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 Research Guide > Transportation > Next: Life at Sea

Research Guide

Includes:
Ship Naming Patterns
Shipping
Routes

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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.

Shipping Routes
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.
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