In Britain, until the early 19th century, it used to be observed that "one might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb". The phrase hardly did justice to the astonishing variety of crimes that were punishable by death - around 225 by the late 18th century, according to Emma Christopher's new book, a number which included such heinous offences as stealing hedges, blackening your face in disguise, being in the company of gypsies for a month, and even, for children aged seven to 14, "strong evidence of malice". With so many acts liable to result in a journey to the gallows, it was said that Britain saw "an orgy of public slaughter" in the 1780s.
A decade before, however, the condemned often received royal pardons, but at a price. In an age when lengthy prison sentences were virtually unknown there was still another suitably drastic punishment - transportation. By 1773, nearly 50,000 convicts had set sail for years of banishment and indentured labour, by no means all for capital offences - a Francis Otter was sentenced to 14 years transportation in 1746 for stealing a loaf of bread - but not as yet to Australia, the destination traditionally associated with transportation. They went to America.
Once the 13 colonies began their war of independence in 1775, however, this ceased to be a viable option. Many in America had long complained about their lands becoming a dumping ground for "the refuse of Great Britain and Ireland ... the poorest, idlest and worst of mankind". The convicts would certainly not be accepted once the king's writ no longer ran across the Atlantic. Where could they go instead? It soon became obvious that the first solution tried, of using old, unseaworthy hulks anchored in the Thames to house these prisoners, was unsatisfactory. Not only were their miserable conditions on full view to the populace of London, they quickly became so ridden by disease and crippled by their work dredging the riverbed that the chances of reform - nominally the aim of imprisonment - were non-existent.
"Circumspectly turning a deaf ear to the rebuke from American colonists that transporting convicts to them had been an insult," writes Christopher, "Britons decided that transportation itself was not a flawed policy; rather, a new destination was needed. The answer was a whole new colony."
Eventually, that place proved to be New South Wales, in which, notwithstanding the keenness of so many present-day Australians to claim descent from jailers and warders, rather than from the "cons", criminals really did manage to break with their pasts and build new and worthwhile lives.
In the meantime, however, London's politicians experimented with a location closer to home. And it is this calamitous tale, "the lost story of Britain's convict disaster in Africa" as the subtitle puts it, that is the subject of A Merciless Place. No catastrophic superlative is over the top in describing how this new destination gained - and fully deserved - so dire a reputation that within a few short years one high court judge declared he would rather hang prisoners than despatch them to the West African coast.
The expedition was inauspicious from the start. The two captains in whose ranks the convicts were to be transported, Kenneth Mackenzie and George Katencamp, had planned to raise independent companies to fight for glory and prize money in the American campaign.
To their dismay, when the War Office inspected their men many were rejected as too young, too old or too short, while those who appeared to be good military stock were transferred to other regiments. They were replaced by "the very dregs of society", convicts from the Savoy and Newgate prisons and the hulks moored at Woolwich and who boarded Mackenzie and Katencamp's ships still in leg irons. And their destination was to be not America but the Gold and Slave Coasts of West Africa, there to defend Britain's forts and do battle with the Dutch.