Patriots Or Terrorists?


Numerous contemporary accounts confirm that prisoners on the Jersey were treated with unparalleled “severity and inhumanity,” that they received only a few ounces of bad meat per week, that they fought “like wild beasts to get near the small air ports, that they might breathe,” that “7 or 8 died every 24 hours,” that hundreds had already enlisted in the Royal Navy in a desperate bid to save themselves. Christopher Vail’s unpublished narrative, composed years later but based on a journal he kept during the war, corroborates the overcrowding, hunger, sickness, and hellish filth. “There was only one passage to go on deck in the night,” he recalled, and the guards would only allow two men up at a time. “Many of the Prisoners were troubled with the disentary and would come to the steps and could not be permitted to go on deck, and was obliged to ease themselves on the spot, and the next morning for 12 feet around the hatches was nothing but excrement.”Christopher Hawkins, Vail’s fellow prisoner, likewise wrote in his autobiography of the rampant dysentery that left him and others covered with “bloody and loathesome filth” by morning, of fisticuffs between demoralized prisoners, of savage whippings, of one man so hungry he ate the lice from his shirt. A third captive, Ebenezer Fox, a 17-year-old seaman, aptly described the Jersey in the late summer of 1781 as a “floating Pandemonium.”

This Was Hell!

Perhaps the best measure of the huge impact of these revelations on American opinion during the war was the acclaim showered on Philip Freneau’s epic poem “The British Prison Ship,” first printed in 1781, which tells the story of a patriot taken at sea and confined in two of the New York prison ships—neither one the Jersey, as it happened, but that was a mere detail. The poem’s celebration of unwavering allegiance to the new nation in the face of enemy brutality coincided perfectly with the outcry over the Jersey, and its sensational popularity laid the foundations of Freneau’s fame as “the poet of the Revolution.”

After graduating from Princeton in 1771, the scruffy, melancholic, poetically inclined youth drifted from one calling to another—teaching school, studying for the ministry, toying vaguely with the idea of careers in law or medicine—all the while jotting down innocuous poems imitating, by turns, Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Goldsmith. Though managing to produce a few patriotic verses, he did not become fully committed to the Revolution until the summer of 1778, when he returned from a Caribbean voyage to his home in Monmouth County, New Jersey, and seeing how the British had savaged the people and countryside at the recent Battle of Monmouth. He enlisted with a New Jersey militia company assigned to shore patrol between South Amboy and Long Branch. He also published “America Independent,” a poem that sang the praises of republican government, excoriated George III as a bloody despot, and lamented the many friends and neighbors consigned to the “sickly ships” and “dreary dungeons” of New York.

One man was so hungry he ate the lice from his shirt

In the autumn of 1780 Freneau started work on “The British Prison Ship,” which would appear as a pamphlet the following summer. Like the just published and arguably even more famous Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity (1779), which he had obviously read with care, Freneau’s poem represented a sharp departure from the captivity stories familiar to his readers, most notably the ordeal of the Puritan housewife Mary Rowlandson, taken prisoner by the Narragansett in 1675. Before now, falling into the hands of one’s enemies was the shameful consequence of things gone wrong—a mark of failure, personal or collective or both, crying out for explanation and accountability. The captive’s story was ultimately a quest for redemption.

The four cantos of “The British Prison Ship” work differently. In Canto I, “The Capture,” Freneau’s patriot narrator sets out from Philadelphia aboard the bark Aurora, bound for St. Eustatius, and other soft Caribbean islands, only to be engaged in a fierce firefight by a British frigate. His ship hammered to splinters around him, its “deck bestain’d with heart-blood streaming round,” the captain of the Aurora surrenders. He and his brave crew, though guiltless, are now prisoners:

Convey’d to York the Britons lodg’d us there,
Safe in their dens of hunger and dispair,
Their ships are prisons, void of masts or sails,
In which describing, e’en description fails.

Canto II reveals that the narrator would spend seven weeks “in these d___’d hulks,” during which he comes to realize that the barbarous cruelty of the enemy, “the race I hate,” is premeditated: “This be my talk—ungenerous Britons you,/Conspire to murder those you can’t subdue.” Though the experience has nearly killed him, he is resolved nonetheless to describe what he saw because he is tormented by the memory of all those nameless young men who died for their country.

At the beginning of Canto III, then, the narrator introduces four prison ships anchored off Manhattan: Scorpion, Strombolo, Jersey, and the hospital ship Hunter—“piles for slaughter, floating on the floods.” He winds up on the Scorpion , “a dire abode” crowded with several hundred captives. The guards taunt and beat them for sport, make them drink putrid water, and keep them barely alive on “rotten pork, the lumpy damag’d flour, / Soaked in salt water, and with age grown sour.” Not surprisingly, the narrator succumbs to ship fever (typhus) and is transferred to the Hunter. As soon as he arrives at “this detested place,” the focus of the fourth and last canto, a “wasted phantom” accosts him like the ghost of Hamlet’s father and demands to know his purpose: