affordable solution, though interrupted by war, was not legally barred in the new United States.
So Britain did what any cost-conscious imperial power would do: sent out a ship with some convicts to see if they couldn’t still be gifted to labor-hungry America. “Perhaps a greater insult to any Nation could hardly have been offered,” griped one Founding Father afterwards.
We hear that one of the respited capital convicts, who received sentence of transportation at the adjourned session at the Old Bailey, told the Recorder, in his own name and those of his companions, that they did not esteem the being pardoned, on condition of transportation to Africa, as an act of mercy, but had much rather be hanged at home; and that they were determined to endeavour to sink either the lighter which is to convey them to Gravesend (to which place they are to be guarded by 30 of the militia) or the ship which is to carry them over.
Alright, America. You don’t have to be that way about it.
The ship detailed for this insulting mission was the Swift, and its passage was troubled long before it sighted the Chesapeake. The “cargo” of the Swift mutinied and ran the ship aground in England.
Thirty-nine escapees were recaptured and most sentenced once again to transportation, but six swung at Tyburn on this date. They really were at the end of an era, and not only of North American convict transportation: Tyburn itself hosted its last public execution just a few weeks later.
Nothing daunted, the owners of the Swift reassembled a slate of captives and made another run, reaching Annapolis, Md. on Christmas eve: fortuitous timing, because irritated state legislators weren’t in session and therefore couldn’t block the ship’s unwanted merchandising. The problem was, it was little better wanted by its intended market. According to Vaver, “[o]nly 30 of those on board were sold by mid-January … [the shippers] managed to sell most of the convicts by the spring, but they incurred serious losses after having to provide food, clothing, and medicine for those who languished on board the ship until they could be unloaded.”
They were the last British convicts sold in her rebellious colonies. One last ship made another voyage in 1784 and was turned away flat by every U.S. port, finally managing to offload in British Honduras.