- Historic Sites
“rebels, Turn Out Your Dead!—
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
Once they were aboard, neither the stark surroundings nor the routine and deprivations to which they were subjected gave Fox, Dring, and their fellow prisoners any reassurance. Nor were they meant to do so. Although the weapons of war in the eighteenth century were less devastating than those of today, life at sea was raw, cruel, and violent—in war and in peacetime. Beatings, keelhaulings, iron shackles, and starvation rations were accepted instruments of enforcing discipline. Despite the understandably angry indictments of a score or more survivors who left long memoirs of the miseries they suffered aboard H.M.S. Jersey , the British were neither more nor less severe as captors than any civilized nation of that era.
In the case of the maritime prisoners of the Revolution, there was also calculation rather than malice behind the rough treatment. The most valued commodity to the British Navy was manpower for its great fleet of ships. Navy service was not very appealing. Voyages lasted months on end, and shipboard life was demanding, cramped, and sustained with little more than a bare survival diet. Death and disappearance were commonplace, and the records of every maritime family abounded with the sad notation, “Lost at sea.” Efforts to recruit a ship’s crew ranged from boisterous parties, staged primarily to get prospects sufficiently drunk so that when they woke up they were well out to sea, to actual impressment, a euphemism for outright kidnapping at the point of a pistol or the edge of a cutlass.
Under these circumstances tempting sources of manpower for British ships were the crews of captured Yankee vessels. They were, on the whole, well-trained, experienced seamen. They spoke English. And as far as the British were concerned, they were, though in rebellion, still British subjects. Furthermore, since the colonists assigned a major burden of their naval activities to privateers, few of the American captives were technically prisoners of war, and the British felt that they should be treated merely as private seamen committing crimes on the high seas. It was their hope that the prisoners would find life aboard the prison ships so intolerable that they would gladly enlist in His Majesty’s service. Some did, planning, in many cases, to desert the enemy’s forces later.
Far more often, however, whether from loyalty to the American cause or from sheer stubbornness, the prisoners endured the harrowing routine of boredom, hunger, disease, bitter cold or sweltering heat, and imminence of death that constituted life aboard Jersey . More than eleven hundred men were crammed between decks at night without cots or hammocks, and so crowded was her spar deck by day that they had to take turns walking in platoons along narrow aisles kept open for that purpose. Night was the most horrible time. At sundown the guards bellowed, “Down, rebels, down!” and the halfnaked, emaciated men descended through narrow hatchways, each of which was guarded by a solitary sentry once the grating covers were in place. The only concession to naval amenities was made by the prisoners themselves, who agreed that their officers should have the former gun room, aft on the middle deck, to themselves.
The dreaded nightly routine on Jersey was graphically recalled by Christopher Hawkins, who was captured in 1781 when the Providence brig Mariamne , five days out of Newport, was taken by two British frigates: We were all put between decks ev’ry night before dark, the number being great our situation was here extremely unpleasant. … Although the british had an hospital ship near us for the accommodation of the sick yet we had a great deal of sickness on board the Jersey , and many died on board her. The sickness seemed to be epidemic and which we called the bloody flux or dyssenterry. After the prisoners had been driven below at dusk of the evening and the boat had ceased conveying the sick to the hospital ship, many of the prisoners would become sick the fore part of the evening and before morning their suffering would be ended by death—such was the malignancy of the disease. My situation amongst others after being stowed away for the night was on the larboard side of the ship with our heads near the wall or side, and the two boys before mentioned [brothers who had been cooks on Mariamne] by the side of me. Thus situated, but one gangway to the upper deck was open, from which my place of rest was about 20 feet, and only two prisoners were allowed to visit the upper deck at the same time in the night let the calls of nature be never so violent, and there was no place between decks provided us to satisfy those calls. This induced an almost constant running over me by the sick, who would besmear myself and others with their bloody and loathsome filth.