a1 Kenneth Morgan is Lecturer in History at West London Institute of Higher Education, Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 5DU, England.
That the newspaper press in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake colonies was chock-full of advertisements for runaway convicts is a clear indication of the significance of transportation to America in that period. The existence of convicts in Virginia and Maryland stemmed from the provisions of the Transportation Act passed by the British parliament in 1718. This stated that felons found guilty of non-capital crimes against property could be transported to America for seven years while the smaller number of criminals convicted on capital charges could have their death sentence commuted to banishment for either fourteen years or life. Between 1718 and 1775, when the traffic ended with the approach of war, more than 90 percent of the 50,000 convicts shipped across the Atlantic from the British Isles were sold by contractors to settlers in the Chesapeake, where there was a continuous demand for cheap, white, bonded labour. Though many convicts were people who had resorted to petty, theft in hard times rather than habitual criminals, they were often viewed with jaundiced eyes in the Chesapeake as purveyors of crime, disease and corruption. They also had to endure, along with slaves and indentured servants, the everyday reality of lower-class life in colonial America: the exploitation of unfree labour. It is therefore not surprising that many convicts, like other dependent labourers, tried to free themselves from bondage by escaping from their owners.