Genealogical Publishing Company has republished one of the more popular books of the past decade or two. The full name of the book is Emigrants in Chains: A Social History of Forced Emigration to the Americas of Felons, Destitute Children, Political and Religious Non-Conformists, Vagabonds, Beggars and Other Undesirables, 1607-1776 by Peter Wilson Coldham. A 2007 reprint is now available that appears to be unchanged since the last printing in 1994. I had a chance to read the book this week.
Anyone who has researched ancestry back to the years 1607 through 1776 in North America or the Caribbean has an excellent chance of finding ancestors who were "transported" from England to the colonies. Indeed, the British government saw the colonies as a great place to dump convicts and other undesirables. The undesirables included those whose "crime" was a disagreement with the official church of the time and others who simply were poor.
The new lands needed population, and Great Britain had thousands of people deemed unworthy of remaining in the old country. The result was easy: move the felons, destitute children, political and religious non-conformists, vagabonds, beggars, and other undesirables to the new colonies. More than 50,000 were forcibly moved to North America, Jamaica, Nevis, Barbados, and Antigua. Most were sold into apprenticeships or forced labor in near slavery conditions in the New World. One report in the book lists prices ranging from £8 to £25 each for seven years' labor. Many of the transportees survived and raised families, and today they have millions of descendants.
NOTE: Prisoners were not transported to Australia until 1788, and those years are not covered in this book.
Emigrants in Chains is not a list of people who were transported. Instead, it is a history book that describes how much of the labor of North America was supplied through the emptying of English jails, workhouses, brothels, and houses of correction. Some Scottish "undesirables" were also forcibly transported to the New World. Peter Coldham describes the processes involved and the men charged with administering the transportation system or engaged in transportation as a business. He describes the prisons and the courts of the time. He also describes the lives of typical transportees and their reception in the colonies.
Emigrants in Chains does have a list of all known ships used to transport these people, along with the dates and destinations of each ship and, in most cases, the name of the captain of each ship. If you know the date - even the approximate date - of your ancestor's arrival in the New World, you may be able to deduce which ship he or she sailed on.
Chapters in this book include:
- The Convicts and Their Background
- The Prisons
- The Dispensers of Justice
- The State Monopoly - Early Days
- The Age of Contractors
- Transportation as a Business
- The Scottish Experiment
- His Majesty's Seven-Year Passengers
- The New Immigrants
- Some Thumbnail Sketches
- The Twilight Years
The book also contains 9 detailed appendices and an extensive bibliography.
This book is fascinating as one tries to imagine the conditions under which these people lived and suffered. Transportation to the Americas was difficult for them, and many traveled while chained together in cargo holds without heat, dry clothes, or decent food. In fact, many slave ships were re-routed from their African routes to transport English men and women to the colonies. Most of these people traveled in the same manner as slaves from Africa, usually in chains. It is difficult to imagine the inhumanity of transporting slaves or captured prisoners of war. It is even more difficult to understand how loyal Britons could do the same to their own countrymen.
Some of the forced immigrants did not survive long in the colonies, but thousands of others eventually became upstanding citizens, raised families, and contributed to the growth of a brave new continent. The descendants of these "undesirables" include Presidents of the United States as well as all sorts of politicians, authors, poets, athletes, inventors, and industrialists. While Great Britain saw this as a method of getting rid of "undesirables," many of us today are thankful that our ancestors made this trip, survived, and prospered. Emigrants in Chains is their story.
Peter Coldham's style of writing is typical of history books: heavily loaded with facts. He describes page after page of human misery in a reserved manner without dwelling on the more unsavory details. However, it is obvious that he is describing extensive human misery.
Emigrants in Chains: A Social History of Forced Emigration to the Americas of Felons, Destitute Children, Political and Religious Non-Conformists, Vagabonds, Beggars and Other Undesirables, 1607-1776 by Peter Wilson Coldham is a 196-page paperback book that sells for $18.95 plus shipping and taxes, if any. It is available via a safe and secure online shopping cart system on Genealogical Publishing Company's web site at http://www.genealogical.com/products/Emigrants%20in%20Chains/1109.html. I suspect it will be available on other online bookstores and can be ordered in traditional bookstores if you specify ISBN: 9780806317786.