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England first transported convicts abroad to North America and the West Indies in the 17th century. However, in 1776, the Revolutionary War put a stop to the practice of transporting convicts to America. The 'new' colony of Australia was chosen as an alternative, and in 1787 the First Fleet set sail. Between 1878 and the formal end of transportation to Australia in 1868, almost 160,000 convicts were sent from Britain and Ireland, and over 1,300 from other parts of the British empire including South Asia and the Caribbean. In this seminar, we will explore why transportation was used as a punishment, including its deterring and reforming qualities, as well as exploring the experiences of those transported.

Optional intro material:

PODCAST: 'Penal Transportation to Australia: Everything you wanted to know', History Extra (October 2023)

Essential seminar reading:



  • Ian Duffield, 'From Slave Colonies to Penal Colonies: The West Indian Convict Transportees to Australia', Slavery and Abolition (1986)
  • Deborah Oxley and David Merideth, 'Condemned to the Colonies. Penal Transportation as the Solution to Britain's Law and Order Problem', Leidschrift (2007)

Seminar prep questions:

  • Why was transportation introduced as a punishment and why was it ended?
  • Who were the convicts, and what was their experience of transportation?
  • What was the reaction in the colonies to the process of transportation?
  • What does transportation tell us about British imperialism?

Further reading: