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  • Writer's pictureMallika Ramachandran

Condemned: An Historical Account of Cruelty and Powerlessness (Book Review)

With the commencement of colonization and imperialism by Western powers including England from the 15 century onwards, generations of colonized and indigenous people were subjected to indescribable cruelty and deprived of their basic human rights, a situation that persisted for centuries. But the colonies were not sites for exploitation of the colonized alone; rather, even Britain’s many unwanted persons—petty and hardened criminals, political dissidents, and even juveniles found themselves ‘transported’ across the seas to far corners of the earth, where years of hard labour and torture amidst horrific living conditions awaited most.

Condemned: The Transported Men, Women and Children Who Built Britain’s Empire by Graham Seal (Yale University Press, London, 2021; 296 pp) is an account 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, and 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 (particularly Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s land). 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 their (and perhaps, extended) 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 Carolinian 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. 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, for this was not a period when the rights of man were unheard of. The Magna Carta had been agreed to centuries earlier; and modern human rights owe much to 17th and 18th century European thought. Yet the transports, among them not merely hardened criminals but also juveniles and those transported for petty offences or political opinions, were not seen as bearers of any rights; perhaps not even as human beings.


About the Author

Dr. Mallika Ramachandran is a freelance editor and legal researcher. She is visiting Faculty at Centre for Post Graduate Legal Studies, TERI School of Advanced Studies, Delhi.

The author received a review e-copy of the book from Yale University Press UK via NetGalley.

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