The Prison Ships of the American Revolution | Americana


Imagine being forced to row on what your captors
call your last voyage. You slowly approach a towering black hulk
of a ship. As you approach, a thousand horrible stenches,
and the moans and groans of the dying assault your senses. With every instinct to get away, you’re
forced at gunpoint on board, and down below decks with over a thousand other prisoners. Welcome to what those on board described as
Hell. This is the story of the HMS Jersey, the most
infamous prison ship of the American Revolution. Rebellion rocked the British Empire in the
late 18th century. Ireland and Scotland revolted. The rebels captured in these revolts flooded
the already crowded prisons of the British empire. The British could send them to the gallows,
but there were so many prisoners they couldn’t even execute them fast enough, or they needed
them for exchanges. They attempted all sorts of makeshift prisons,
stuffing people in mines, deserting them on islands, or the worst fate of all, sending
them to Australia. One solution was to unleash the power of the
Hulk. Ok.. Not that Hulk. A hulk is actually a ship that’s run its
course, and is too old for regular service. There were a lot of these by the way. They would strip all the stuff out of the
ship, the cannons, ropes, pulleys, flags, everything, and it would just be a floating…
hulk. These empty ships were then great places to
stuff all your overflowing prisoners. This new innovation in incarceration would
be tested when the next group of subjects revolted, the Americans. The first major battle of the American revolution
took place around New York City, often referred to as the Battle of Brooklyn. In this battle, the british defeated George
Washington’s army decisively, and took New York City. For the rest of the War, New York acted as
the staging ground for the British presence in America. After the British took control of New York
City, loyalist refugees began to pour into the city. They occupied whatever livable space could
be found, squatting in warehouses, stables, anywhere. On top of this, the British captured tons
of prisoners during and after the battle, and had no idea where to put them. The British tried to cram them in some horrific
places such as harborfront buildings, but the solution they came to would be to squeeze
them onto those hulks. On Brooklyn’s Wallabout Bay they brought
in several ships for use as prisons for the rebels. The most ominous of all was the HMS Jersey. Let’s break down who the prisoners were
on this damned ship. The Jersey’s prison population was made
up of some French, Spanish, and Dutch sailors, American seamen, Continental army soldiers,
and civilians arrested for “disloyalty” which usually meant refusing to swear allegiance
to the King. However, almost half of the population in
these ships were American privateers. The American government, if you can call it
one at this point, had basically no money. They couldn’t hope to put together a navy
big enough to compete against the British. As a way to cause chaos on the high seas they
would give people contracts that gave them permission to act as pirates against British
merchant ships, causing a bit of disruption in the British supply lines. Now, back to the ship. Life on the Jersey really lived up to the
ship’s nickname hell afloat. Let me paint you a picture. Typically, a prisoner of war received about
2/3rds of a soldier’s daily ration, but supply lines were often interrupted, and the British
decided that the Americans were rebels, not soldiers. This resulted in far less food. The commissaries were also notorious for selling
prisoner rations for personal gain. What they did receive was a mix of oatmeal,
butter, salted beef, biscuits, pork, peas, flour and suet. These foods were often mouldy or infested
with insects and worms. The meat needed to be eaten raw, and was apparently
multicoloured. The butter was a sweet oil so rancid they
just used it for their lanterns. The buckets made for collecting… uh… yeah
overflowed and people were often forced to sleep next to their own waste. With these conditions, it’s no surprise
that disease ran rampant. Of the over a thousand prisoners on the Jersey,
6 to 12 a day died of deadly diseases like smallpox, dysentery, typhoid, and yellow fever,
if they didn’t just die from malnutrition. The British shipped the bodies to the mainland
for an unceremonious burial, and when the graveyards filled up they’d simply tie a
cannonball to the body and throw it overboard. The men suffering on board had a few strategies
to survive. The officers on the ship helped organize a
makeshift government amongst the prisoners, with rules to keep the sabbath, observe hygiene,
and respect each other’s private property. Some of the prisoners accepted offers from
the British, who were desperate for sailors, for impressment, or non-voluntary enlistment
in the navy to far-off regions like Jamaica. Some turned to religion, while many lost their
faith on the dark decks. Those that had money would buy small objects
from a woman that visited every few days, but when she died of a disease she caught
on board, her services were replaced with gouging salesmen that follow armies called
Sutlers. One small piece of hope came from a woman
named Elizabeth Burgin, who helped hundreds of prisoners escape. She delivered food to the ship, but in 1779,
a patriot officer undercover in New York approached her with a plan to smuggle prisoners off the
Jersey to freedom. She agreed, and as many as 200 prisoners found
salvation aboard her boat. When the officer that approached her was captured,
his wife informed on Elizabeth and she had to escape. The british put a 200 pound bounty, that’s
quite a lot at this time, for her arrest, and she was nearly caught on several occasions. She had to hide for two weeks before escaping
to Long island. After 5 weeks hiding there, she eventually
got on a ship to Connecticut. Safe to say she never returned, and morale
was not high on the Jersey. On July 4th 1782, the prisoners planned a
day of resistance. They sang patriotic songs and planted American
flags on the ship. The guards responded by killing several prisoners
with swords and denying the rest food, water, and access to the top deck for several days. Some other acts of rebellion were not as hopeful. On several prison boats, the prisoners set
their own hulks ablaze rather than endure their torment. People also attempted desperate escapes despite
how hopeless they were. It was not until 1783, years into its “voyage”
that the prisoners were liberated. By the end, over 10,000 people had died on
these prison ships, nearly three times the amount of Americans who died on the battlefield. When the survivors made it to shore, crowds
gathered, hearing stories about the ghosts who haunted the black hulks in Wallabout Bay. The British thought that this prison ship
would act as a symbol of fear, keeping anyone on the fence from joining the rebellion against
the king. This wound up being quite far from the truth. Dark stories of the ghost ship of Brooklyn
spread around the 13 colonies, and instead of intimidating the Americans, it galvanized
them. The Jersey became a symbol of British cruelty,
and tyranny; everything that made them revolt in the first place. It brought more people into the revolution
rather than scare them out of it. There were a few stabs at memorializing the
men who died on these ships. Walt Whitman even wrote a poem about them. The bones of these prisoners stopped washing
up on the beach, and people forgot about the Jersey. The ship itself sank shortly after liberation,
and many people simply moved on. I think though that this is indicative of
many of the stories of prisoners of war. The treatment they endure is often not a big
part of the story. They get lost between marked up maps and paintings
of generals on their horses. However, these people typically suffer horrible
fates and are then forgotten. We often overlook these horrific corners when
telling the story of wars, and… well… we shouldn’t. If this is your first time here, click that
subscribe button and click the bell notification to make sure you don’t miss a video. This particular video was inspired by the
new book The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn by Robert P Watson. If you look down in the description, there’s
a link to Amazon where you can buy the book. This is an affiliate link, so you can find
out the entire story of the HMS Jersey, and help Step Back in the process at no extra
cost. I really want to thank my Patrons for making
this video possible, as well as those brave men and women who share my videos on Reddit. They’ll like it someday, I swear! Thanks for watching and stay tuned for the
next Step Back!

21 thoughts on “The Prison Ships of the American Revolution | Americana

  1. can you make a video about the polish or frank soldier after their home countries fell
    ( or the Norwegian ,Czech ,Denmark …..)
    p.s. great video

  2. Can you make a video about the Canadian Internment camps and vicious aboriginal camps? Often many think we are all polite and peaceful, we really weren't

  3. There called gaol ships in Australia and they had around 5 of them. Also can you do a video on the red flag riots in Brisbane.

  4. If you're looking for good Australia stories, look for the Eureka Stockade. Pretty much the closest thing we had to an armed uprising. Or the biggest one I'm aware of. New Zealand history would be interesting too. Maybe do a video on the treaty between the British colonists and the Maori tribes.
    The sound quality of your videos is good.

  5. For all the severe problems in the modern American justice system, at least it isn't as bad as an 18th-century POW camp.

  6. Hi Step Back History! What precautions do you usually take when using others pictures in your videos? Do you ask them beforehand or do you just leave a note in the description. Thx beforehand 🙂

  7. American history gets ever weirder and more interesting. Watch some more discussions of American history and culture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t07J0IkgjIg&list=PLnpoOo7lhNnEdPq4uuLigw3lCnuedw13S

  8. I found this book at my local library.I'd never heard of such ships,not even the HMS Jersey and I'm from Long Island. This story was so disturbing that I could not read past the middle of this book. I'm going to check it out of the library again and force myself to finish it because it's an important tale in American history .

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