I am always struck by the lives-in-passing that are evoked by these descriptions and by the way their subjects are raised from obscurity by the existence of these records. I often wonder how their stories unfolded. So I was thinking, as usual, the other day as I re-read an account of sentencing at the Old Bailey in the London Post, dated Friday May 28, 1773. I had photocopied the page in the British Library, because it contained a column fulminating about the excesses of the East India Company. Having finished with that particular research, I was about to bin the pages. But I lingered over a paragraph naming nine felons cast for transportation. They were:
- Jonathan Boothman, for stealing a quantity of oats and several sacks, the property of William Hunter, in a boat on the river Thames.
- Mary Gorman, for stealing a silk cloak and two hats.
- John Lone, for stealing two bird-cages, a tin box of barley-sugar, and other things.
- Sarah Etheridge and Charlotte Beard, alias Butcher, for stealing a green cloth coat, a pair of breeches, a neckcloth and a pair of silver buckles to the value of 39 shillings.
- Grace Thomson, for stealing two shirts, two shifts, and other things.
- Joseph Smith, for stealing a cardinal [red wool cloak], three shifts and other things.
- John Vaughan, for stealing five turkies, two ducks, a hen, and nine eggs.
- Robert Strahan, for stealing a coach-glass [stemmed drinking glass].
|Transports going from Newgate to take Waters at Blackfriars from The Complete New gate Calendar.|
|Convicts brought to a lighter on the Thames in preparation|
for transport to Virginia, Maryland and Carolina.
At least some of these nine felons must have found themselves a few months later on a wharf in Chesapeake Bay exposed for sale. Between 1718 and 1775, more than 90 percent of the 50,000 British convicts supplied by the courts were sold by contractors to settlers in the Chesapeake colonies as bonded labourers and servants – the price of a British convict was generally £8 to £10. Until the importing of African slaves overtook the indenture system, British convicts were essential to the plantation economy, as well as other areas of occupation. In his book Thirteen Sermons, Jonathan Boucher, the rector of various Virginia and Maryland parishes, observed in 1773 that two-thirds of the Maryland schoolmasters were convicts serving out terms of servitude.
|Notice of sale of indentured servants, Virginia Gazette, May 19, 1774.|
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
So, that’s the last I expected to see of any of the London Post’s unfortunate malefactors – until I found myself halfway down page fifty-eight of Tamia Haygood’s thesis. She was quoting from a notice of flight, placed in the Virginia Gazette on November 11, 1773, by grandees Samuel and George Mathews. To my surprise, I recognised the name of one of the runaways cited in the notice – Jonathan Boothman. I looked up the notice in full, and here it is:
RUN away from the Subscribers, at Mr. Lewis Ball’s, the 14th of October, at Night, five Convict Servant Men, who were taken the Day before from on Board the Taylor, at Four Mile Creek, viz. OLIVER MARTIN, 22 Years of Age, five Feet ten Inches high, of a brown Complexion, born in Ireland, is pert and looks well, and by Trade a House Carpenter and Joiner; he had on an old brown Coat, and red Waistcoat and Trousers. JONATHAN BOOTHMAN, an Englishman, 23 Years of Age, five Feet five Inches high, of a dark brown Complexion, and a thievish Look; he had on a white Cotton Waistcoat, and Trousers. PAUL PRESTON, a Pennsylvanian, thirty Years of Age, five Feet high, of a sandy Complexion, and good Countenance; he had on a blue Waistcoat, and black Everlasting Breeches. JOHN THOMPSON, born in New England, 35 Years of Age, five Feet four Inches high, of a black Complexion and surly Look; he had on a blue Waistcoat, another of Cotton, black Breeches, and Trousers. JOHN GAGAHAGAN, an Irishman, five Feet four Inches high, 43 Years of Age, of a black Complexion, is a well looking Man, and by trade a Grocer; he had on a light coloured Coat, blue Waistcoat, and Leather Breeches. The four first are Seamen.That’s the coincidence that so delighted me, especially the added information about Boothman’s age and occupation (and I also like the detail of Paul Preston’s “black Everlasting breeches”). Of course I can’t say for certain that the twenty-three-year-old runaway in Virginia with a “thievish look” was the same Jonathan Boothman reported on in the London Post as having been convicted of theft, but it seems plausible. Boothman's theft of oats and their sacks took place from a boat on the Thames, so perhaps that suggests it was perpetrated by a seaman. Incidentally, those descriptions in the notice of “dark brown” and “black” complexions signify that these were men who worked outdoors in the face of the elements and might be recognisable to sharp-eyed Virginians as the missing convicts.
It isn’t clear from the notice in the Virginia Gazette whether these five convicts had just arrived on the Taylor, or whether they had been trying to escape on the ship, but they had probably just docked. A large fleet of English ships usually arrived each October or November, sailing up the many estuaries of the Chesapeake area and tying up alongside riverside plantations to collect the tobacco harvest. The Taylor might have been one of these vessels, dropping off a cargo of convicts and returning to England with tobacco.
|Tobacco growing in Jamestown. Library of Virginia Special Collections.|
Unfortunately, I can find nothing more of Jonathan Boothman. If he did escape beyond his owners’ sphere of influence it’s likely that he would have assumed an alias when he hired himself out for work. I hope he got away, but in Chesapeake’s heavily surveilled society runaways were easily hunted down.
Nor can I find any trace of the women who were sentenced in the same proceeding at the Old Bailey, although I was only able to make a fairly cursory search online. (Two thirds of British female convicts to Chesapeake shared just four first names – Mary, Elizabeth, Anne or Sarah – which can make research frustrating work.) The seven-week Atlantic crossing in which convicts were kept below decks in close, stinking conditions was bad enough for men and worse for women, who were in constant danger of sexual assault. If you survived the voyage and death from scurvy, smallpox or typhus, and the march to your settlement – historian Edith Ziegler describes a type of convict wholesaler in the American colonies called a "soul driver" who bought women for buyers in the back country and herded them to their destination on foot "like a parcel of sheep"– only then did the seven- or fourteen-year sentence begin to be counted, despite the months that had elapsed since sentencing. Many convicts died during their first summer in the settlements – malaria was endemic on Chesapeake’s hot, mosquito-infested plantations.
|Labour in the tobacco fields. Photograph of historical interpreters|
by Dave Doody for the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Spring 2005.
If you had survived all of that, why wouldn’t you make a bolt for freedom? Runaways forged “Indentures Discharged” documents as well as the passes that were necessary to move about the settlements and obtain supplies and lodging on credit. Some of them disappeared among the Cherokee nation or north to New England. Jonathan Boothman, like so many of his fellow transportees, was not prepared to serve a sentence that made him another man’s property.