- 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 prisoners had been complaining to Shortland about the quality of their bread issue, and the situation in the prison became tense. On April 6 the British discovered that a small hole had been cut in an inner wall, leading, as the prisoners well knew, not to the moors but to another yard. It could hardly have been an escape attempt, but the British troops fired on the unarmed prisoners. The Americans ever after argued that this was no accident but the specific intention of Shortland. Prisoners from several of the barracks were hit. In No. 4 “the Blacks were near the gates of their Yard Gamboling and not Mistrusting any harm when a dreadful fire from the top of the wall killed several and wounded many.” When the mad scramble had ended, seven prisoners were dead or died of wounds, and thirty-one were wounded. Two of the dead and four of the wounded were blacks; Thomas Jackson, who died of gunshot wounds in the stomach, was only fourteen years old. The peace treaty had been signed over three months earlier.
The tragedy of April 6 convinced the British that they could no longer wait for Beasley and the American government to provide the vessels for repatriation. Those prisoners who could provide for themselves were allowed to leave immediately, and it was decided that the rest of the prisoners would be sent home at joint BritishAmerican expense; ships were to be provided immediately and the details of cost worked out later.
With both the British and the Americans supplying vessels, repatriation proceeded rapidly. By the end of June all but nine hundred prisoners had been sent away from Dartmoor, but of these nine hundred about half were blacks. Many blacks would not accept repatriation if the ship was bound for a southern port; they were afraid of being sold into slavery and preferred pestilential Dartmoor to that fate. All the American prisoners had now gathered in No. 4, and there was far less order than in the winter, for King Dick had been repatriated. By the middle of July the rest of the American prisoners had been freed, nearly all of the blacks sinking into that anonymity from which they had escaped briefly while on the registers of Dartmoor prison. King Dick worked as a laborer in Boston, taught boxing, and still attracted the awed attention of small boys as he strode majestically through the streets. Whatever his later disappointments, whatever the anguish of acknowledging that lesser men could rise above him because he was black, he could always remember his winter of power when in the raw equality of a prison camp, with native strength and ability more important than color, he had reigned as king of Dartmoor.