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American Prisoners at New York. – Nelson’s Prison Ship

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol II. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

February 4.—It is painful to repeat the indubitable accounts we are continually receiving, of the cruel and inhuman treatment of the subjects of these States from the Britons in New York and other places. They who hear our countrymen, who have been so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of those unrelenting tyrants, relate the sad story of their captivity, the insults they have received, and the slow, cool, systematic manner in which great numbers of those who could not be prevailed on to enter their service, have been murdered, must have hearts of stone not to melt with pity for the sufferers, and burn with indignation at their tormentors. As we have daily fresh instances to prove the truth of such a representation, public justice requires that repeated public mention should be made of them. A cartel vessel lately carried about one hundred and thirty American prisoners from the prison ships in New York to New London, in Connecticut. Such was the condition in which these poor creatures were put on board the cartel, that in that short run, sixteen died on board; upwards of sixty, when they were landed, were scarcely able to move, and the remainder greatly emaciated and enfeebled; and many who continue alive, are never likely to recover their former health. The greatest inhumanity was experienced by the prisoners in a ship of which one Nelson, a Scotchman, had the superintendence. Upwards of three hundred American prisoners were confined at a time on board this ship. There was but one small fireplace allowed to cook the food of such a number. The allowance of the prisoners was, moreover, frequently delayed, insomuch that in the short days of November and December, it was not begun to be delivered out till eleven o’clock in the forenoon, so that the whole could not be served till three o’clock. At sunset the fire was ordered to be quenched; no plea for the many sick, from their absolute necessity, the shortness of the time, and the smallness of the hearth, was allowed to avail. The known consequence was, some had not their food dressed at all; many were obliged to eat it half raw. On board this ship, no flour, oatmeal, and things of like nature, suited to the condition of infirm people, were allowed to the many sick; nothing but ship bread, beef and pork. This is the account given by a number of prisoners, who are credible persons; and this is but a part of their sufferings; so that the excuse made by the enemy, that the prisoners were emaciated, and died by a contagious sickness, which no one could prevent, is futile. It requires no great sagacity to know, that crowding people together without fresh air, and feeding, or rather starving them in such a manner as the prisoners have been, must unavoidably produce a contagion. Nor is it want of candor to suppose, that many of our enemies saw with pleasure this contagion, which might have been so easily prevented, among the prisoners who could not be persuaded to enter their service. Some of them, no doubt, thought they acted in all this with the true spirit of the British Parliament, who began hostilities against America by shutting up the port of Boston, interdicting the fishery and those branches of trade that were deemed necessary to our subsistence; and when some members objected to the cruelty of such acts, some well-known friends to the ministry had the face to ring in the ears of others, Starvation, starvation to the rebels —starvation is the only thing that will bring them to their senses! In short, the inhumanity of the Britons, from the beginning of this war, and through every stage of it, is without a parallel in the annals of any civilized nation. These things ought never to be forgotten, though some would fain wink them out of sight. We are not, indeed, to resolve never to make peace with our enemies, but never to make a peace that will leave it in their power to act over again their intolerable oppressions and cruelties. We can never secure ourselves against this, but by maintaining, at all adventures, the sovereignty and independence of these States. Nothing but this can effectually prevent the present generation from enduring the severest punishment for their noble resistance to the tyranny of Britain, nor our posterity from groaning throughout all generations under the most abject and cruel bondage.1


1 New Hampshire Gazette, February 9.