The Life of JOHN WHALEBONE, alias WELBONE
a Thief, etc.
This malefactor was born in the midst of the City of London, in the Parish of St. Dionis Back Church. His parents were persons in but mean circumstances, who however strained them to the uttermost to give this their son a tolerable education. They were especially careful to instruct him in the principles of religion, and were therefore under an excessive concern when they found that neglecting all other business, he endeavoured only to qualify himself for the sea. However, finding this inclinations so strong that way, they got him on board a man-of-war, and procured such a recommendation to the captain that he was treated with great civility during the voyage, and if he had had any inclinations to have done well, he might in all probability have been much encouraged. But after several voyages to sea, he took it as strongly in his head to go no more as he had before to go, whether his parents would or no.
He then cried old clothes about the streets; but not finding any great encouragement in that employment, he was easily drawn in by some wicked people of his acquaintance, to take what they called the shortest method of getting money, which was in plain English to go a-thieving. He had very ill-luck in his new occupation, for in six weeks' time, after his first setting out on the information of one of his companions, he was apprehended, tried, convicted, and ordered for transportation.
It was his fortune to be delivered to a planter in South Carolina, who employed him to labour in his plantations, afforded him good meat and drink, and treated him rather better than our farmers treat their servants here. Which leads me to say something concerning the usage such people met with, when carried as the Law directs to our plantations, in order to rectify certain gross mistakes; as if Englishmen abroad had totally lost all humanity, and treated their fellow-creatures and fellow-countrymen as slaves, or as brutes.
The Colonies on the Continent of America are those which now take off the greatest part of those who are transported for felony from Britain, most of the Island Colonies having long ago refused to receive them. The countries into which they now go, trading chiefly in such kind of commodities as are produced in England (unless it be tobacco), the employment, therefore, of persons thus sent over, is either in attending husbandry, or in the culture of the plant which we have before mentioned. They are thereby exposed to no more hardships than they would have been obliged to have undergone at home, in order to have got an honest livelihood, so that unless their being obliged to work for their living is to pass for great hardship, I do not conceive where else it can lie, since the Law, rather than shed the blood of persons for small offences, or where they appear not to have gone on for a length of time in them, by its lenity changes the punishment of death into sending them amongst their own countrymen at a distance from their ill-disposed companions, who might probably seduce them to commit the same offences again. It directs also, that this banishment shall be for such a length of time as may be suitable to the guilt of the crime, and render it impracticable for them on their return to meet with their old gangs and acquaintance, making by this means a happy mixture both of justice and clemency, dealing mildly with them for the offence already committed and endeavouring to put it ever out of their own power by fresh offences, to draw a heavier judgment upon themselves.
But to return to this Whalebone. The kind usage of his master, the easiness of the life which he lived, and the certainty of death if he attempted to return home, could not all of them prevail upon him to lay aside the thoughts of coming back again to London, and there giving himself up to those sensual delights which he had formerly enjoyed. Opportunities are seldom wanting where men incline to make use of diem; especially to one who had been bred as he was to the sea. So that in a year and a half after ms being settled there, he took such ways of recommending himself to a certain captain as induced him to bring him home, and set him safe on shore near Harwich. He travelled on foot up to London, and was in town but a very few days before being accidentally taken notice of by a person who knew him, he caused him to be apprehended, and at the next sessions at the Old Bailey, he was convicted of such illegal return, and ordered for execution.
At first he pretended that he thought it no crime for a man to return to his own country, and therefore did not think himself bound to repent of that. Whatever arguments the Ordinary made use of to persuade him to sense of his guilt I know not. But because this is an error into which such people are very apt to fall; and as there want not some of the vulgar who take it for a great hardship, also making it one of those topics upon which they take occasion to harangue against the severity of a Law that they do not understand, I think it will not, therefore, be improper to explain it.
Transportation is a punishment whereby the British law commutes for offences which would otherways be capital, and therefore a contract is plainly presumed between every felon transported and the Court by whose authority he is ordered for transportation, that the said felon shall remain for such term of years as the Law directs, without returning into any of the King's European dominions; and the Court plainly acquaints the felon that if, in breach of his agreement, he shall so return, that in such case the contract shall be deemed void, and the capital punishment shall again take place. To say, then, that a person who enters into an agreement like this, and is perfectly acquainted with its conditions, knowing that no less than his life must be forfeited by the breach of them, and yet wilfully breaks them, to say that such a person as this is guilty of no offence, must in the opinion of every person of common understanding be the greatest absurdity that can be asserted; and to call that severity which only is the Law's taking its forfeit, is a very great impropriety, and proceeds from a foolish and unreasonable compassion. This I think so plain that nothing but prepossession or stupidity can hinder people from comprehending it.
As to Whalebone, when death approached, he laid aside all these excuses and applied himself to what was much more material, the making a proper use of that little time which yet remained for repentance. He acknowledged all the crimes which he had committed in the former part of his life, and the justice of his sentence by which he had been condemned to transportation; and having warned the people at his execution to avoid of all things being led into ill company, he suffered with much seeming penitence, together with the afore-mentioned malefactors, at Tyburn, being then about thirty-eight years of age.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals