- 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
As the prisoners trudged toward the prison at the end of their long march they could see before them, usually through rain or mist, an eighteenfoot wall of huge granite blocks that stretched, a mile long, around the prison. The prisoners marched through the main gate into a courtyard flanked by the houses of the prison officials. An open walk led through two more gates into the courtyard containing the military quarters and hospital. Only when yet another gate had been opened did they at last enter the main section of their wartime home. Here there were seven large prison barracks, separated from the moors by three barriers: an iron palisade some twelve feet high; an inner wall manned by soldiers and protected by a trip wire of alarm bells; and thirty feet from the inner wall the massive eighteen-foot outer wall. Barracks No. 4 had its own yard, and it was separated by walls from groups of three barracks on either side; No. 4 was to become the home of the blacks.
In winter the internal look of the barracks was as depressing as the surrounding countryside. They were three stories high, and each floor consisted of one huge room slung with hammocks. The granite walls constantly dripped water, and the prisoners walked on icy stone floors. Light entered through small, iron-barred windows, and the shutters that should have helped to exclude the cold had to be opened to let in the light. In the winter of 1814-15 the British authorities feared that a smallpox epidemic had arisen partly from inadequate ventilation; they were particularly perturbed that at 7:30 A.M. , when the outside temperature was 38°, the temperature on the bottom two floors was 56° and on the top floor 61° to 66°. This seemed unreasonably hot and unhealthy, and the authorities urged the dousing of fires and better ventilation during the mild weather.
Before the spring of 1813 American prisoners in England had been kept on hulks at Plymouth, Chatham, and Portsmouth, but beginning in April of that year a steady stream of these prisoners were sent to Dartmoor. The number of Americans increased from about a thousand at the end of January, 1814, to three thousand by August and over five thousand by that December. Even though the Treaty of Ghent ending the war was signed on December 24, 1814, naval prisoners continued to be sent to Dartmoor until March, 1815. In all more than sixty-five hundred Americans were admitted to the prison in just under two years. Virtually all were sailors, although a few special prisoners, including a surprised American farmer picked up during a raid on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, were admitted from time to time.
Of the Americans sent to Dartmoor about one out of seven was black. Since the Revolution the American merchant navy had provided a valuable opportunity of employment for free Negroes, and in these years, contrary to later practice, the regular American navy was willing to recruit black seamen. In the famous Chesapeake , affair in June, 1807, when sailors from the British frigate Leopard forcibly took three American seamen and one British deserter from the American frigate, two of the three Americans were black. In the War of 1812 itself, when Oliver Hazard Perry, commander of the American fleet on Lake Erie, complained of the black seamen sent to reinforce him, Commodore Isaac Chauncey on Lake Ontario asserted in reply: “I have yet to learn that the colour of the skin, or the cut and trimmings of the coat, can affect a man’s qualifications or usefulness. I have nearly fifty blacks on board of this ship, and many of them are among my best men.”
The black prisoners at Dartmoor, however, were nearly all from privateers, merchantmen, or British warships. Crewmen from the few ships of the regular American navy were usually quickly exchanged. Although some of the privateers and merchantmen had no blacks, or at the most only a black cook or steward, it was usual for American ships to carry some black seamen. The number varied greatly from ship to ship: the privateer Snapper brought into Bermuda in November, 1812, had twelve seamen listed as “Black” or “Mulatto” out of a total of eighty officers and men; the merchant ship Ranger brought in a month earlier had four blacks out of a total of thirteen seamen; a letter of marque taken at Bordeaux in March, 1814, had four seamen listed as “Black,” one as “Mulatto,” and three who were white. Most ships seem to have been integrated, although there were some all-white crews because their captains avoided signing on blacks. It is impossible to compile exact statistics of the color of all crews in the period, but it can be estimated that about 15 per cent of the sailors were black. There seems, however, to have been little or no opportunity for these crewmen to rise to the status of officers; one privateer out of New York had white officers and a crew of twenty-nine blacks. Officers were usually allowed parole rather than imprisonment, and British parole records show no evidence of blacks or mulattos except in the case of officers’ servants.