Britain's Prison Ships, 1776-1783

It’s time for a brief lesson in the history of the American Revolution. I learned of this only two months ago, yet I have a Ph.D. in history with a specialty in colonial American history. Had it not been for the Web, I would never have heard about this monstrous chapter in the history of British imperial military practice.

No nation in history matches ours in its willingness to let bygones be bygones when it comes to telling each new generation of Americans about why this nation came into existence and the price in blood that the patriots paid to secure its independence. The United States has fought twice: 1776-83, 1812-15. It has forgiven twice. No other nation that I am aware of has as one of its pre-eminent systems of academic historical interpretation a favorable view of the enemy nation from which it secured its liberty through armed rebellion. The British Imperial School of colonial historiography is still alive and well in our graduate schools. The views of Charles M. Andrews are still taken seriously.

Fragments from Inside the Memory Hole

If you ever go to New York City — I’m not encouraging you in this regard — make sure that you visit Fort Greene Park. You won’t read about it in any “must see” guide. You won’t find a tourist brochure on it in your $300-a-night hotel. Visit it anyway.

Here is an extract from The WPA Guide to New York City, which is proof that a New Deal project could occasionally have positive effects:

The Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Fort Greene Park, Myrtle Avenue and Cumberland Street, designed by Stanford White and dedicated in 1908, rises high above the surrounding plateau and is reached from the street level by a 100-foot-wide stone stairway broken into three flights. The 145-foot fluted granite shaft, supporting a large bronze urn, commemorates the 11,000 patriots who died aboard British prison ships in Wallabout Bay on the site of the Navy Yard during the Revolutionary War. The maltreatment of these prisoners on such infamous hulks as the Jersey and the Whitby, commanded by the notorious Provost Marshal Cunningham, is recognized as a black mark in British colonial history. Prisoners died from starvation and disease, flogging and other forms of violence, and were buried, usually by their fellow prisoners, in the sands of the bay. Remains of these bodies, found from time to time, were placed in the monument’s crypt.

Three-quarters of the prisoners placed in these ships died. The percentage was almost as high in prison ships in the harbors of Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia, but the number of men incarcerated was lower. Extermination of prisoners on these ships was unofficial British policy during the Revolution. (A good summary was written in 1976 by Hamilton Fish [1888-1991], the non-interventionist, anti-New Deal Republican Congressman who was made famous by Roosevelt’s popular litany, “Martin, Barton, and Fish.”)

Over 130 years ago, Henry Stiles edited a three-volume book, The History of the City of Brooklyn. It was never sufficiently well-known to be referred to today as a long-forgotten book. But one section of volume I (1867) should be required reading in every college-level course on the American Revolution. This chapter has been placed on the Web by Michael Cassidy. I include extracts here. To read the entire document, with the footnotes, click here.

Footnote #3 is worth considering. It indicates the quality of a subordinate chosen by General William Howe. He was succeeded by Gen. Henry Clinton. Neither general removed this man from command.

Captain William Cunningham, an Irishman by birth, and a brute by nature, who, during the occupation of New York by the British, held the post of Provost Marshal of the city. He subsequently suffered the same fate to which he had consigned so many victims — being hung for forgery in London, England, in 1791. In his dying confession, which appeared in the English papers in 1794, and which has always been held as authentic, he made the following statements in regard to his treatment of the American prisoners : “I shudder to think of the murders I have been accessary to, both with and without orders from Government, especially while in New York; during which time there were more than two thousand prisoners starved in the different churches, by stopping their rations, which I sold. There were also two hundred and seventy-five American prisoners and obnoxious persons executed, out of all which number there when only about one dozen public executions, which chiefly consisted of British and Hessian deserters. The mode for private executions was thus conducted: a guard was dispatched from the Provost, about half-past twelve at night, to the Barrack street, sad the neighborhood of the upper barracks, to order the people to shut their window-shutters, and put out their lights, forbidding them at the same time to presume to look out of their windows and doors on pain of death, after which the unfortunate prisoners were conducted, gagged, just behind the upper barracks, and hung without ceremony, and there buried by the black pioneer of the Provost.”

Cunningham was the man who oversaw the hanging of Nathan Hale. Hale was a spy. The spy’s penalty is death. But Capt. Montressor, the hanging officer, allowed Hale to write two letters: one to his mother and the other to a fellow officer. Cunningham tore them up, the Captain reported. Hale then asked for a Bible. His request was refused. Hale then uttered the greatest one-sentence speech in the history of American patriotism: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” (See the account by Edward Everett Hale.)

The American general Jeremiah Johnson later described the British technique for keeping these prison ships from overcrowding: “death made room for all.”

Pay close attention to the description of the 4th of July celebration on board ship in 1782, and what the guards did in response.

Then go see The Patriot. Twice. Tell them Provost Marshal Cunningham sent you. As Thomas Jefferson would surely write today, “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to protest the opinions of gun-hating, thumb-sucking liberal movie critics, give Mel Gibson his percentage of the price of a second ticket.”

Then go rent Braveheart to see early British imperialism at work.

The British were slow learners.


The Battle of Brooklyn, in August, and the capture of Fort Washington, in November, 1776, placed in possession of the British nearly four thousand prisoners; and this number was increased, by the arrest of private citizens suspected of complicity with the rebellion, to over five thousand, before the end of the year. The only prisons then existing in the city of New York were: the “New Jail,” which still remains, in an entirely altered form, as the “Hall of Records,” and the “Bridewell,” which was located between the present City Hall and Broadway. These edifices proving entirely inadequate for the accommodation of this large number of captives — to whom they were unwilling to extend the privileges of parole — the British were compelled to turn three large sugar-houses, several of the Dissenting churches, the Hospital, and Columbia College, into prisons for their reception. These buildings, also, were soon crowded to overflowing by daily accessions of captive patriots who in many instances, found not even space to lie down and rest upon the hard and filthy floors. Here, in these loathsome dungeons, denied the light and air of heaven; scantily fed on poor, putrid, and sometimes even uncooked food; obliged to endure the companionship of the most abandoned criminals, and those sick with small-pox and other infectious diseases; worn out by the groans and complaints of their suffering fellows, and subjected to every conceivable insult and indignity by their inhuman keepers, thousands of Americans sickened and died. Almost preferable, by comparison, was the fate of those who, without a moment’s warning, and at midnight, were hurried by the Provost to the gallows and an unknown grave.

Great, however, as were the sufferings of those incarcerated within the prisons of the city, they were exceeded, if possible, by those of the unfortunate naval prisoners who languished in the “prison-ships” of the “Walleboght.” These were originally the transport vessels in which the cattle and other supplies of the British army bad been brought to America, in 1776, and which had been anchored in Gravesend Bay, and occupied by the prisoners taken in the Battle of Brooklyn. Upon the occupation of the city by the British forces, these soldiers were transferred to the prisons on shore, and the transports, anchored in the Hudson and East rivers, were devoted more especially to the marine prisoners, whose numbers were rapidly increasing, owing to the frequent capture of American privateers by the king’s cruisers.

“A large transport, named the Whitby,” says General Jeremiah Johnson, “was the first prison-ship anchored in the Wallabout. She was moored near ‘Remsen’s mill,’ about the twentieth of October, 1776, and was then crowded with prisoners. Many landsmen were prisoners on board this vessel; she was said to be the most sickly of all the prison-ships. Bad provisions, bad water, and scanted rations, were dealt to the prisoners. No medical men attended the sick, disease reigned unrelieved, and hundreds died from pestilence, or were starved, on board this floating prison. I saw the sand-beach, between the ravine in the hill and Mr. Remsen’s clock, become filled with graves in the course of two months; and before the first of May, 1777, the ravine alluded to was itself occupied in the same way. In the month of May, 1777, two large ships were anchored in the Wallabout, when the prisoners were transferred from the ‘Whitby’ to them; these vessels were also very sickly, from the causes before stated. Although many prisoners were sent on board of them, and none exchanged, death made room for all. On a Sunday afternoon, about the middle of October, 1777, one of the prisonships was burnt; the prisoners, except a few, who, it was said, were burnt in the vessel, were removed to the remaining ship. It was reported, at the time, that the prisoners had fired their prison, which, if true, proves that they preferred death, even by fire, to the lingering sufferings of pestilence and starvation. In the month of February, 1778, the remaining prison-ship was burnt at night, when the prisoners were removed from her to the ships then wintering in the Wallabout.” . . .

Of all these, the “Old Jersey,” or the “Hell,” as she was called, from the large number confined in her — often more than a thousand at a time and the terrible sufferings which they there endured, has won a terrible pre-eminence in the sad history of the prison-ships, of which, indeed, her name has become the synonym. She was originally a fourth-rate sixty-gun ship of the British navy, was built in 1736, and achieved a long and honorable career; but, in 1776, being unfit for farther active service, was ordered to New York, as a hospital-ship. In this capacity she remained, in the East River, nearly opposite “Fly Market,” until the winter of 1779-80, when she was converted into a prison-ship. . . . Her portholes were closed and securely fastened, and their places supplied by two tiers of small holes, each about twenty inches square, and guarded by two strong bars of iron, crossing at right angles, cut through her sides, for the admission of air. These, however, while they “admitted the light by day, and served as breathing-holes at night,” by no means famished that free circulation of air between the decks, which was so imperatively necessary to the health and comfort of the prisoners. . . .

The appearance of the Old Jersey, as she lay in the Wallabout, is thus graphically described by Captain Dring. Leaving Now York, together with one hundred and thirty prisoners, brought in by the British ship ‘Belisarius,’ he proceeded to the place of their imprisonment, under the charge of the notorious David Sproat, Commissary of Prisoners. “We at length doubled a point,” he says, “and came in view of the Wallabout, where lay before us the black hulk of the Old Jersey, with her satellites, the three hospital ships, to which Sproat pointed in an exulting manner, and said, ‘There, rebels, there is the cage for you!’ As he spoke, my eye was instantly turned from the dreaded hulk; but a single glance had shown us a multitude of human beings moving upon her upper deck. It was then nearly sunset, and before we were alongside, every man, except the sentinels on the gangway, had disappeared. Previous to their being sent below, some of the prisoners, seeing us approaching, waved their hats, as if they would say, approach us not; and we soon found fearful reason for the warning.” While waiting alongside for orders, some of the prisoners, whose features they could not see, on account of the increasing darkness, addressed them through the air-holes which we have described. After some questions as to whence they came, and concerning their capture, one of the prisoners remarked “that it was a lamentable thing to see so many young men, in full strength, with the flush of health upon their countenances, about to enter that infernal place of abode. ‘Death,’ he said, I had no relish for such skeleton carcases as we are; but he will now have a feast upon you fresh comers.’ ” . . .

The first care of a prisoner, after arriving upon the Jersey, says Dring, “was to form, or be admitted into, some regular mess. On the day of a prisoner’s arrival, it was impossible for him to procure any food; and, even on the second day, he could not procure any in time to have it cooked. No matter how long he had fasted, nor how acute might be his sufferings from hunger and privations, his petty tyrants would on no occasion deviate from their rule of delivering the prisoner’s morsel at a particular hour, and at no other: and the poor, half-famished wretch must absolutely wait until the coming day, before his pittance of food could be boiled with that of his fellow-captives.” The vacancies in the different messes daily provided by death, rendered it comparatively easy for the new-comers to associate themselves with some of the older captives, of whose experience they could, in various ways, avail themselves. . . . As soon as it “was called, the person representing it hurried forward to the window in the bulkhead of the steward’s room, from which was handed the allowance for the day. This was, for each six men, what was equivalent to the full rations of four men. No vegetables of any description, or butter, was allowed; but, in place of the latter, a scanty portion of so-called sweet-oil, so rancid and often putrid, that the Americans could not eat it, and always gave it to the foreign prisoners in the lower hold, “who took it gratefully, and swallowed it with a little salt and their wormy bread.” These rations, insufficient and miserable as they were, were frequently not given to the prisoners in time to be boiled on the same day, thus obliging them often to fast for another twenty four hours, or to consume it raw, as they sometimes did. . . .

When the prisoners ascended to the upper deck in the morning, if the day was fair, each carried up his own hammock and bedding, which were placed upon the spar-deck, or booms. The sick and disabled were then brought up by the working party, and placed in bunks prepared upon the centre deck; the corpses of those who had died the night before were next brought up from below and placed upon the booms, and then the decks were washed down. The beds and clothing were kept on deck until about two hours before sunset, when the prisoners were ordered to carry them below. “After this had been done,” says Dring, “we were allowed either to retire between decks, or to remain above, until sunset, according to our own pleasure. Every thing which we could do conducive to cleanliness having then been performed, if we ever felt any thing like enjoyment in this wretched abode, it was during this brief interval, when we breathed the cool air of the approaching night, and felt the luxury of our evening pipe. But short, indeed, was this period of repose. The working-party were soon ordered to carry the tubs below, and we prepared to descend to our gloomy and crowded dungeons. This was no sooner done, than the gratings were closed over the hatchways, the sentinels stationed, and we left to sicken and pine beneath our accumulated torments, with our guards above crying aloud, through the long night, “All’s well!”

What these “accumulated torments” of the night were, may be best understood from Dring’s words: “Silence was a stranger to our dark abode. There were continual noises during the night. The groans of the sick and the dying; the curses poured out by the weary and exhausted upon our inhuman keepers; the restlessness caused by the suffocating heat and the confined and poisonous air, mingled with the wild and incoherent ravings of delirium, were the sounds which, every night, were raised around us in all directions.” Frequently the dying, in the last mortal throes of dissolution, would throw themselves across their sick comrades, who, unable to remove the lifeless bodies, were compelled to wait until morning before they could be freed from the horrid burden. Dysentery, small-pox, yellow fever, and the recklessness of despair, soon filled the hulk with filth of the most disgusting character. “The lower hold,” says [Rev. Thomas] Andros, “and the orlop deck, were such a terror, that no man would venture down into them. Humanity would have dictated a more merciful treatment to a band of pirates, who had been condemned and were only awaiting the gibbet, than to have sent them here. . . . While so many were sick with raging fever, there was a loud cry for water; but none could be had, except on the upper deck, and but one allowed to ascend at a time. The suffering then from the rage of thirst during the night, was very great. Nor was it at all times safe to attempt to go up. Provoked by the continual cry for leave to ascend, when there was already one on deck, the sentry would push them back with his bayonet.” This guard, which usually numbered about thirty, was relieved each week by a fresh party; sometimes English-at others, Hessians or refugees. The latter were, as might have naturally been expected, most obnoxious to the prisoners, who could not bear the presence of those whom they considered as traitors. The English soldiers they viewed as simply performing their legitimate duty; and the Hessians they preferred, because they received from them better treatment than from the others.

A very serious conflict with the guard occurred on the 4th of July, 1782, in consequence of the prisoners attempting to celebrate the day with such observances and amusements as their condition permitted. Upon going on deck in the morning, they displayed thirteen little national flags in a row upon the booms, which were immediately torn down and trampled under the feet of the guard, which on that day happened to consist of Scotchmen. Deigning no notice of this, the prisoners proceeded to amuse themselves with patriotic songs, speeches, and cheers, all the while avoiding whatever could be construed into an intentional insult to the guard; which, however, at an unusually early hour in the afternoon, drove them below at the point of the bayonet, and closed the hatches. Between decks, the prisoners now continued their singing, etc., until about nine o’clock in the evening. An order to desist not having been promptly complied with, the hatches were suddenly removed, and the guards descended among them, with lanterns and cutlasses in their hands. Then ensued a scene of terror. The helpless prisoners, retreating from the hatchways as far as their crowded condition would permit, were followed by the guards, who mercilessly hacked, cut, and wounded every one within their reach; and then ascending again to the upper deck, fastened down the hatches upon the poor victims of their cruel rage, leaving them to languish through the long, sultry, summer night, without water to cool their parched throats, and without lights by which they might have dressed their wounds. And, to add to their torment, it was not until the middle of the next forenoon that the prisoners were allowed to go on deck and slake their thirst, or to receive their rations of food, which, that day, they were obliged to eat uncooked. Ten corpses were found below on the morning which succeeded that memorable 4th of July, and many others were badly wounded.

Equal to this, in fiendish barbarity, is the incident related by Silas Talbot, as occurring on the Stromboli, while be was a prisoner upon that ship. The prisoners, irritated by their ill treatment, rose one night on the guard, “the commander being on shore, and several, in attempting to escape, were either killed or wounded. The captain got on board just as the fray was quelled, when a poor fellow lying on deck, bleeding, and almost exhausted by a mortal wound, called him by name, and begged him, for God’s sake, a little water for he was dying!’ The captain applied a light to his face, and directly exclaimed: ‘What Is it you, d — n you ? I’m glad you’re shot. If I knew the man that shot you, I’d give him a guinea ‘Take that, you d — d rebel rascal!’ and instantly dashed his foot in the face of the dying man!” . . . .

We have already alluded to the poisonous and disgustingly impure nature of the water in which the prisoners’ food was cooked. Equally deleterious in its effects was the water with which they were obliged to slake their constant and tormenting thirst. This was contained in a large water-butt, on the upper deck, and guarded by one of the marines, with a drawn cutlass. From the copper ladles, chained to the cask, the prisoners could drink as much as they pleased, but were not allowed to carry away more than a pint at a time. Dring estimates the daily consumption of water on board the Jersey at about seven hundred gallons, and a large gondola was constantly employed in conveying it from the Brooklyn shore. Brackish as it was, when brought on board, the haste and exertions of every one to procure a draught, gave rise to fearful scenes of confusion, which often called for the interposition of the guard. So much of the water as was not required for immediate use, was conveyed, through leathern hose, into butts, placed in the lower hold of the hulk; and to this the prisoners had recourse, when they could procure no other. These butts had never been cleaned since they were first placed there; and the foul sediment which they contained, being disturbed by every new supply which was poured in, rendered their contents a compound of the most disgusting and poisonous nature, to which is directly attributable the death of hundreds of the prisoners on the Jersey. . . .

Near the Jersey, as before mentioned, lay three hospital-ships — the Scorpion, Stromboli, and Hunter — of whose interiors Dring (who, more fortunate than others, managed to maintain his health) says he could only form some idea “from viewing their outward appearance, which was disgusting in the highest degree.” . . . . The condition of the hospital-ships, however, was scarcely less crowded, filthy, and uncomfortable than that of the Jersey itself. Insufficient clothing, scarcity of blankets, the want of dry fuel to keep up even the small fires that were allowed, caused great suffering among the patients, whose only provision was a gill of ordinary wine, and twelve ounces of musty and poorly baked bread, per day. The surgeons visited the ships only once in several days, their manner was indifferent and even unfeeling, their stay on board very brief, and their medicines very sparingly bestowed.’ The greatest neglect was exhibited by the nurses, of whose conduct all our authorities speak in terms of indignant reprobation. These nurses seemed to take more interest in the death of their patients than in relieving their wants, and scarcely waited for the breath to leave their bodies before they despoiled them of their blankets, clothes, and even their hair. By day their duties were most carelessly performed, and with a heartlessness which added additional pangs to the sufferings of those who depended upon their assistance; but at night there was “not the least attention paid to the sick and dying, except what could be done by the convalescent; were so frequently called upon, that in many cases they overdid themselves, relapsed, and died.” . . .

The Jersey became, at length, so crowded, and the increase of disease among the prisoners so rapid, that even the hospital-ships were inadequate for their reception. In this emergency, bunks were erected on the starboard side of the upper deck of the Jersey, for the accommodation of the sick from between decks. The horrors of the old hulk were now increased a hundred-fold. Foul air, confinement, darkness, hunger, thirst, the slow poison of the malarious locality in which the ship was anchored, the torments of vermin, the suffocating heat alternating with cold, and, above all, the almost total absence of hope, performed their deadly work unchecked. The whole ship, from her keel to the taffrail, was equally affected, and contained pestilence sufficient to desolate a world-disease and death ‘were wrought into her very timbers.’ ” . . . .

There was, indeed, one condition upon which these hapless sufferers might have escaped the torture of this slow but certain death, and that was enlistment in the British service. This chance was daily offered to them by the recruiting officers who visited the ship, but whose persuasions and offers were almost invariably treated with contempt, and that, too, by men who fully expected to die where they were. In spite of untold physical sufferings, which might well have shaken the resolution of the strongest; in spite of the insinuations of the British that they were neglected by their Government — insinuations which seemed to be corroborated by the very facts of their condition; in defiance of threats of even harsher treatment, and regardless of promises of food and clothing — objects most tempting to men in their condition; but few, comparatively, sought relief from their woes by the betrayal of their honor. And these few went forth into liberty followed by the execrations and undisguised contempt of the suffering heroes whom they left behind. It was this calm, unfaltering, unconquerable SPIRIT OF PATRIOTISM — torture, starvation, loathsome disease, and the prospect of a neglected and forgotten grave-which sanctifies to every American heart the scene of their suffering in the Wallabout, and which will render the sad story of the “prison-ships” one of ever-increasing interest to all future generations. “They chose to die, rather than injure the Republic. And the Republic hath never yet paid them the tribute of gratitude!” . . . .

July 17, 2000

Gary North is the author of Conspiracy: A Biblical View, which you can’t quite see on the bookshelves in Conspiracy Theory. But you can download a free copy at