Sarah Pemberton – ‘Jail, with the chance of being drowned’: Convict Transportation and the Meaning of Slavery in Locke’s Political Thought


Event Dates: 13 – 16 September 2015
College Court Conference Centre
Knighton Road,
Leicester LE2 3UF

The Carceral Archipelago: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415-1960

Sarah Pemberton (University of South Florida) – ‘Jail, with the chance of being drowned’: Convict Transportation and the Meaning of Slavery in Locke’s Political Thought

This paper explores the history of ideas in relation to penal transportation by examining John Locke’s arguments about forced labour and transportation for convicts and the poor. Locke’s theory of slavery is highly contested, because some scholars read the Two Treatises an argument against domestic tyranny in England (Farr 1986), while others see Locke as responding to the colonial context of slavery in the Americas (Tully 1993, Hinshelwood 2013). However, scholars have largely overlooked the way that Locke’s just war theory of slavery justifies the practice of transporting English convicts as slaves to colonies such as Barbados and Virginia. In this paper I consider Locke’s stance on convict transportation in the Two Treatises, Locke’s other political writing, and his activity as a member of the Board of Trade from 1696 to 1700.

The Second Treatise provides a clear justification for the enslavement and transportation of those who commit violent crimes, and for non-violent thieves if such penalties are necessary for deterrence, thereby justifying convict slavery and transportation. Board of Trade records suggest that Locke also approved of convict transportation in practice, because as a Board member he was involved in arranging for the transportation of English convicts to the Caribbean colonies. While the Second Treatise suggests that it is illegitimate to infringe on the liberty of the non- criminal poor, in Essay on the Poor Law Locke strongly advocates forced labour for the poor and recommends that those who repeatedly forge poor law passes “shall be transported to the plantations, as in the case of felony”. By defining poor people who resist being coercively policed as equivalent to criminals, Locke legitimates their enslavement and transportation. These tensions between Locke’s defence of a natural right to liberty and advocacy of forced labour and coercion for the poor suggest that Locke regards the poor as an exploitable labour force who lack the full natural rights that would prevent their enslavement and transportation.


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