Sending Convicts To Virginia - Matthew Morgan

Transportation of Convicts

The transportation of convicts in England was a simple and cheap way of dealing with criminals in 17th and 18th century English society. The idea was that by forcing convicts out of society, they would be deterred from committing criminal acts. Transported criminals eventually fit into colonial Virginian society as laborers, and they had many of the same rules and legal statuses of indentured servants. Virginia was neither the first, nor the last colony England attempted to force its criminals on, especially after the establishment of penal colonies, such as in Australia. This memoir is of just one of the many convicts sent to Virginia as punishment for their crimes.

The Convict’s Memoir

This document is the convict James Revel’s colorful memoir of being sent to Virginia as a criminal in the mid-to-late 17th century. This memoir eventually became so popular that it kept being printed for over a century, into the late 1700s. This memoir is featured at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, Virginia, alongside a import certificate for a female convict who was brought to Virginia in 1756 from England.

It was pretty common at the time for men and women to write a memoir of their life, including their accomplishments and misfortunes. Often these memoirs included, but were not limited to dates and descriptions of the events of his or her life, and often when these events were interesting enough, they were printed for others to read.

Convict Labor in Virginia

Starting in 1657, England began its organized 14-year process of sending its convicts to the colony of Virginia. This process was quickly ended in 1671, when it was suspended for more than 40 years. Often, when one pictures convict labor societies, most people think of the penal colonies Georgia and eventually 18th-century Australia. However, as early as 1615 the English crown was using convict transportation to Virginia as a punishment for crimes such as robbery and other felonies (Shaw 24). 

Despite the transport and arrival of convicts in Virginia, it was never an actual penal colony, like Georgia and Australia were. In its early years, Virginia had an estimated 500 felons who served as laborers and servants. The transport of convicts to Virginia and other North American colonies only picked up later into the 18th century when more convicts were being transported (Gilliam 181).

The transport of convicts to Virginia, and other English colonies, was primarily voluntary of the convicts. The King of England had no right to force a subject to be banished from the country. In any of the famous historical examples, such as Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke, they are usually cases where the monarch has acted outside the limits of common law (Shaw 21). As a result, to be banished from the country was a choice made by the criminal, as the better option to being put to death.

Being forcibly exiled from England for a crime was usually given as an alternative to being put to death. These crimes usually encompassed those found guilty of “anie robberie or fellonie (wilfull murther, rape, witchcraft, or burglarie only excepted)” (Shaw 25). Therefore, any convict who had committed a smaller crime, outside of serious crimes such as murder and rape, could be sent to Virginia as his or her punishment.

The goal of this punishment was so that prisoners would be deterred from crime and “might be rather corrected than destroyed and that in their punishmentes some may live and yeald a profitable service to the commonwealthe in partes abroad,” as James I’s council put it (Shaw 24).

After deciding to, or being forcibly sentenced to be a laborer in Virginia, criminals fell under the umbrella of greater indentured servitude in Virginia. The only difference, really, was that the criminals went to Virginia as a punishment for a crime they committed, while the other indentured servants were looking to profit and start a new life away from England.

Furthermore, these convicts made up quite a sizable number of the indentured laborer population in colonial Virginia. Unfortunately, rehabilitation through labor in a foreign country did not seem to have much of an effect on them. Exiled convicts were often involved in plots and rebellions in early Virginia society, the most notable of which was Bacon’s rebellion in 1676, an uprising caused by discontent with friendly policies towards Native Americans (Gilliam 181). They were described by other Virginians as “unruly youths, lascivious sonnes, bad servants and ill husbands,” (Shaw 23). It is clear that by sending the convicts to Virginia, all that was accomplished was a continuation of the same habits, but in a different place.

As described by T.H. Breen, the convict labor population was a part of the “Giddy Multitude” in Virginia. This group was also composed of other poor indentured servants, the few free and enslaved blacks in Virginia at the time, and some of the native population. They were often blamed for rebellions and the unsuccessful beginnings of the Virginia colony in its early years (Breen 4-6).

The convict labor population in Virginia was so unappreciated, that there were even attempts to remove them from Virginia entirely. The General Court of Virginia also did their best to prevent ships from landing with any convicts aboard their ships (Gilliam 181). This shows how the criminal population was certainly not considered welcome by the rest of the colonists in Virginia.

As a result of hostilities toward the convict labor population of Virginia, and attempted removals of them, such as the one performed by the General Court of Virginia, few of these convicts were able to make Virginia their permanent home (Gilliam 181). However, even if only a few stayed in Virginia, those convicts nevertheless made an impact on colonial Virginia.

In 1711 the practice of sending convicts to Virginia was resumed. Between 1718 and 1775 approximately 50,000 British convicts were forcibly transported to America. This made up a sizable number of colonists to Virginia, and was only really ended when America declared its independence, and went to war with the British (Grubb 95).

Reasons for Transportation

As previously stated, the key reason for sending convicts to Virginia was their participation in a crime such as robbery. However, the English crown sent convicts to Virginia for a variety of other crimes including treason.

After the English Civil war, Irish prisoners were sent to Virginia under charges of treason (Shaw 24). In this case, criminals were sent to Virginia not because of their actual crime, but because they were considered enemies of the state.

A.G.L Shaw believes the policy of exiling criminals was the result of the combination of two principles. The first being that society should rid itself of troublesome citizens, and the second being they can use those criminals to perform dangerous and unpleasant tasks for the common good (Shaw 24). This is certainly demonstrated in the Virginia colony, where criminals were plucked from England, and forced to do arduous work most men did not want to do.

Indentured servitude of criminals also had economic benefits for the English crown. It cost the government little, the prisoner had to work for the public good, and it punished their criminals in one large package. Therefore the government was able to send laborers to a colony at relatively little expense, and force them to do work many did not want to.

Exile of Convicts, Before and After Virginia

Virginia was not the first place the English tried to dump their convicts on. Early on, it was sometimes customary to banish an individual to Scotland. Also in the early 1600s it became legal to send “incorrigible rogues” to Newfoundland, Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, or the Caribbean. Whether it was as forced labor, or to simply remove a convict from English society, sending criminals to other places was nothing new in England (Shaw 21-23).

Convict labor was also a common practice in the Caribbean. English colonies such as Jamaica and Barbados received quite a few criminal laborers in their early years. In fact, Barbados alone received and employed thousands of prisoners of war between 1649 and 1655. A merchant wrote in 1688 that “the major part of English, Scots and Irish servants at Barbados were men who had been engaged in actual service against the Protector and transported for High Treason,” (Beckles 53).

Just as Virginia was not the first colony to receive English criminals as laborers, it certainly was not the last. Georgia in the American colonies became a large penal colony for the English. And perhaps most famous of all, was the English penal colony in Australia, or as they called it: New South Wales. Colonies in New South Wales were populated by convict laborers beginning in the late 18th century, and ended in the mid 19th century (Shaw 49-78).

As crime became a more serious problem for the United Kingdom, transportation of criminals failed to provide a severe deterrent punishment. This was partly blamed for it’s reliance solely on deterrence as punishment. Penal reformers soon began to stress the importance on evangelical religious training as opposed to deterrence. For these reasons, government opinion slowly began to turn against transportation (Shaw 359-359).

The transportation of convicts ended as a practice altogether in the mid 19th century. The Anti-Transportation League was working very hard to have criminals kept in England, instead of being shipped to Australia and other colonies, more prisons were being built in England to focus on evangelical religious training, and public opinion was against the practice. In 1865 Parliament passed a Prisons Act which announced that transportation would cease after 1867 (Shaw 345-357).

The State of England and its Colonies in the Late 17th Century

Indentured Servitude and the Headright System

Indentured servants were the main force of labor for the Virginia colony in the late 17th century. England had not yet become a major power in the slave trade, and white servitude was their key source of labor. The typical indenture involved a merchant or plantation owner paying the travel expenses involved for a man to travel to Virginia, and that man then repaid his debt by working for a plantation owner for a fixed amount of time; usually seven years.

The headright system of the Virginia Company gave investors land only if they imported labor to work on it (Kupperman 109). Therefore, rich planters and investors were enticed even more to import indentured servants to acquire more land.

Many aspiring travelers, entrepreneurs, and farmers sought their opportunity to work and potentially own land in a new place. People also left England to avoid religious persecution and intolerance. Regardless of whether people were leaving to escape England, or to improve their lives, indentured servitude was an appealing option to many individuals in the colonial period.

Indentured servitude lasted throughout the colonial period in Virginia because it was the cheapest option for labor in the colony. However, beginning in the late 1600s it was slowly starting to be replaced by slave labor. This eventually led to Virginia becoming the slave labor society it was known for being until the American Civil War.

Unlike modern images of indentured servants, it was not a stigma. It was similar to being an apprentice in England, and it was an honorable way to have a new start in a new place (Gilliam 180). Indentured servants were a very necessary part of English colonies becoming financially viable and profitable.

The convict trade was very similar to that of indentured servant trade. Both indentured servants and transported criminals received fixed terms of labor. They could also be sold to the highest bidder amongst private employers. The price gained from the employers would then cover the transportation and all other expenses accumulated in their travel. The convicts and indentured servants often came to the colony on the same ships, and enjoyed pretty much the same legal rights as one another. There were two primary differences between the convicts and indentured servants, however. These were the length of the labor contract, and the size of the shipping subsidy (Grubb 95). 

Population Growth

The 17th century in England was characterized by population growth. Overpopulation meant unemployment, more competition for jobs, lower wages, and less food (Kupperman 108-109). The population of England grew from two-and-half to five million people from 1520-1680. Unfortunately this also meant rising inequality between the classes. The gentlemen which accountedf or 2% of the population, held 65% of the nation’s wealth. This left the lower classes to scramble for whatever scraps they could get.

A growing population also meant more competition for space. By this point England was making a name for itself in the colonizing scene, and with more land available in North America and the Caribbean, it made sense for people to be transported to colonies where there was lots of land, and cheap prices. Population growth also meant a rising crime rate, and if there were more criminals there would be a need for more places to put said criminals.


Though banishment remained a punishment that could not originally be forced, Elizabethan statutes in 1585 and 1593 substituted banishment for martyrdom for Jesuit priests, Popish recusants, and nonconformist secretaries (Shaw 22). 

After Cromwell became Protecter, the Council of State in 1656 ordered the apprehension of “lewd and dangerous persons” to then be transported to English plantations in America (Shaw 24). In fact, a large number of convicts sent to Virginia from 1657 to 1671 were sent there as a result of Cromwell and the Council’s orders.

Finally, the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 legalized the practice of pardoning criminals if they agreed to be transported to the colonies for a set amount of years (Shaw 24). Although this practiced had been going on since the very beginning of the colonization of Virginia, it was now legal.

English Civil War, Interregnum Government, and Oliver Cromwell

From 1642 until 1646 all three kingdoms of Great Britain were involved in a civil war between pro-Parliamentarians, or the Roundheads, and those who supported King Charles I, the Cavaliers. There were a number of causes for the war, which were based around a deteriorating relationship between parliament and the crown. After four years, the English civil war ended with Charles surrendering, and an Interregnum government being established.

The defeat of Charles created problems for a number of people in England, especially those who had supported him during the war. With the king now deposed, many loyalists would have to either embrace the new government, or find somewhere else to live. Growth in colonies such as Virginia, gave some loyalists a place to seek refuge.

After the civil war, the Interregnum began. England now had no king, and was instead run by a Rump Parliament and a Council of State. However, this government soon had issues with an Irish rebellion, and Scottish who were supporting Charles’ son Charles II. The Scots and Irish involved in these rebellions were included amongst the individuals sent to Virginia and elsewhere as criminals convicted of treason. The new government soon proved its ineptness at governing, and Oliver Cromwell became Protectorate from 1653 to 1658. After Cromwell’s death he was replaced by his son, who was asked to abdicate in 1659. Eventually Charles II was crowned King of England.

Though Cromwell had been tolerant of most groups, many minorities had issues under him as well as during the Interregnum. Catholics had a particularly difficult time, as they were the only group Cromwell was not tolerant of, and the Act of Settlement in 1652 reduced Irish ownership of land from 60% to 20%. 

The individuals who suffered both during the civil war and after, often left or fled the United Kingdom, to Virginia. Prisoners of the civil war and the later Irish and Scottish rebellions were often sent to the colonies in North America and the West Indies. And during the Interregnum followers of Cromwell made efforts to empty jails into Virginia (Gilliam 181).

Colonial Competition

With almost a century’s head start, Spain and Portugal were dominating the colonization of the New World in the Americas, as well as trade in important goods such as gold, silver, and even slaves. James I was also having on-again-off-again relations with the Catholic Spanish, which culminated in a war in 1625 (Smith 266-267). This not only meant that England had its fair share of problems with spain, but that it was severely lagging behind in colonization.

Needless to say, England needed to catch up in the colonial race. The English quickly scooped up colonies in the East and West Indies and North America, including the Virginia Colony. However, it was also necessary for them to populate these colonies with settlers. This was done through a variety of ways including propaganda proclaiming that there were riches to be had in the new world, indentured servants, and by sending convicts to work there.


When thinking back on the origins of the British colonies in America, people tend to pay very little attention to the convict populations of Virginia. Most people want to imagine early Virginians as gentlemen and entrepreneurs, not criminals who were forcibly transported to America simply to remove them from British society. Whether Americans like it or not, their founding fathers were not just English gentlemen who were explorers and merchants, but also criminals who had been convicted of robberies and other major crimes. It is therefore important to the history of Virginia as an English colony, to study each type of person who moved to America, as it was a combination of every type of individual which molded Virginia in to what it is today.

Equally important as the impact of transporting criminals to Virginia, is the impact the policy had on the rest of England’s colonies. Many colonies such as Australia, India, and in the East and West Indies received a sizable number of English convicts, sent there as laborers. This policy of transporting criminals was a very important part of the colonization England performed in the 17th and 18th centuries.


 Beckles, Hilary. White Servitude and Black Slavery in Barbados, 1627-1715. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

Breen, T.H. “A Changing Labor Force and Race Relations in Virginia, 1660-1710.” Journal of Social History 7 (1973): 3-25.              

Gilliam, Charles Edgar. “Jail Bird Immigrants to Virginia.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 52 (1944): 180-182. 

Grub, Farley. “The Transatlantic Market for British Convict Labor.” The Journal of Economic History 60 (2000): 94-122. 

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. “The Founding Years of Virginia: And the United States.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 104 (1996): 103-112.

Shaw, A.G.L. Convicts and the Colonies. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1966.

Smith, Lacey Baldwin. This Realm of England 1399-1688. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

Subpages (1): Convict Images