Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Prison Ship Jersey

Extract of a letter dated on board the Jersey (vulgarly called HELL) PRISON-SHIP, New-York, August 10 1781.

"There is nothing but death or entering into the British service before me. Our ship company is reduced to a small number (by death and entering into the British service) of 19.... The com[m]issary told us, one and all to the number of 400 men, that the whole fault lays on Boston, and we might all be exchanged, but they never cared about us; and he said the commissaries were damned rougues and liars.

"I am not able to give you even the out-lines of my exile; but thus much I will inform you, that we bury 6, 7, 8, 9 10, and 11 men in a day; we have 200 more sick and falling sick every day; the sickness is the yellow fever, small-pox, and in short every thing else that can be mentioned.

"I had almost forgot to tell you, that our morning's salutation is, 'Rebels! turn out your dead![']"

The Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser, 4 September 1781

As Brooklyn College (City University of New York) historian Edwin G. Burrows remarked in his book Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners of War During the Revolution, privateers licensed by the various states captured most of the prisoners from the British Navy in American hands. Congress governed exchange of sailors or soldiers captured by the Continental Army or Navy, but the British negotiated with each state for the prisoners captured by privateers. Many privateers, unable to accommodate prisoners for long, released these captives on parole. Often, Burrows remarked, these privateer captains kept incomplete records (or no records) on these captives and their whereabouts.

See Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008), pages 183-84.

Commissary David Sproat: A Scottish-born Pennsylvania Tory, David Sproat arrived in British-occupied New York City by January 1779. On October 13, 1779, Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, commander of the Royal Navy at New York, appointed Sproat commissary for naval prisoners. After Massachusetts Tory Joshua Loring left New York for Britain in November 1782, Sproat assumed Loring's duties as commissary of army prisoners in British hands in New York. See Philip Ranlet, "Tory David Sproat and the Death of American Prisoners of War," Pennsylvania History Volume 61 (April 1994), pages 187, 189, 198.

Burrows and Ranlet disagree on the character of David Sproat. Ranlet (page 199 especially) believed Sproat agonized over the prisoners dying in his care on the prison ships. Burrows suspected Sproat of gloating over prisoner deaths. Both Ranlet and Burrows, however, depict Sproat as a shrewd propagandist who tried to blame prisoner deaths on American responses to his exchange offers, especially Congress's reluctance to exchange British soldiers for captured sailors and privateer crewmen, a move that would have put more soldiers back into the British Army, while the British Navy continued to captured American privateers and naval ships. In this letter, a prisoner conveys Sproat's claim that blame for prisoner suffering lay with authorities in Massachusetts.

Robert Smirke, "Cruelty presiding over the prison ship," an engraving for Joel Barlow's 1807 epic poem, Columbiad, courtesy of the New York Public Library:
Cruelty presiding over the pri... Digital ID: 1253296. New York Public Library
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