Naval agents (or 'agents for transports') were naval lieutenants appointed by the Admiralty, on the recommendation of the Navy Board, to management merchants ships taken up as transports. David Syrett described their role in the American War of Independence as follows:
". . . They were usually men of considerable naval experience. . .
"From the point of view of professional advancement, the drawback to service as an agent for transports was that the position turned a navy officer into a specialist in the management of merchant shipping and if he afterwards obtained a command he was liable to be removed from it at a moment's notice if his particular expertise was in demand. . .
"The Navy Board employed agents for transports in three different types of services. Throughout the [American] war there were always a number of agents for transports stationed at various ports in the British Isles which were major depots and naval bases. A second group of agents travelled with and superintended flotillas of transports and victuallers as they made their way back and forth across the Atlantic. The third group was stationed overseas. . .
"Agents for transports were stationed permanently at Deptford, Portsmouth, and Cork and were directly under the command of the Navy Board. Deptford Dockyard was the major base for measuring, fitting, and storing transports, victuallers and storeships. Once the ships of the transport service had been made ready for sea by the officers of the Deptford Dockyard, they were usually dispatched to other ports for loading. . .
"The agents for transports at Deptford spent considerable time and energy preventing 'abuses' and making the masters and owners of transports follow the orders of the Navy Board. . ." (David Syrett, Shipping and the American War, 1775-83, London: The Athlone Press, 1970, pp.38-42)
Shore-based naval agents were employed in preparing the convict transports and victuallers for sea, and the men who occupied the position at Deptford - George Teer and James Bowen, in particular - were critical to the success of the system. A great deal of the success in preparing the First Fleet for the voyage must be given to George Teer, who died while the Lady Juliana was being commissioned. By contrast, a great deal of responsibility for over-crowding on the Second and Third Fleets belongs to James Bowen, who was inexperienced (and possibly corrupt) when the Second Fleet was being commissioned, and demonstrably corrupt in regulating the Third Fleet.
Agents for transports were appointed to the First, Second and Third Fleets, and three ships thereafter until the outbreak of war. Only one more ship after that, in 1800, carried a naval agent. From the Second Fleet onwards, the agents for transports were instructed to oversee the management of the convicts, but they had no qualifications for this work, and where they sailed with a convoy, they had very little influence on what happened on the other ships. From 1792, they began to be replaced by surgeon superintendents, and from shortly after the outbreak of war until the return of peace in late 1814, approved ships' surgeons.
- Gary L. Sturgess, 13 March 2016