Convict sent to West Africa
Contract for the transportation of Barnabas Birch the Younger, "to some of His Majesty's Settlements and Plantations on the Coast of Africa for the Term of three years", 1780
Most of us are familiar with transportation in the Australian context. The colony of New South Wales, for example, was founded in 1786 using convicted criminals from England, transported for a period of seven years. However, penal transportation has a much longer history. From the early seventeenth century criminals were transported to America, but this ceased in 1775 when the American colonies revolted, and an alternative destination had to be found as the prisons overflowed.
Transportation to Africa began in a small-scale way while the American War of Independence was still in progress, and Barnabas Birch was one of these first transportees. Thereafter a number of more ambitious schemes, for both transportation of convicts and free emigration were proposed both officially and by commercial and charitable organisations and adventurous private individuals. Official penal transportation to West Africa was examined by a Committee of the House of Commons and of 350 convicts transported in 1782 to the settlements on the Gold Coast a mere seven were both still alive and still working in their place of transportation just three years later. The vast majority had died of disease, whilst others had deserted to pirates or to other neighbouring settlements of foreign powers. The result was that in 1786 penal transportation to Africa was abandoned and Australia was preferred.
© Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Archive Service, 2009
Transcript of document (26kb)
The document presented here is a contract between the Clerk of the Peace for Staffordshire and Littleton Scott, keeper of Stafford Gaol, for Barnabas Birch's transportation to Africa. A further document binds Scott to pay a penal sum if he fails to deliver Birch, which he would prove by means of a receipt from a responsible official in the settlement concerned. The receipt has not survived, which is unfortunate, as this would have indicated to which trading post Birch was assigned, but it is likely to have been one of the settlements on the Gold Coast.
So where exactly did prisoners such as Barnabas Birch actually go? "His Majesty's Settlements and Plantations on the Coast of Africa" sound rather grand, but in fact consisted of a string of small fortified trading posts established to facilitate the transatlantic slave trade. The permanent populations of these posts were typically small, but with a large through-flow of slaves on their way to the American and Caribbean colonies. British trading posts in operation in the 1780s included Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast (now in Ghana) and Fort James on the river Gambia (now in The Gambia), both adopted as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Staffordshire Record Office, Q/SB 1780 T 107