Jersey: the British prison ship



The Jersey was the most noted of the floating British prisons in the American Revolution. She was the hulk of a 64-gun ship lately dismantled, and placed in Wallabout Bay near the present Brooklyn Navy Yard. Sometimes more than a thousand prisoners were confined in her at one time, where they suffered indescribable horrors from unwholesome food, foul air, filth, and vermin, and from smallpox, dysentery and prison fever, that slew them by scores. Their treatment was often brutal in the extreme, and despair reigned there almost continually. Every night, the living, the dying, and the dead were huddled together. At sunset each day was heard the savage order, accompanied by horrid imprecations-"Down, rebels, down!" and in the morning the significant cry- "Rebels, turn out your dead!" The dead were then selected from the living, sewed up in blankets, taken upon deck, carried on shore and buried in shallow graves. Full eleven thousand victims were taken from the Jersey, and so buried, during the war. Their bones were gathered and placed in a vault by the Tammany Society of New York in 1808, with imposing ceremonies. That vault is at the southwestern corner of the Navy Yard, where their remains still rest. Several years ago a magnificent monument dedicated to the martyrs of the British prisons and prison-ships was erected in Trinity Churchyard, near Broadway, at a point over which speculators were trying to extend Albany street through the property of that corporation. The street was not opened. So patriotism triumphed over greed.

Philip Freneau, a contemporary, and sometimes called "the Poet of the Revolution," wrote a long poem, in three cantos, in 1780, entitled The British Prison-ships, in which he assumed the character of one of the victims. He bitterly complained of the American Loyalists or Tories, who bore a conspicuous part in the horrid scenes. Of these he wrote:

"That Britain's rage should dye our plains with gore, And desolation spread through every shore, None e'er could doubt, that her ambition knew- This was to rage and disappointment due; But that those monsters whom our soil maintain'd, Who first drew breath in this devoted land, Like famished wolves should on their country prey, Assist its foes, and wrest our lives away, This shocks belief-and bids our soil disown Such friends, subservient to a bankrupt crown."

He gives the following picture of suffering:

"No masts or sails these crowded ships adorn, Dismal to view, neglected and forlorn! Here nightly ills oppress the imprison'd throng- Dull were our slumbers, and our nights too long- From morn to eve along the decks we lay, Scorch'd into fevers by the solar ray; No friendly awning cast a welcome shade; Once was it promis'd, and was never made. No favors could these sons of death bestow, 'Twas endless cursing, and continual woe; Immortal hatred doth their breasts engage, And this lost empire swells their soul with rage."

The poet referred to the British commissary of prisons in New York, in the following lines:

"Here, generous Britain, generous, as you say, To my parch'd tongue one cooling drop convey; Hell has no mischief like a thirsty throat, Nor one tormentor like your David Sproat."





Return to Our Country, Vol II