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The Letterbooks and Papers of Duncan Campbell (1726-1803)
from the State Library of New South Wales

Publisher's Note

Duncan Campbell (1726-1803), the successful and influential eighteenth century West Indies merchant, is better known today for his role as the administrative lynchpin of convict transportation to Australia. As overseer of the Thames prison hulks between 1776 and 1801 he was a key figure in the founding of the British penal colony at Sydney in New South Wales. Convict Transportation and the Metropolis covers the complete set of letterbooks and papers of Duncan Campbell held at the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales. Dan Byrnes describes these materials as, ‘a magnificent set of six and more large volumes, in various original handwritings, well-preserved from the late Eighteenth Century and brought to Australia by his Australian descendent, William Dugald Campbell ... while they are a goldmine for anyone interested in the history of convict transportation, they are also a goldmine for anyone interested in London, (the Metropolis) as a city, between 1775-1800’.  The collection consists of six volumes of business letterbooks covering the period 1772-1788, Campbell’s private letterbooks for 1766-1797 and miscellaneous papers, c.1776. 

Campbell began his career as mid-shipman sailing merchant ships to Jamaica, progressing to ship’s captain between 1749-1757.  It was in Jamaica that Campbell met and married Rebecca Campbell in 1753, later inheriting her father’s plantation Saltspring in Hanover Parish, Jamaica. In 1758 Campbell expanded his trading exploits, travelling to Virginia and the North American colonies, following his prestigious appointment as a Younger Brother at Trinity House, London. In the same year Campbell was taken as a junior partner in the trading house of John Steward, who trading as Stewart and Campbell held the government contract for the transportation of 500 convicts annually to Virginia and Maryland. In 1772 at the age of 46 Campbell took over the management of the business. Campbell was a successful merchant being one of the top nine tobacco traders in London, and in common with other merchants of the period he used the typical mercantilist trade pattern over the Atlantic, shipping British felons to North America, and returning with tobacco. However, following the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775 the triangle was broken and Campbell looked to other interests for trading.

Unable to transport the convicts to America, Campbell held them in ships know as prison hulks on the Thames in London. Described by journalists as ‘sinks of iniquity’ the hulks were seen as a threat to the peace and order of London. 

Campbell and his staff were responsible for the checklisting and despatching of prisoners to ship’s captains for transportation to eastern Australia and the First Fleet left Portsmouth for Botany Bay on 13 May 1787. Campbell was also responsible for delivering convicts for the Second and Third Fleets in 1789 and 1791. He was an important link in this penal system.

There are also noteworthy family links between Duncan Campbell and Captain William Bligh, who married Campbell’s niece, Elizabeth Betham, in 1781. Bligh regularly sailed on Campbell’s ships from London to Jamaica, and was Captain of the Bounty on her notorious voyage to Tahiti in search of breadfruit as a source of cheap food for slaves. Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutineers of the Bounty, was also known to Campbell.

The Duncan Campbell letter books were indispensable in rounding out the pictures of Londoners and their lives ... in depicting London as well as Campbell’s biography, embedded as it is in the history of convict transportation’ (Dan Byrnes). The collection contains information concerning the lives of politicians and merchants, the movement of ships, and the profits taken by Londoners. Key figures and events include:

Jeremy Bentham, legal theorist and penal reformer, who opposed the transportation of convicts.

Campbell’s meeting with Thomas Jefferson in April 1787 in order to lobby for repayment of debts owed by Americans to English and Scottish merchants post- American Revolution, and amounting to £2.5 million – Campbell was the chairman on this body.

Campbell’s meeting with Arthur Phillip, founder and first governor of New South Wales in January 1787. Phillip was later to use Campbell’s methods of working convicts on the Thames as a model for convict employment in the penal colony at Sydney.

Stewart Erskine, Campbell’s deputy on the Thames, wrote about the treatment and work conditions of convicts held on the hulks.

William Eden (under secretary to Lord North, Prime Minister) was assisted by Campbell in shaping the details and application of the 1776 Act. The Act outlined the potential usefulness of convict labour, and created the post of overseer of the hulks.

John Dixon concerning the embarkation of the Second Fleet to Botany Bay.

Stephenson, Randolph and Cheston - Bristol convict contractors

Camden, Calvert and King - shipping contractors

James Boyick, Chief Clerk to Stewart Erskine

Shelton, Clerk of Arraign at the Old Bailey.

Campbell’s personal life is also recorded. Entries include the traumatic disarray of his personal life following the death of his first wife, Rebecca, leaving him with the care of his young children.

Duncan Campbell’s letterbooks provide valuable information for those interested in British penal history and convict transportation to Jamaica, Virginia, and Australia. It further provides a wealth of material on late eighteenth century London, and through Campbell’s web of business contacts much can be learned about the politics and commerce of the time, as well as the involvement of merchants in the business of colonisation. While, for maritime historians the movement, destinations and cargoes of ships will be of particular interest. In addition, Campbell’s family letterbooks provide insights into his private life, as well as the social and cultural activities of the period.


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