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Convict Servants in the American Colonies

The William Brown House in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.
Davar Ardalan, NPR News
The William Brown House in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.
The William Brown House in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.
Davar Ardalan, NPR News /
The William Brown House in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.
Carol Carman, a descendant of a convict servant, with a mannequin of an indentured servant in the William Brown House.
Davar Ardalan, NPR News /
Carol Carman, a descendant of a convict servant, with a mannequin of an indentured servant in the William Brown House.

The William Brown House, an elegant Georgian brick building built in the 1760s, sits on the banks of the South River in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Now a museum, the house is the last visible structure of London Town, an 18th century tobacco port and one of the Atlantic trading sites where thousands of convicts from England entered the colonies to begin their indentured servitude.

In 1718, the British Parliament passed the Transportation Act, under which England began sending its imprisoned convicts to be sold as indentured servants in the American colonies. While the law provoked outrage among many colonists -- Benjamin Franklin equated it to packing up North American rattlesnakes and sending them all to England -- the influx of ex-convicts provided cheap and immediate labor for many planters and merchants. After 1718, approximately 60,000 convicts, dubbed "the King's passengers," were sent from England to America. Ninety percent of them stayed in Maryland and Virginia. Although some returned to England once their servitude was over, many remained and began their new lives in the colonies.

Amateur genealogist Carol Carman is a descendant of one convict servant who worked in Annapolis and stayed in Maryland. Arrested in London, England, for stealing a silk handkerchief worth two shillings, Carman's ancestor was transported to the colonies and sentenced to servitude.

NPR's Brian Naylor spoke with Carman and Dr. Gregory Stiverson, President of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, about London Town and the indentured labor of the American colonies.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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