Skip to main content

Unit information: Convicts and the colonies: punishment, forced labour and the British Empire (Level H Special Subject) in 2015/16

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name Convicts and the colonies: punishment, forced labour and the British Empire (Level H Special Subject)
Unit code HIST37018
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Professor. Hilary Carey
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of History (Historical Studies)
Faculty Faculty of Arts


This unit aims to enable students to develop a wide-ranging and critical understanding of the role played by criminal transportation and convict labour in the development and expansion of the British empire. From the sixteenth century onwards, transportation was a major form of punishment in Britain, Ireland and empire. Convicts were first sent to the colonies in the seventeenth century and, although transportation from Britain and Ireland was abolished in 1868, prisoners continued to be transported between and within other parts of the empire (e.g. from India to the Andaman Islands) until the mid-twentieth century. Transportation was used as way of disciplining political offenders as well as those convicted of a wide range of other criminal offences. It involved women and children as well as adult men and it encompassed several hundred thousand people. The destinations to which convicts were sent were also wide-ranging including: Barbados, Bermuda, Gibraltar, Maryland, Mauritius, Virginia, the Andaman Islands, the Strait Settlements and the Australia colonies. Students will explore the rise of transportation as a form of punishment and will also consider the reasons for its abolition as a form of punishment from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. They will consider how convict transportation was organised, ask questions about the social origins of those who were transported, and examine contemporary attitudes towards the convicts. They will look at the roles played by convicts in the colonies and compare the convict system to other forms of unfree labour like indentured servitude and slavery. Students will also explore the ways in which factors like gender, race and age shaped convict transportation and they will examine how convicts themselves coped with the experience of forced exile.

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of the unit students should have:

  • identified, analysed, and deepened their understanding of the significance of key themes in the history of the British empire, comparative perspectives on forced labour and imperialism, and the place of transportation and exile within the British criminal justice system
  • understood the historiographical debates that surround the topic
  • learned how to work with primary sources

developed their skills in contributing to and learning from discussion in a small-group environment

Teaching details

Weekly 2-hour seminar Access to tutorial consultation with unit tutor in office hours

Assessment Details

1 x 3500 word essay (50%) and 1 x 2 hour exam (50%)

Reading and References

Clare Anderson, Convicts in the Indian ocean: transportation from South Asia to Mauritius, 1815-53 (2000).

A. Roger Ekirch, Bound for America: the transportation of British convicts to the colonies, 1718-1775 (1987).

Robert Hughes, The fatal shore: a history of the transportation of convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 (1987).

Kirsty Reid, Gender, crime and empire: convicts, settlers and the state in early colonial Australia (2007).

A.G.L. Shaw, Convicts and the colonies (1966).

Satadru Sen, Disciplining punishment: colonialism and convict society in the Andaman Islands (Oxford, 2000).