My thanks to Yale University Press, London and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.

Condemned is an account, as its subtitle pretty much reveals, of the men, women and children who were ‘transported’ in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries (also of ‘migrant’ children sent ostensibly for better opportunities in life even in the 20th century) to different parts of the British Empire–mostly to the colonies, from the Americas to Bermuda, the Straits to Africa, Australia and the Andamans. The transports were not merely convicts or criminals (including juveniles) but also indentured servants, dissidents, political prisoners, indigenous people who revolted, and victims of kidnapping. The author puts together a fairly detailed picture of the system, and more so of the lives of the transports. For this he has relied on letters and documents, mostly first-hand accounts of their experiences, but also official records. Seal’s well-researched account is of course of the cruelties and ruthlessness of the system which many hundreds of thousands had to endure but more so of the people themselves—some who found no escape but also many daring and enterprising people who not only survived the system, but found their way around it, and even prospered.  

Transportation was relied on initially by the British to reduce the pressure on the country’s prisons and also to rid themselves of unwanted elements. After suffering what was almost always an unendurable journey (hundreds shoved below deck, mostly in chains, little food and water, no place to even lie down—resulting in disease and/or death for many), the transports found themselves, depending on the place where they were sent, either ‘sold’ to masters under whom they would serve their terms as slaves or indentured servants or having to serve out their sentences through hard labour enforced by those in charge of the colony/settlement. Purposes and the nature of work varied; while in the American colonies, the transports were ‘sold’ as labour and servants, in Australia they were used to build the colony.  A lucky few (at least of those sent to America) who had the means could buy their way out of having to serve, and lead a tolerable, even happy existence so long as they stayed away from England for the duration of their transportation. Among these was one of my favourite instances in the book–Henry Justice a well-to-do barrister, convicted for the theft of sixty rare volumes from the Cambridge University Library, who used his wealth to buy his freedom and ended his life surrounded by an extensive library!

For the others, the period of their service was hard, in many cases brutal—from being denied proper food and clothing to being subjected to floggings and other punishments for the most minor of offences, the worst instances being in some Australian penal colonies. One can’t but shudder reading or thinking about it, and yet thousands underwent this and many survived to tell their tale. There were some who didn’t have as bad a time if their ‘masters’ or the governors in charge happened to be kinder hearted, but most had to.

There were escape attempts of course, and mutinies on board ships—some succeeded but most escapees and mutineers were recovered and either sent to the gallows or in most cases re-transported to serve out the rest of (and perhaps, added) their sentences. For some, conditions were so insufferable, that they either committed crimes so as to be hung or even killed one another only to escape their fate. But many survived the brutality for years like Thomas Brooks, who after several failed escape attempts and twenty-seven years as a slave during which he bore floggings and punishments untold, managed to live on to old age and spend his last few years in relative contentment. Deviant soldier Michael Keane bore many thousands of lashes over the years, frequently delivered (though he did serve in battles and was injured as well), but emerged unbroken in spirit. Some others simply served their time, and went on to build lives for themselves in the places they were sent to.

While the system and its effects were unspeakably cruel, there were many who thrived in it as well—and I am not speaking here only of the traders who profited by transportation or the ‘spirits’ who kidnapped victims (children and adults) for this same purpose for there were many colourful characters in Seal’s accounts who made the best of their situation. There were conmen and women among the transports; among these was Mary Carleton who married men and disappeared with their wealth, using her silver tongue to gain at least one acquittal. Another such, Sarah Wilson convinced many a South Carolinan that she was Queen Charlotte (George III’s wife)’s sister; and even after she was found out, she managed to escape and lead a fairly respectable life. Another Sarah, Sarah Bird, in Australia was no con but an entrepreneur who set up the first legal pub in Australia (and whose daughter went on to be the first female press proprietor), and who despite a bad marriage ended her life in prosperity.

Some of the transports were the real-life inspirations behind many a literary character, like John Coad, an otherwise god-fearing man who had the misfortune to be part of the Monmouth revolution (to replace James II) and who eventually found his way back home (after serving with a kinder master); Coad inspired Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood, while Moll King, flamboyant and notorious was the real ‘Moll Flanders’; Dickens’ Artful Dodger too may have had a real-life parallel in Samuel Holmes (transported to Australia in 1836).

Some colonies like the Bermudas saw criminal activities continue to thrive while others had rumoured secret gangs/societies (complete with gruesome rituals). Many of the transports (political prisoners among them) even inspired ballads and poems, some surviving centuries after and thousands of miles away from the places they lived or served in.

This was a very readable account of one of the many cruel practices of the Empire; while the injustices and brutalities that the transports had to suffer make one wonder again at not only the system but at the people who implemented it in practice, the many colourful characters who made the best of it made for very interesting reading as well. For me the book also busted many myths that I had in my mind—including the extent of cruelty that the transports had to endure. An interesting and informative read, which I thought was made all the more fascinating by the stories of some of the victims and perpetrators of the system.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Condemned: The Transported Men, Women and Children Who Built Britan’s Empire by Graham Seal

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