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The Appalling Way the British Tried to Recruit Americans Away from Revolt

January 31, 2020 in History

By Greg Daugherty

Patriots forced onto horrific British prison ships were presented with two options: turn traitor or die.

The British prison ships that dotted the Eastern seaboard during American Revolution have been gone for more than two centuries. But the horrors they left in their wake are unlikely to be forgotten: starvation, disease, cruelty and a death toll that may have exceeded 11,000 men and boys—far more than died fighting on land.

While that story is all too familiar to students of the war, there is also another, lesser-known one—the surprising heroism of the ragtag American captives.

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Barely three months after the American colonists had declared their independence, the British positioned their first prison ship, the Whitby, in a bay off Brooklyn. They’d soon add prison ships in Charleston, Savannah, Norfolk, off the coast of Florida and in Canada.

Brooklyn and New York City, which British forces occupied, became the most active hub, with a small fleet of ships and several thousand prisoners at any given time. Most of the existing survivor accounts come from men who were held aboard those ships, particularly the HMS Jersey, which would become the most notorious of them all.


The HMS Jersey, a 60 gun Royal Navy ship of the line used by the British as a prison ship during the American Revolution.

The prisoners were a mix of soldiers, sailors and rebellious civilians. Many were crew members from privateers—privately owned ships authorized by the Continental Congress, which had little navy of its own, to harass and seize British vessels. To crew the privateers, their captains often relied on young men and teenagers from New England and elsewhere in the colonies. They typically had little sailing experience but were eager for more excitement than they’d find behind a plow.

When the British captured a privateer, members of its crew were frequently offered a choice: Sign on with a British vessel or take your chances on a prison ship.

Most of the young Americans knew what imprisonment would mean. Colonial newspapers had reported on the horrific conditions and brutal treatment aboard the prison ships from the beginning, historian Edwin G. Burrows writes in his 2008 book, Forgotten Patriots. Even so, the great majority of the captured sailors who …read more