Covert transportation from small German states
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By Ralf Futselaar

As the essays on this website make abundantly clear, the practice of convict transportation was intertwined with, and largely dependent upon, the development of modern imperialism. The overwhelming majority of transported convicts were either being moved from a metropolis to a colony, or moved between different colonies or otherwise subaltern areas controlled by the same imperialist state. This means that the clear majority of transported convicts were forcibly moved at the behest of only a handful of European states.

Many more European states, however, did not control significant overseas territories. That did not mean that those states did not engage in convict transportation. Some, like the Habsburg Empire, used less developed areas within Europe as destinations for convicts in much the same way as imperial states used their colonies. For small states, however, this was hardly an option. And there were many such states; while a handful European states controlled much of the inhabitable world in the 18th and 19th centuries, most of central and northern Europe was made up of numerous non-imperial states and statelets, including several independent city-states. These small states were by definition unable to use their colonies as repositories for unwanted people, because they did not have any colonies. Unwanted people, however, they usually had in considerable numbers, and several states attempted to send criminals and vagrants overseas. They were doing so in direct and explicit imitation of larger European states and, for want of an alternative, initially also to the territories controlled by those states.

Especially in Northern Germany and Denmark, and possibly elsewhere as well, convict transportation was seen as an enviable solution to a pressing financial problem. This problem had arisen as a direct consequence of the foundation of prisons in the course of the 17th century. By the mid-18th century, it had become clear that these once-fashionable, ambitious penal institutes were very expensive to run in practice. The inmates of these early prisons (variously named Zuchthaus, Spinnhaus, Rasphuis, Workhouse and a variety of other titles) were forced to work during their period of detention, both to foster their industriousness and to help finance the institutions themselves. In practice the exploitation of their labour was never profitable enough for the institutions to break even. Throughout Europe, prisons were soon recognized as financial sinkholes. To make matters worse, they more often than not failed completely to rehabilitate their inmates. Early modern prison systems did not solve crime, while nevertheless costing a great deal of money, and inflicting misery on incarcerated people. Under these circumstances, the allure of convict transportation, as practiced by imperial states, is understandable. What if these convicts cold just be shipped off?

Imperial states offered an example for long distance transportation, but there also was local, and much older precedent to getting rid of criminals and deviants by physically removing them. Banishment had been a common form of punishment since at least the middle ages, but declined throughout the German-speaking world in the18th century. As cities grew larger and more anonymous, banishment became harder to police and banished individuals often stealthily returned. Moreover, the receiving areas and cities proved increasingly unwilling to accept banished convicts from other cities and states. By the late 18th century, “banishment” was possible only if people could be repatriated to their state of origin, if known. This by definition excluded all local criminals.

Although the routes followed by convicts transported from small European states were clearly inspired by imperial convict transportation, this type of convict transportation was arguably more akin to the old practice of banishment. Banished convicts were usually simply released, whereas imperial states exploited convicts as forced labourers, sometimes for decades. Such exploitation was not feasible for non-imperial European states. Since they had no legal authority at the destination, nor an interest in economic development there, there was also no need to lay further claims on the convict. For all intents and purposes, their convicts arrived as immigrants. They were usually penniless on arrival, but they were free.

Another important difference with convict transportation in imperial states, but also with older banishment practices, is that convict transportation from non-imperial states was not as such considered a punishment. Rather than condemning people to be transported, small states and cities offered people serving long carceral sentences the option of instead leaving for good. An 1832 document from Hamburg, the city-state with the best documented records of this practice, sets out the reasoning behind these in plain terms. In this document, police commissioner Dammert provides a back-of-an-envelope calculation to demonstrate that any prison sentence of longer than two years would cost more to execute than a prisoner’s fare to the Americas. Prisoners with long terms ahead of them, prisoners likely to fall ill, and habitual re-offenders, would clearly make the most “profitable” deportees. Obviously, convicts serving long sentences were also likely to be most eager to leave. When offered transportation as an alternative to a continued prison sentence, the overwhelming majority of Hamburg’s inmates seem to have readily agreed. Only a handful of prisoners refused to go and subsequently served out their sentences, or died in prison.

Hamburg began transporting convicts in the 1750s, initially to North America, the earliest known case of a non-imperial European state deporting convicts overseas in the modern era. Over the course of the following century, Hamburg shipped several hundred inmates to overseas destinations, including Greenland, Bombay and Brazil, but North America clearly remained the favorite destination. The preference for North American destinations was shared by other German states, such as Hannover, and Bremen, as well as the city of Copenhagen. Deliberations about the choice of destinations cannot be reconstructed, but it is likely that financial considerations would have been at least an important, probably a decisive factor. North America was the cheapest destination from which convicts would in all likelihood be unable to return on their own accord.

Unfortunately, the people living in North America, especially after American independence, were not necessarily welcoming ships laden with European convicts. After a group of Hamburgian convicts had “profitably” been shipped off to New York at the instigation of the aforementioned commissioner Dammert in 1832, a letter arrived from mayor Walter Bowne of that city. He did not mince his words:

“Comment upon so glaring an injury seems unnecessary. We object not to our country becoming a refuge for the suffering, and oppressed. We object not to the parishes of Great Britain, sending out their poor among us by thousands, since under the encouragement which we have afforded to industry, most of them become enterprising and useful citizens. But when a souvereign state like the free city of Hamburgh thus presumes to violate the implied faith of nations and, under the sanction of her public authorities to send her robbers and incendiaries among us, when our city is made another Botany Bay and seems likely to become a thoroughfare upon which a population too corrupt even the bodies politic of the old world to endure is to be disgorged, it is time for the government to turn its attention seriously to the subject and take order immediately for arresting the tide of abominations which is setting in upon us.”

It is not clear if Hamburg ever replied to mayor Bowne, but the letter provides a clear example of resistance in receiving communities to the arrival of convicts from Europe. Just as European states were not keen to receive banished criminals from each other, Americans opposed the arrival of former convicts on their shores. That is, if they found out. In the 19th century several German states attempted to cloak ships of convicts, making their passengers appear to be ordinary migrants to the United States. If necessary, convicts would be landed in ports where control over immigrants appeared lax, or on the coast of Newfoundland, leaving them to find their own way to the US if they so desired. In the case of Copenhagen, authorities actively sought to mislead American diplomats about their frequent attempts to remove convicts and habitual criminals to America.

Transatlantic travel in the 18th and 19th centuries was neither pleasant nor particularly safe. Skippers bringing convicts to America did so for a set fee, and had a clear financial incentive to limit their expenditure on the diet and comfort of their passengers. The few testimonies that survive describe the trips as horrendous, the food bad and insufficient, and the captains and crews aggressive and violent. The prisoners themselves, unsurprisingly, often proved violent as well, so that the weeks spent at sea were at best horrendous for most of the passengers, and in quite some cases lethal.

We know little about the fate of prisoners after their arrival in the New World. Unlike many German and Scandinavian immigrants to America, they arrived free of debt, and did not have to live as indentured workers during their first years in the New World to pay back their fare. Some evidence exists of transported convicts setting up businesses or working as farmhands, but for the most part they have left few or no traces. It was certainly not in the interest of the newly arrived ex-convicts to reveal much about their past and neither was it in the interest of either their countries of origin or the captains commanding the vessels that brought them to reveal that they were releasing convicted criminals.

Partly because transports were routinely cloaked as migrant ships, it is as yet unclear exactly which non-imperial European states sent how many convicts overseas. Systematic research remains to be undertaken, but even then it will be difficult to come up with very precise numbers. Based on the relatively well-documented example of Hamburg, from where some 500-1000 convicts were transported, one could guesstimate the total number of transported convicts from non-imerpial states to have been in the thousands, maybe more than 10.000 individuals in the 18th and 19th centuries combined. Over such a long timespan, these numbers hardly constitute a dent in European demographic history and are dwarfed both by the number of non-convicts emigrating from these European states, and by the number of convicts held and not transported.

Nevertheless, the story of these semi-secret transports has important consequences for our thinking about convict transportation as a global phenomenon. First of all, it shows that convict labour, while often highly valued in a colonial setting, proved difficult or impossible to exploit profitably in urbanised areas of Europe. City states like Hamburg failed considered transportation financially prudent because their prisons had failed economically. It would be informative, to say the least, to further investigate the net cost of domestic penal practices in imperial states and see if, when and to what extent transportation happened precisely because of those costs. While it is beyond dispute that imperial states used convict labour for colonial development, domestic cost-cutting may have played a significant role. If this was the primary, indeed the exclusive motivation for German states, it is nut unlikely that it would have played a significant role in for example Britain and France.

A second point of interest is the relationship of central European states to the modern world system. Obviously, city states like Bremen and Hamburg did not conquer or maintain vast empires. That did not mean, however, that they were outside of exploitative relations with the colonies of other countries. They were important ports for colonial goods, with a rapidly developing hinterland, but also of people. This was true both for emigrants, who left through their harbours, and for convicts. For many German, and probably Scandinavian, states and statelets, the non-European world must have seemed to offer not only attractive and useful products, but also a handy dumping ground, both to relieve demographic pressure and to get rid of unwanted citizens. Richard Evans suggested in 1997 that convict transportation from Germany to America in the 19th century revealed much about German attitudes to the New World. In the light of new research, which has shown that the practice had far greater geographical scope and started considerably earlier, I would suggest that we view it as an example of the peculiar relationship of non-imperial European states with empire in the modern age.

Some brilliant and highly relevant texts:
• R. J. Evans, ‘Germany’s Convict Exports’, History Today, 47, 11 (1997) pp. 11-17.
• M. Krogh, Mod USA med falske pengesedler. (Unpublished MA Thesis, Roskilde University, 2016)
• S. Steiner, Rückkehr unerwünscht : Deportationen in der Habsburgermonarchie der Frühen Neuzeit und ihr europäischer Kontext (Vienna 2014)