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Royal Commonwealth Society : Cape Town anti-convict petition

Royal Commonwealth Society

<p style='text-align: justify;'>This roll documents one of the most dramatic political protests in the early history of Cape Colony, instigated by proposals to transport convicts there in 1847. As part of a reform of the British penal transportation system, convicts nearing the end of their sentences, ‘ticket of leave men,’ would be sent to complete their terms working in the colonies, and thereafter be free to settle or return to the United Kingdom. Secretary of State for the Colonies, Earl Grey, considered that the additional labour force might be welcome in Cape Colony and wrote to its governor, Sir Harry Smith, in 1848, broaching the idea and asking him to sound out opinion. Local reaction was vehemently opposed and Smith forwarded petitions rejecting the proposal, but unfortunately Grey went ahead without waiting, and on 4 Sept., the Cape was selected to receive ticket of leave men. On 8 Feb. 1849, the <i>Neptune</i> sailed for Bermuda to land three hundred convicts and collect about the same number for transportation to the Cape.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>On 21 March, the ‘Commercial Advertizer’ of Cape Town published news of the <i>Neptune</i>’s mission, a fact soon after confirmed by Smith, who had received dispatches with details of the new scheme. This incited a second wave of violent reaction against transportation, stimulated by anger that the colony’s original opposition apparently had been ignored. The newspaper’s editor, John Fairburn, suggested that a strongly worded petition be drafted and placed in the Commercial Exchange for signature, and this is the roll preserved by the RCS, signed by 450 people. An Anti-Convict Association was formed, which coordinated a sustained campaign of political opposition, encouraging the imperial authorities to abandon plans to transport convicts to the Cape, and the <i>Neptune</i> eventually was sent to Van Diemen’s Land in early 1850.</p>

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