‘A penal colony is a colony used to detain prisoners and generally use them for penal labour in an economically underdeveloped part of the state’s (usually colonial) territories, and on a far larger scale than a prison farm. The British Empire’s use of parts of Australia, a ‘virgin’ continent, provides the classic example.’
The exact origin of the use of transportation as a penal measure is obscure, but it seems to have developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from a need to avoid what were considered to be the destabilising influences of particular groups, such as the banishing of Irish Catholics to the West Indies during Cromwellian times. When, in the eighteenth century, the death penalty came to be regarded as too severe with respect to certain capital offences, transportation to North America – in the absence of an adequate alternative – became popular as a mitigation of such sentences.
When North America was replaced by New South Wales as a suitable penal colony after the American War of Independence, capital punishment – except in the case of very serious crimes – had largely been replaced by transportation. Legislation permitting transportation from Britain to New South Wales was first passed in 1784, and an equivalent Irish act followed in 1786 (26 Geo. III c 24).
The British act did not name the destination, merely providing for transportation ‘beyond the sea, either within His Majesty’s dominions or elsewhere outside His Majesty’s dominions’. The Irish statute provided for removal ‘to some of His Majesty’s plantations in America or to such other place out of Europe’.