Sailing an empty ship was unprofitable, so most merchants favoured routes that allowed both outward and return cargos. For example John Davie liked to export earthenware and import tobacco in a single round trip. Newfoundland fishermen had less room for outward commercial cargos as they needed to carry provisions and salt to tide their men over a fishing season, but Bideford earthenware still found its way to Newfoundland in substantial quantities.
The outward cargo to the plantations of Virginia and Maryland was often a human one. The legal basis for the transport of convicts had been established in 1615 and Bideford merchants were clearly making handsome profits from it, for in 1700 John Smith of Bideford had petitioned the king for £5,000 owed to him for assisting his majesty by using his vessels for transportation and engaging others to do likewise. Such convict ships could return with a cargo of tobacco and Bideford tobacco merchant John Buck, a plantation owner himself, was involved in the transport of convicts, for almost twenty years.
The 1718 Transportation Act made transportation for a set period (usually seven years, fourteen years, or life) a formal sentencing alternative, allowing far more prisoners to be transported. Crimes that once carried the death penalty could now be pardoned on condition that the convict accepted transportation. Vagrants, who were problematic because they fell outside the system of parish support, could also be transported. Two or three times a year the prisons of Britain were emptied to provide the plantations with workers. Between 1716 and 1776, at least 400 ships, operating out of London, Bristol, Liverpool, and Bideford, carried 50,000 convicts to the American colonies. These people came to be known as “His Majesty’s Seven-Year Passengers.”
Bideford ships also provided passage for many indentured servants. Indentured servitude was a way for the poor to buy into the promise of the colonies. In return for their passage they contracted to give a set period of service once they arrived, the ship owner could then sell their service to a plantation owner. After the set term was fulfilled, then they would be free to build a new life for themselves in the colony.
For some merchants based in western ports, an outward profit was made by carrying African slaves, with a return profit from the sugar they produced. It seems that Bideford’s ships eschewed this business model, the few that traded with the Caribbean appear more likely to have done so via the New England or Newfoundland route than via Africa, but that did not stop some Bideford merchants investing in the trade through Bristol.
Salt-cod that was too poor for European tastes found a ready market on the plantations, where it replaced salt-beef (shipped in from Europe) as a staple food for the workforce. This ‘West Indies’ grade fish must have been supplied by someone, and Bideford’s salt-cod merchants may have been happy to oblige.