Monday, April 8, 2013

Memories of a Prison Ship

     In 1812, Hezekiah Niles, publisher of Baltimore newspaper The Weekly Register, shared a story he heard from a survivor of the prison ship Jersey:  

“A gentleman who was confined in this hell on the water, afterwards a respectable trader of Philadelphia, informed the editor of the REGISTER some years ago, that the hardest battle he ever fought in his life was with a fellow prisoner on board of the Jersey; and the object of contention was the putrified carcase of a starved RAT!”

     One of the American grievances that provoked the War of 1812 was impressment, the coercive enlistment of American sailors by the British Navy.  For many Americans, impressment stirred memories of the Revolutionary War.  During the Revolution, the British Army and Navy tried to coerce the enlistment of American prisoners by exposing them to starvation, overcrowding and disease. 

     Conditions were especially horrendous on prison ships operated off occupied cities like Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and New York City.  The most notorious prison ship of the war was the Jersey, stationed just off Brooklyn. 
     On July 25, 1812, Baltimore newspaper The Weekly Register published an article reminding readers of the prisoners who died of starvation on the prison ship Jersey.  In a footnote to the story, Niles mentioned the story he heard from a Jersey survivor.  Below is Robert Smirke's engraving, "Cruelty presiding over the prison ship."  

Cruelty presiding over the pri... Digital ID: 1253296. New York Public Library
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