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Role of convicts in Colonization

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“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not … They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”  Donald Trump

Oh, the irony!

Role of convict labour and penal military units in Europe’s civilizing mission (15th-20th Century)

History is often told today in terms of the civilizing influence of Europe on regions they subjugated. Countries that did not live by the ideas of Europe, who to them were not “like us” were seen as uncivilized or described as primitive, despite whatever political institutions those countries had. One example of that thinking came from the Marquis de Condorcet who believed that Europe was helping people “which, to civilize themselves, wait only to receive the means from us, to find brothers among Europeans and to become their friends and disciples”. There is an aspect of this flowery view that is often unknown to those unaccustomed to European History relating to the role of convicts in building Europe’s colonies.

It is often ignored that Europe in some cases sent its murderers, rapists, peasant debtors and political prisoners to other parts of the world to conquer and “pacify” them. In doing so, an estimated 6 million Africans perished during the wars to colonise Africa, the Christian idea of redemption was denied those prisoners, those citizens of Europe, transported as convicts, were expendable and the Westphalian sovereignty of overseas nations were trampled upon without civility.

Penal colonies

convicts united states colonies
convicts united states colonies

At the start of Britain’s foray into the Americas, there were 13 colonies in the British possessions of the New World region. Out of 13 colonies, 50,000 convicts landed in the Chesapeake Colonies of Maryland and Virginia, while Georgia was founded by James Edward Oglethorpe as a penal colony for convicts from “debtors’ prisons” transported from Britain. Some political prisoners and Trade Unionists captured during rebellions by the Irish, Scots, Welsh or working class were shipped to Colonial America. One-quarter of all British emigrants to America during the eighteenth century were convicts.[1] After the American revolution, Britain changed the destination of penal transportation to Australia and New Zealand. Bermuda too was used during the Victorian era. 26,000 Boers taken as prisoners of war during the South African wars between 1899 and 1902 were sent to camps in St Helena, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Bermuda.

During the 18th century and the prior to the Louisiana purchase, France owned large chunks of the Unites States. In addition to Louisiana, France sent forgers, convicts, dissidents, and other undesirables to Devil’s Island Guiana (est. 70,000 convicts), and New Caledonia and Pines in Melanesia (est. 22,000 convicts).

Penal Corps

Penal transportation was used by Europe as part of a basket of business sources for unfree cheap labour during the 15th to 20th century. The most famous sources were the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the East African and Red Sea slave trade, the Trans-Sahara slave trade and the Europe systems of indentured servants targeting the illiterate and the poor. All these commercial systems provided jobs for merchants, the shipbuilding industry, arms dealing industry, the banks, the insurance industry, slave-trading companies, penal companies and interlopers of Europe.

Between 1500 AD and 1890 AD, over twenty-two million (22,000,000) Africans were sold into slavery (R.A. Austen 1979). Seven million (6,856,000) were sold east: 3,956,000 were sold across the Sahara and 2,900,000 across the Red sea and the Indian Ocean (R.A. Austen 1979). Fifteen million (15,000,000) were sold who crossed the Atlantic. The average life expectancy of a slave in the Caribbean was 9 years (D. Olusoga, 2016).

Excluding French convicts used as laborers, by comparison 680,000 convicts were transported by Western empires to the colonies between 1415 and 1952.[2] Including French convict laborers, estimates would rise to 1.2 million Europeans. In some cases, prisoners could not be shipped fast enough due to intermittent wars such as the American Revolution, the Napoleonic wars and the French Revolutionary wars which left some prison hulks – prisoners in transit within up to eighteen floating prisons – carrying civilian prisoners until destinations could be found for convicts, either a return to European home origins or colonial destinations. Prison hulks provided a productive use for de-commissioned combat ships.

The British, French, Portuguese, Spanish and the Dutch deployed prisoners convicted by military courts and civil courts to colonies as laborers or soldiers. Convicts were used for building works, infrastructure projects, construction of fortifications, bridges and roads, as personal servants, in military or maritime services, mining salt, tin and coal, agriculture, the cultivation of silk and rubber or sold to plantations using a system of indentured servitude; and in Africa these convicts were used as soldiers until foreigners (Africans) could be used as captive unpaid labor, askari, or military porters in their own countries. Educated European convicts were used as foremen, clerks, overseers and colonial police. Convict women were used as domestic servants.

In military roles, convicts were sent to high mortality frontier zones – dense forests, unfamiliar or high disease regions. In the 18th Century and 19th Century as Haiti, Brazil, the United States and other countries gained independence, Europe had to find better ways to source unfree labor. At home, people started to object to the slave trade and slavery, which led to the gradual abolition of both the slave trade and slave ownership across Europe. Although abolition of the slave trade and slave ownership did not affect the use of convict labor in colonies or the use of Africans, native American, Indians and the Chinese as unfree laborers out of the sight of abolitionists in colonial territories and dominions. The abovementioned five European countries alone sent convicts to in excess of forty different colonies in the region of Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Even Prussia (the predecessor state to Germany), not mentioned above, sold some of its convicts to Russia[3].

Portuguese Empire

Convicts were used for 534 years by the Portuguese starting as early as 1415. These convicts were called Degredados. Degredados were used in the conquest of Angola, Ceuta, Mozambique, Brazil, Sao Tome, Cape Verde, Guinea and Goa; to garrison fortifications and factories in West Africa. In Angola and Mozambique, convicts and freed convicts were used as soldiers, slavers, craftsmen, retailers and sertanejos (backwoodsmen). It is estimated the Portuguese transported an estimated 100,000 convicts to its colonies.[4]

British Empire




Est. number of people


England and Wales

Caribbean and American colonies



Scottish prisoners of war

Caribbean and American colonies







Monmouth Rebels

American colonies



Jacobite Rebels

American colonies



Britain and Ireland

American colonies




American colonies



Britain and Ireland

Military service



Britain and Ireland

New South Wales



British colonies

New South Wales



British colonies

Van Diemen’s Land



Britain and Ireland

Port Phillip



Britain and Ireland

Western Australia



Britain and Ireland




Britain and Ireland




British India




British India

Straits settlements



Straits settlements

British India



British India




British India and Ceylon




British India




Bombay Presidency




Bengal Presidency

Andaman Islands



British India, Burma and Hyderabad

Andaman Islands








Convicts were sent to West Africa between 1766 and 1784 when European countries were only able to establish trading posts and forts under treaties with African kings on the Atlantic Coast. An example of a British penal military unit was the Royal Africa Corps. Eventually the Royal Africa Corps was disbanded due to complaints about their conduct in Africa.


Petty criminals and other convicts after serving their time were forcibly conscripted into the Bataillons d’Infanterie Legere d’Afrique (BILA). The BILA was deployed to Giuana, North Africa and other theatres of war and colonization.

Batavia Republic

The Dutch West Indies Company sent convicts from the Batavia Republic and prisoners from India to the Cape, South Africa to populate its colony.

Spanish Empire

Spain first engaged in penal transportation to its colonies after Phillip II gave instructions to his Viceroy saying ‘some men are incorrigible, inobedient, or harmful, and are to be expelled from the land and sent to Chile, the Philippines or other parts’. An estimated 110,000 convicts were sent to Spanish colonies between the first half of the sixteenth century and 1911, including: an estimated 4,000 to Cuba and Puerto Rico between 1769 and 1837; 25,000 to the New World presidios between 1550 and 1811; and 80,000 to North Africa presidios. Most convicts were used as garrisons at presidios, fortified settlements in the colonies.

Concluding remarks

Due to wonderful record keeping we are able to piece together a picture of the role convicts played in building Europe’s empires around the world during the 15th to 20th century. The human cost cannot be measured. Both Native Americans, Afro-Americans, Africans, and Indians are still paying for the inter-generational damage to millions of lives. When Europe held a conference to plan how to divide up Africa, it ended with killing millions of people in other continents for economic gain and to spread civility, one of the tools of colonization was to deploy convicts to the lands of other nations, along with regular soldiers and officers. By holding these actions to mirror of morality, we can decide whether its agents provided a civilizing influence.

  1. Ekirch, A. Roger (1987), Bound For America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718–1775, Oxford University Press.

  2. Clare Anderson and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, ‘Convict Labour and the Western Empires, 1415-1954’ LSE

  3. Richard Evans, ‘Germany’s Convict Exports, History Today, Vol. 47, No. 11

  4. Timothy Coates, Forced Labour in the Portuguese Empire 1740-1932

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Role of convicts in Colonization

by Editorial Team time to read: 6 min