Category:Legal Authority over the Convicts

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Convict transportation was a system of law - prisoners could not be moved to or from the ships, let alone punished, without legal authority. So what was the source of the authority that allowed the ships' officers to manage (and punish) the prisoners at sea?

While there was legislation granting authority to the hulks contractors to punish, there was no comparable provision covering the transportation contractors and their agents.

The answer is not entirely clear, but seems to lie in the law of master and servant. In the 18th and 19th centuries, masters were permitted to discipline their servants (and school masters their students), and the ship's master had a similar relationship with the convicts while they were on board his vessel. This authority was granted by virtue of a legal document signed by local justice officials, and the ship's master, known as the 'contract of effectual transportation'. This granted him legal title to the convicts' service throughout the voyage, and this was transferred to the Governor upon arrival.

The right of the captain to discipline (and even to execute) crew members, passengers and convicts in the case of a shipboard mutiny was another matter. That rested in the law of self-defence, permitting the master and his officers to take whatever steps were reasonably necessary to ensure the safety of ship.

- Gary L. Sturgess, 21 February 2016

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