Atlantic History Criminal Transportation in the Atlantic World
Nicole K. Dressler, Aaron Spencer Fogleman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0205


For centuries, European states used criminal transportation as a mechanism not only to punish unruly offenders at home, but also to colonize new and distant territories, carry out military service in colonial settlements, and provide the necessary labor for state building in the Atlantic world. In the Americas, Europeans relied heavily on coerced labor from indigenous populations and imported unfree people, largely chattel slaves. Criminal transportation supplemented these efforts by banishing offenders to distant colonies under state supervision. Unlike African slaves whose enslavement became inheritable and perpetual, convicts facilitated colonial expansion by serving a term of service, and transportation also rid the metropole of unwanted elements. Criminal expulsion had its legal origins in Roman law, and major Western powers in Europe turned the process of banishment into a significant transportation system, one that allowed courts to deport criminals, rogues, vagrants, harlots, and military and political offenders deemed undesirable. The Portuguese shipped degredados (male criminals) to its Atlantic islands, including São Tomé, Príncipe, and São Martinho, as well as to its North African forts as early as the 15th century, and in the following century, authorities began deporting transportees to Brazil. The Portuguese abolished the imperial traffic in 1954, which made it the longest lived of the Atlantic criminal transportation systems. Out of all the European imperial powers, it is likely the British crown sent the highest number of convicts to its Atlantic colonies during the Early Modern period. Beginning in 1615, James I permitted judges to banish criminals to service the empire across the Atlantic. With the Transportation Act of 1718, the Crown used private companies to ship more than fifty thousand felons across the ocean, many of whom served as convict servants. The French also sent convicts to help colonize their New World in the 17th and 18th centuries, including the West Indies, Louisiana, and Canada, where they worked as laborers, soldiers, or in the galleys. In the 19th century, the French transformed French Guiana into a penal colony, which operated until the mid-20th century. Spain also used convicts in the North African presidios—fortified bases—in the Early Modern period. In the Americas, particularly in the second half of the 18th century, Spanish authorities deported offenders largely to work in Caribbean ports and fortresses. The system of transportation reflected shifting notions of state power, as contemporaries contested its legal and economic mechanisms as well as its moral and redemptive features for their societies and the convicts themselves. Newer scholarship seeks to expand our understanding of crime and punishment, penal reform, labor, imperial development, and associated cultural developments in an interconnected Atlantic world.

General Overviews

Most scholarship on criminal transportation in the Atlantic world focuses on the British system, largely because of its scale and extant primary-source base. Although dated, Smith 1947, a classic monograph on indentured and convict servants in colonial America, is a foundational work that prompted new questions and debates regarding the systems. Ekirch 1987 offers an excellent overview of British convict transportation to 18th-century America and remains a leading authority on the subject. Christopher 2011 explores Britain’s disastrous convict experiment in West Africa, which contributed to the decision to use Australia as a penal colony. Scholars still know little about how other imperial transportation systems operated, but a few vital works are changing this situation. Pike 1983 is still the most widely cited book on Spanish criminal transportation. Coates 2001 is the first of its kind, impressively showing readers how the Portuguese used the system of transportation as a mechanism of forced colonization. Toth 2006 offers a vivid account with important insight into the operations of and debates regarding France’s bagnes—the term used for the penal colonies in French Guiana and New Caledonia. More recently, historians have used a global approach to better understand criminal transportation systems and penal labor. Employing a global and comparative perspective, de Vito and Lichtenstein 2015 brings together scholarship focused on criminal transportation and labor that spans both space and time, showing the interconnectedness of penal labor and state power. The Carceral Archipelago is a digital project that also takes a global approach and offers essays and additional primary and secondary sources respective to geographical context.

  • Carceral Archipelago: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415–1960.

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    This project focuses on global convict transportation and penal colonies. It contains statistical information and essays on penal development supported by a user-friendly interface—a great introductory resource for researchers interested in learning more about criminal transportation histories.

  • Christopher, Emma. A Merciless Place: The Fate of Britain’s Convicts after the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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    This book presents a well-documented account of the British convict experiment in West Africa after the American Revolution and before Australia became a penal colony.

  • Coates, Timothy J. Convicts and Orphans: Forced and State-Sponsored Colonizers in the Portuguese Empire, 1550–1755. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

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    Examines the neglected subject of Portugal’s transportation system of criminals and other undesirables, focusing largely on its Asian colonies, although it also gives attention to those shipped to Africa and Brazil.

  • de Vito, Christian Giuseppe, and Alex Lichtenstein, eds. Global Convict Labour. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic, 2015.

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    This pioneering collection brings together essays centering on convict labor from classical Antiquity to the 20th century in different regions throughout the world and includes a section on historicizing convict labor.

  • Ekirch, A. Roger. Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718–1775. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

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    This influential work on the British convict trade focuses on the social and legal changes to the system of transportation, the conditions of convict servitude, and convict assimilation in the North American colonies.

  • Pike, Ruth. Penal Servitude in Early Modern Spain. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

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    This is the first full-length study and one of the most important works on Spanish penal servitude. It gives attention to the presidio sentence, in which convicts were sentenced to military service or hard labor in North Africa or Spanish America.

  • Smith, Abbot Emerson. Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607–1776. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1947.

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    This dated but still-respected study traces the social, economic, and legal conditions regarding servants, including recruitment patterns, transportation methods, and working cultures.

  • Toth, Stephen A. Beyond Papillon: The French Overseas Penal Colonies, 1854–1952. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

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    The work offers a social, cultural, and intellectual analysis of the French penal colonies—the bagnes—of French Guiana and New Caledonia. It covers the institutional practices and shifting cultural representations thereof.

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