Average Duration of British Transportation Sentences

face of a prisoner

Transportation sentence lengths varied from 7 years to life. Under the Transportation Act of 1718, persons convicted of felonies subject to the benefit of clergy could be sentenced to seven years’ transportation. Persons sentenced to death could receive a royal pardon with a sentence of transportation for fourteen years or life.^

While most convicts transported from Britain to American and Australia did not return, transportation sentence lengths mattered. Many convicts transported to American and Australia worked under non-voluntary contracts or penal servitude until they were able to escape, buy their freedom, or their sentence expired. Under the Transportation Act of 1718, convicts who returned to Britain before their sentences expired were subject to capital punishment. After their terms of transportation expired, convicts legally had the same freedom of movement and freedom of personal relations that voluntary migrants did.

While transportation sentence length would reasonably be expected to correlate positively with convict worker value, transportation sentence length statistically had little correlation with convict sale prices at auctions for a small sample of American convict workers. Grubb (2001) interprets its statistical analysis to imply that longer transport terms signaled greater criminality and worse worker value. Alternatively, statistical mis-specification in its non-linear equation incorporating 59 variables (with sample size 438) could easily obscure the economic relationship between convict worker value and transportation term length.

Convicts had about 35 years of expected life remaining at the average age at which they were transported. Among a large, representative sample of convicts transported to Australia, the mean ages of male and female transported convicts were 25.7 and 27.1 years of age, respective.^. A different sample of female English-born transported convicts found an average age of 26.2 years.^ Using English life table figures for 1841-49, these ages imply that a life sentence covered on average 35 years of remaining life for both male and female convicts. Hence a transportation for life can be reasonably weighed as a sentence to transportation for 35 years.

The meager available evidence on the terms of convicts transported to American indicates an average transportation term of about 9 years. Among 404 convicts transported to Baltimore, 1767-1775, 73%, 25% and 2% of convicts received sentences of 7 years, 14 years, and life, respectively.^ Using 35 years as the length of transportation for life, the average sentence length for the Baltimore convicts was 9.2 years. The sex of 79% of the convicts could be identified. The estimated average transportation sentence length for the males and females was 9.4 years and 8.2 years, respectively.

Convicts transported to Australia provide better evidence on transportation terms. Among a representative sample of about 6000 males transported to Australia from 1787 to 1867, 51% were transported for 7 years and 27% for life. Among a corresponding sample of about 1200 females, 74% were transported for 7 years and 8% for life. Other sentence durations accounted for the rest of the sentences. Using 35 years for life sentences, the average transportation sentence for males and females transported to Australia was 15.8 years and 10.1 years, respectively. Term lengths in comprehensive transportation statistics for 1787-1809 (about 9000 convicts) show average terms of 15.1 years for males and 10.6 years for females. Both sets of figures together suggest that the average term for convicts transported to Australia changed little from 1787 to the ending of transportation in 1867.

The average term of convicts sentenced to transportation are plausibly shorter than the average term of convicts actually transported. Sentences of transportation for 7 years were for capital offenses of types for which the defendant was permitted to plead the benefit of clergy. That benefit allowed transportation, flogging, or branding as an alternative to hanging. A reprieve from transportation would be a well-established punishment of flogging or branding. Transportation for longer periods was an act of Crown mercy as the sole alternative to hanging. An avenue for reprieve from those longer terms of transportation was not well-established. The average transportation sentence for convicts sentenced to transportation, 1839-1843, was 11.0 years. That figure is consistent with convicts sentenced to transportation for 7 years being more likely to get a reprieve from actually being transported.

The average term of convicts transported to America probably didn’t differ much from the average term of convicts transported to Australia. Judges’ sentencing behavior tends to be customary and inertial. The historical record provides no indication of a significant change in judges’ transportation sentencing between transportation to American and transportation to Australia. Australia’s greater distance might reasonably be considered to imply greater severity of punishment and lesser probability of return, and hence lesser need for longer transportation sentences. Convict transportation to America occurred through commercial shipping, while convict transportation to Australia was a British government enterprise. The meager available data indicates that transportation sentence had little effect on the value of convicts to shippers.^ Given the much better direct evidence for transportation terms among convicts transported to Australia, that evidence should weigh strongly in estimating probable average terms of transportation to America.

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