Patriots Or Terrorists?

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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:

Why didst thou leave the scorpion’s dark retreat,

And hither come, a surer death to meet;

Why didst thou leave thy damp infected cell,

If that was purgatory, this was hell.

Each day, the narrator discovers, at least three corpses will be removed from the ship and given a perfunctory burial on shore:

By feeble hands the shallow tombs were made,

No stone memorial o’er the corpses laid,

In barren sands and far from home they ly;

No friend to shed a tear when passing by:

O’er the slight graves insulting Britons tread,

Spurn at the sand and curse the rebel dead.

Sooner or later, however, these murdering vermin will be driven back to their “fatal Islands.” When that day comes, Americans must somehow commemorate the thousands who perished “in ships, in prisons, and in dungeons dire”—not as victims but as unbowed victors:

These all in freedom’s sacred cause ally’d,

For freedom ventur’d and for freedom dy’d;

To base subjection they were never broke,

They could not bend beneath a tyrant’s yoke;

Had these surviv’d, perhaps in thralldom held,

To serve proud Britain they had been compell’d;

Ungenerous deed—can she the charge deny?—

In such a case to triumph was to die.

Often excerpted and anthologized after its debut in 1781, “The British Prison Ship” anchored Freneau’s reputation as a poet and remained a favorite of American readers well into the 19th century. The reasons are not hard to see. One, surely, is the poem’s stirring reversal of the traditional captivity narrative. Freneau’s prisoner triumphs precisely because he refuses to repent or knuckle under. Even if it means death, he never yields to his captors or abandons the cause: martyrdom is the ultimate expression of love of country (“to triumph was to die”). This was a new, irresistible twist on an old literary genre. But that was not all. As it happened, “The British Prison Ship” appeared just as Americans began to learn of the terrible suffering inflicted on their brethren confined aboard the Jersey. Although it wasn’t about the Jersey as such, the poem’s seething anger and bitterness—its resentment of a cruel enemy (“the race I hate”)—perfectly captured the country’s mood. Although scholars have wondered if Freneau was writing from personal experience as a British prisoner, it hardly matters one way or the other. The important thing is that he had given voice to what was in the hearts and minds of his compatriots, and long after the war officially ended in 1783, “The British Prison Ship” would serve as a reminder of how they had felt about the mistreatment and neglect of American prisoners in New York.

The Revolution and Human Rights

The story of New York’s Revolutionary War prisons and prison ships dropped out of sight in the 20th century, a victim of (among other things) improved Anglo-American relations. It deserves to be revived, however, because it enlarges our understanding of how the United States was made—not merely by bewigged founding fathers, of whom we have heard so much in recent years, but also by thousands upon thousands of mostly ordinary people who believed in something they considered worth dying for.

Their suffering, moreover, left an enduring mark on international law. Between 1782 and 1787, American diplomats negotiated treaties of amity and commerce with foreign powers that took unprecedented steps toward mitigating the evils of war. Agreements struck with the Netherlands, Sweden, and Morocco, for example, required negotiation before the use of force, curbed privateering, and regulated the exercise of search and seizure on the high seas. The 1785 treaty with Prussia negotiated by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin even included provisions designed specifically “to prevent the destruction of prisoners of war.” Among other things, the parties stipulated that in the event of armed conflict between them, captives taken by either: