Convicts: Unwilling Migrants
from Britain and France
BRITAIN AND then France, systematically and on a large scale, scattered their convicts to their colonies around the world for over two hundred years. The number of convicts so dispatched totaled some 340,000. In broad outline, there were three principal episodes: Britain sent about 50,000 convicts to its American mainland colonies chiefly between 1718 and 1775, and 160,000 to its Australian colonies between 1787 and 1868; France sent 103,000 to French Guiana and New Caledonia between 1852 and 1938. 1 Some other Western countries transported their convicts to their colonies, but none approached anything like this scale. What stands out is the long period and sequential nature of the three ventures. That it was sequential indicates the relationship among the three. Britain began transporting convicts to Australia only when access to America was closed, and France began transportation only after a long and careful study of the results obtained from sending convicts to Australia.
The long time span meant that the transporting authorities could learn from previous practice and adjust the conditions under which transportation took place. However, it also meant that the historical circumstances under which transportation took place changed markedly and both permitted and required significant changes in the convict regimes. Perhaps the most significant aspect of transportation to affect the role of the convicts in their place of exile was the extent to which they were placed in a settled society or were used as a pioneering labor force to open up the colonies for European settlement. And although there were numerous and changing motives behind this convict migration, one remained constant and important—the desire of the mother country to rid itself of criminals. This is the main feature that distinguishes transportation from other