The Paradox Of Dartmoor Prison


Like many another seaman of this period King Dick apparently used more than one name. It is probable he was Richard Crafus, seaman on an unlucky American privateer taken at Bordeaux in March, 1814; but after the war, when he lived in Boston, he used the name Richard Seavers. He was twenty-three years old in 1814 and on his capture gave his birthplace as Vienna. If true this is more likely to have been Vienna, Maryland, a muchused port on the Nanticoke River in Chesapeake Bay, than Vienna, Austria.

Although some of the white prisoners asserted in their journals that No. 4 was disreputable, one usually reliable diarist asserted that “many of the most respectable prisoners preferred to mess in No. 4 on account of the superior order of that prison.” Indeed, there is evidence that King Dick exercised power well beyond the confines of No. 4. When in January, 1815, the usual market was stopped because inmates to be punished for official prison offenses had not been handed over to the British by one of the white barracks, the men of the other barracks, white and black, “came in a mob headed by Big Dick, a 7 foot Negro, and by force of Arms took out the offenders and carried them before Shortland.”

The basic necessities for the prisoners in Dartmoor were provided by both the British and the American governments, and quarrels over the exact responsibility of each meant at times that the needs of the actual prisoners were ignored. The prisoners often arrived at Dartmoor in rags but until the spring of 1814 received a basic allowance of clothing and bedding from the British government: a cloth jacket, a waistcoat, trousers, two cotton shirts, a hat, and two pairs of stockings were to last for eighteen months; shoes in theory were to be distributed as often as necessary, but at times delays left the prisoners barefoot. The British issue was serviceable but hardly stylish; it consisted of a bright yellow woolen jacket and trousers, both imprinted with a broad arrow and the letters TO (for Transport Office), and a conical woolen cap. Some prisoners kept their rags rather than wearing the issue. The sailors were used to the hammocks distributed by the British, but it was said of the blankets that they were “as full of lice as the Devil is of Wickedness.” From the spring of 1814 the American government agreed to supply the necessary clothing through its London agent for prisoners, Reuben G. Beasley, but there was still considerable neglect and delay.

The basic food ration was enough to live on—in fact in some respects healthier than the diet of many modern Americans—but was reduced by the corruption of the victualling agent. Five days in the week the ration per man was one and a half pounds of bread, a half pound of beef, a half pound of cabbage or turnips, an ounce of barley, a quarter ounce of onions, and a third of an ounce of salt. On two days in the week a pound of potatoes was substituted for the barley, vegetables, and salt, and on another day a pound of herring for the beef. Also various substitutions were made in time of shortage, peas for example instead of the barley and onions. The food was issued in bulk, and the meat ration was sharply reduced by bone; the prisoners nearly always made their soup from this monotonous ration of meat and vegetables

Most of the prisoners desperately wanted more food and greater variety, and they devised many ways to achieve their ends. Surprisingly, there was a good deal of money circulating in Dartmoor. Some trade was made possible by the allowance given by the American government to each prisoner; at first this amounted to one and a half pence a day, and from April, 1814, it was increased to two and a half. The money put into circulation in the prison in this manner was added to in a variety of ways. Many of the seamen discharged from British ships as Americans received prize money and wages; some with prosperous families were able to have money sent to them from the United States; some worked for the British as coopers, blacksmiths, painters, lamplighters, and nurses in the hospital; and others worked near the prison, building a church and repairing the roads. Even counterfeiting added to the available supply of money.

The single most important opportunity for the seamen to spend their money, and to make some, was the market held every day except Sunday from 11 A.M. to 2 P.M. The countryfolk from the surrounding areas flocked in to sell fresh produce and little luxuries to the American sailors, and the sailors in turn sold baskets, paintings, carved wood and bone, and woven hats. The arguments were many as Down Easters from Maine and Devonshire farmers struggled to bargain in accents almost incomprehensible to many of their own countrymen. At times the scene became almost chaotic when the Rough Alleys stole from or cheated the local population.

The market was, however, by no means the only opportunity for trade, and in the complexity of its shops, goods, and amusements Dartmoor at times seems more a thriving village than a notorious and unhealthy prison. A variety of trades produced extra money for the prisoners; they made clothes, shoes, tinware, boxes, ornaments, and fiddles, and some even took in washing from their more prosperous compatriots.