How An Empire Shipped Its Prisoners To America

The British colonies in North America
William Anderson
October 28, 2020

Tens of thousands of Britain's prisoners found their way to colonial America – as a punishment! Between 1700 and 1775, approximately 52,200 convicts came to the colonies, and this history is far too often overlooked.

In the colonies, convict labor was cheaper to purchase than enslaved Africans or indentured servants, though the brutality experienced by Black people was exceptionally horrific in comparison to other exploited labor. Then the Revolutionary War changed it all.

Although Australia is often joked about for being founded as a large penal colony, the only reason the British started shipping prisoners there was because the American Revolutionary War interrupted their operation. There’s a reason they were doing all this.

The British wanted to rid themselves of a convict problem by sending people away! Some returned home later, but many stayed and started new lives in the colonies. So, of course, not all white Americans can claim Mayflower and Pilgrim origins. It’s not that simple.

Whiteness would eventually give all sorts of initially exploited people the ability to improve their status through oppressing Black people, but colonial history is filled with contradictions. Today, Black people are criminalized in a place that once served as a drop off for white criminals Britain wanted to discard!

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