- 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 services were evangelical, and even the prisoner who poured scorn on the minister’s appearance was willing to concede that “the musical performances at these meetings were in a wild, but not unpleasant style, carried on entirely by the blacks, who, here as everywhere, exhibited their native taste for music.” The writer maintained that it was the choir and not the minister that attracted a considerable number of whites to the meeting every Sunday; but even the fragmentary evidence of those whites who wrote journals in the prison makes it clear that at least two whites became converts to the black Methodist preacher and moved into No. 4.
Although the Dartmoor inmates found numerous ways to lessen their hardships and boredom, they could not escape the harshness of their daily existence. The prison was extremely unhealthy, and some two hundred and seventy Americans died there, including more than sixty blacks. Most of the deaths were from pneumonia and from a smallpox epidemic in the winter of 1814-15. Unfortunately the two must often have been combined, for in February, 1815, with smallpox raging in the prison, the authorities decided that the spread of the disease would be checked by extinguishing the fires in the barracks. Moreover, the officials of the Transport Board had to point out to Dr. George Magrath, the medical officer at Dartmoor, that his practice of giving cold baths to smallpox victims, even when there was inflammation in the chest, did not conform with modern medical practice. Magrath, however, wrote to defend his method of treatment and obtained statements from some of the prisoners testifying to the excellence of his care.
In view of the prevalence of disease and death it is not surprising that many in Dartmoor thought of the possibility of escape. Only a handful succeeded, for even if the outside of the prison was reached, the moors presented a formidable obstacle. Techniques of escape have hardly changed over the centuries. A few prisoners bribed soldiers and managed to get away wearing uniforms made by the prisoners, but in the summer of 1814 a more elaborate plan was formulated. Tunnels were begun from Nos. 4, 5, and 6 barracks, and great ingenuity was used in disposing of the dirt; some was washed away in the channels of water that ran through the prison yards, and some was plastered on the walls and coated with whitewash. But hopes disappeared when informers told Captain Shortland and the tunnels were found.
Those caught trying to escape from Dartmoor, or punished by the British for other offenses, were put in the “cachot.” This was a special building between the inner wall and the iron palisade; it was simply a large cell built of huge stone blocks, and it could hold up to sixty prisoners. There was no furniture, and the most that was ever given the prisoners to protect them from the cold stone floor was a blanket and sometimes straw. The only light came from two narrow openings under the eaves, and the prisoners were usually placed on two-thirds rations. It was almost always a place for limited punishment, but four white sailors who were accused of trying to blow up their vessel with the British on board were placed in the cachot when they came to Dartmoor in August, 1814, and stayed there for a half year. In February, 1815, one of the men escaped from the cachot and was moved by fellow inmates from prison to prison. In No. 4 his face was darkened, and he passed as a black. Although the British soon recaptured him, all prisoners in the cachot were released into the general barracks in March on the order of Captain Shortland, who was finding it increasingly difficult to justify special punishment when the war was over.
The prisoners had endured their fate with reasonable patience while their imprisonment seemed inevitable, but they found it very difficult to restrain their discontent when the treaty ending the War of 1812 was signed. Their imprisonment continued while the two nations exchanged ratifications of the treaty; but even when that was completed, still further delays ensued. The British assumed that the Americans would provide the necessary ships for the repatriation of the prisoners, but neither the American government nor its agent Beasley showed any particular haste. Beasley, who had long been disliked by the prisoners for his neglect of their interests, now became an object of loathing. On March 25 a prisoner recorded that “at Noon we had the Effigy of Mr. Beasley hung and then burnt for his kind attention to the American prisoners of war.”
In the middle of March the British had informed Beasley that they would deliver up the prisoners of war if he would provide the ships; but before his slow preparations had matured, there was tragedy at Dartmoor, a tragedy that made the name of the prison notorious in the United States.