- Historic Sites
The Paradox Of Dartmoor Prison
While some American captives languished, others conducted a flourishing market—and a huge black sailor organized everything
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
Stark, mist-enshrouded Dartmoor prison has long held a fascination for those interested in British crime. Since 1850 many of England’s most notorious criminals have been condemned to labor on the bleak Devonshire moor seventeen miles from Plymouth, and crime enthusiasts and novelists have found the cold, lonely prison an exotic subject. However, for the generation that lived through the War of 1812 Dartmoor held a far different reputation. In American ports during the first half of the nineteenth century Dartmoor was remembered as a symbol both of the heroism and suffering of American sailors and of British tyranny and oppression, for on Christmas Eve, 1814, at the moment when the treaty ending the second war between England and the United States was being signed in Ghent, over five thousand American sailors were confined in the huge stone prisons constructed near the little village of Princetown in the middle of Dartmoor. These sailors were the privateersmen who had shocked the British navy in the War of 1812, the merchant seamen who had carried the American flag from Riga to Canton, and the men who, when impressed into the British service, had helped arouse American opinion to war. Their homes were in Salem, New York, Baltimore, New Orleans, and numerous other American ports; among them were some nine hundred black Americans.
The British kept American prisoners of war at Dartmoor from the spring of 1813 to the early summer of 1815. It was a prison of remarkable contrasts: on the one hand smallpox, pneumonia, and floggings, on the other music, dancing, fencing, and theatre. While some prisoners languished on the cold stone floor of the punishment cell others watched the black prisoners perform Othello or Romeo and Juliet ; while some tunnelled under the yard others strolled above their heads, shouting their wares and selling fritters, puddings, stew, and any other food they could concoct; while British redcoats marched along the walls black “King Dick” strode majestically through the prison, club in hand, attended by two white boys; and when the gambling tables were pushed aside in the loft of the black prison, room was made for the Methodist preacher, his choir, and an impassioned evangelical service. In its violence, brutality, and sentiment Dartmoor echoed the age, and the prisoners who awarded their compatriots brutal floggings for stealing also gave up a day’s fish and potatoes to provide money for the English wife of an American hospital attendant killed by a demented prisoner. This was Dartmoor, a prison once indelibly imprinted on the minds of thousands of American sailors.
The skill and valor of American seamen in the War of 1812 has often been acclaimed. At the beginning of the war both British and Americans expected that the ships of the United States would be swept from the seas by the mighty British navy, but the Americans won dramatic victories. The engagements fought by the Constitution and the United States have become an honored part of American naval history, but for most of the war it was the American privateers that caused the most concern to the British. Hundreds of ships left American ports to raid British commerce, and they spread havoc from the distant Pacific to the very coasts of Great Britain. While American soldiers floundered along the Canadian border American sailors were boosting the country’s morale and helping to create a naval tradition.
From the beginning of the war in June, 1812, the British had the task of coping with American naval prisoners. Over twenty-five hundred men whom the British were prepared to recognize as Americans were serving on British ships; some of these men had volunteered, but many had been impressed out of American merchantmen or in British ports and forced to serve on British warships. In the next two and a half years many of these Americans refused to serve against their country and asked to be released into prison. The number of naval prisoners swelled as the British navy captured numerous American merchantmen, privateers, and a few ships of the tiny American regular navy. When possible, prisoners were exchanged with the Americans for British prisoners of war, but from the battles along the Canadian border and seizures of American shipping the British soon held a surplus of prisoners. In the course of the War of 1812 a over twenty thousand American seamen were at one time or another held prisoner by the British. These were scattered in prisons as far apart as Nova Scotia and the Cape of Good Hope, but by far the most infamous one was Dartmoor.
It would have been hard to find a more desolate spot for a prison than the moors north of Plymouth. In winter it was foggy, wet, and cold, and icy winds swept across the desolate landscape to chill those unfortunates imprisoned within the bleak granite walls. The prison was built between 1806 and 1808 for the prisoners of the Napoleonic wars and was enlarged in 1812. From the spring of 1809 thousands of Frenchmen marched across the moors into the prison; and when the first Americans straggled through the main gate in 1813, they entered a complex society.