- 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
The exploits of individual black seamen before they became prisoners of war remained for the most part as unheralded as those of their white compatriots, for officers, not crewmen, received the adulation of the public. There are, however, occasional glimpses of the bravery of men from the lower deck. One episode that achieved some fame at the time, and has occasionally been recalled since, involved the privateer Governor Tompkins , which escaped from a British frigate in December, 1812. Captain Nathaniel Shaler, one of the most successful of the privateer captains of his day, reported on the bravery of two black seamen who were killed in the action. John Johnson had most of the lower part of his body taken away by a 24-pound shot and as he lay dying on the deck was shouting “Fire away my boy! No haul a color down.” John Davis, who suffered a similar terrible injury, fell near Captain Shaler and kept asking to be thrown overboard, saying he was “only in the way of the others.”
When the first wet and tired Americans reached Dartmoor in April, 1813, they were scattered among the French barracks, but during the next month they were all moved into No. 4 Barracks along with nearly a thousand Frenchmen. In the next eighteen months, as more and more Americans came into the prison and as the French left after the end of the European war in the spring of 1814, the Americans occupied five of the barracks. At first the blacks were mixed in with the other prisoners, as of course they had to be on the small ships of the period; but by early 1814 the whites petitioned that the blacks be given separate quarters, arguing that this was necessary to prevent stealing. At first the blacks were segregated in the upper stories of No. 4, but by September nearly all the whites had moved out ofthat building.
No. 4 remained the black barracks until the late spring of 1815, when with numbers at Dartmoor sharply reduced by repatriation the prisoners were again integrated. But in the winter of 1814-15 No. 4 was the home of over eight hundred black seamen, and even after the segregation the barracks was still not completely black; it was later explained by a white prisoner that No. 4 “became a prison of refuge, to many who were uneasy in their positions in other prisons.” The segregated barracks evidently was used for punishment as well as refuge, for in April, 1815, it was stated that “three Frenchmen were detected in the act of buggery and this morning they were flog’d severely. And turnd in to No. 4 among the Negroes.”
Although the most obvious signs of authority at Dartmoor were the British soldiers patrolling the walls and guarding the gates, much of the internal discipline of the prison was left to the prisoners themselves. The two prison governors of these years- Captains Isaac Cotgrave and Thomas G. Shortland of the Royal Navy- interfered as little as possible with the internal management of the prison. To punish theft and enforce internal law the Americans instituted their own courts, quickly proving themselves quite willing to continue the tyranny of the lash familiar on board ship. Floggings were frequently imposed by these seamen’s courts, and at times they were as brutal as any imposed by officers on American vessels at that time. One man was sentenced by his fellow prisoners to receive five hundred lashes for stealing ten pounds. After seventy-five his back was so badly torn that they cut him down to heal before continuing the punishment. Five hundred lashes, however, was a decided exception. More typical were the sentences meted out to cooks—eighteen lashes for skimming the fat off the soup for their own use- and one prisoner said he had never seen more than two dozen given.
The committees governing the other barracks apparently gained little foothold in No. 4, for by the end of 1814 it was controlled by a powerful figure whose influence was felt far beyond his own barracks. King Dick (or “Big Dick”) was one of the few prisoners at Dartmoor consistently singled out in the prisoners’journals. His most striking feature was his size; in one journal he was described as “a 7 foot Negro.” In reality he was a little under 6′ 4″, but because there were few men over 6 feet in the prison (most were under 5′ 9″, and many were under 5′ 6″), King Dick was indeed a giant of a man. He towered head and shoulders above the other prisoners, was of a powerful physique, taught boxing, and was seldom challenged. He strode through the prison, a bearskin’ cap on his head, a large club in his hand; and, adding to his presence, he kept “two white lads” with him, “whom he took care to select for their comely looks, and to keep them handsomely clad.” The impact of his physical presence, his dominating personality, and his feeling for the grand style survive even in the journals of those prisoners generally hostile to the inhabitants of No. 4. Descriptions of him in these journals are generally favorable; there is none of the animosity directed against the group known as the Rough Alleys or Rough Allies, a band of ruffians, apparently white, who from time to time terrorized the other prisoners and who were blamed for much of the crime and violence in the prison.