A Poet On A Prison Ship

“Each day at least six carcases we bore – And scratched them graves along the sandy shore – By feeble hands the shallow graves were made, – No stone memorial o’er the corpses laid – In barren sands and far from home they lie, – No friend to shed a tear when passing by…” – Philip Freneau

Philip Freneau, the poet of the Revolution, as he has been called, was of French Huguenot ancestry. The Freneaus came to New York in 1685. His mother was Agnes Watson, a resident of New York, and the poet was born on the second of January, 1752.

In the year 1780 a vessel of which he was the owner, called the Aurora, was taken by the British. Freneau was on board, though he was not the captain of the ship. The British man-of-war, Iris, made the Aurora her prize, after a fight in which the sailing master and many of the crew were killed. This was in May, 1780. The survivors were brought to New York, and confined on board the prison ship, Scorpion. Freneau has left a poem describing the horrors of his captivity in very strong language, and it is easy to conceive that his suffering must have been intense to have aroused such bitter feelings. We give a part of his poem, as it contains the best description of the indignities inflicted upon the prisoners, and their mental and physical sufferings that we have found in any work on the subject.

PART OF PHILIP FRENEAU’S POEM ON THE PRISON SHIPS

Conveyed to York we found, at length, too late,
That Death was better than the prisoner’s fate
There doomed to famine, shackles, and despair,
Condemned to breathe a foul, infected air,
In sickly hulks, devoted while we lay,–
Successive funerals gloomed each dismal day

The various horrors of these hulks to tell–
These prison ships where Pain and Penance dwell,
Where Death in ten-fold vengeance holds his reign,
And injured ghosts, yet unavenged, complain:
This be my task–ungenerous Britons, you
Conspire to murder whom you can’t subdue

So much we suffered from the tribe I hate,
So near they shoved us to the brink of fate,
When two long months in these dark hulks we lay,
Barred down by night, and fainting all the day,
In the fierce fervors of the solar beam
Cooled by no breeze on Hudson’s mountain stream,
That not unsung these threescore days shall fall
To black oblivion that would cover all.

No masts or sails these crowded ships adorn,
Dismal to view, neglected and forlorn;
Here mighty ills oppressed the imprisoned throng;
Dull were our slumbers, and our nights were long.
From morn to eve along the decks we lay,
Scorched into fevers by the solar ray;
No friendly awning cast a welcome shade,
Once was it promised, and was never made;
No favors could these sons of Death bestow,
‘Twas endless vengeance, and unceasing woe.
Immortal hatred doth their breasts engage,
And this lost empire swells their souls with rage.

Two hulks on Hudson’s stormy bosom lie,
Two, on the east, alarm the pitying eye,
There, the black Scorpion at her mooring rides,
And there Strombolo, swinging, yields the tides;
Here bulky Jersey fills a larger space,
And Hunter, to all hospitals disgrace.
Thou Scorpion, fatal to thy crowded throng,
Dire theme of horror to Plutonian song,
Requir’st my lay,–thy sultry decks I know,
And all the torments that exist below!
The briny wave that Hudson’s bosom fills
Drained through her bottom in a thousand rills;
Rotten and old, replete with sighs and groans,
Scarce on the water she sustained her bones:

Here, doomed to toil, or founder in the tide,
At the moist pumps incessantly we plied;
Here, doomed to starve, like famished dogs we tore
The scant allowance that our tyrants bore.
Remembrance shudders at this scene of fears,
Still in my view, some tyrant chief appears,
Some base-born Hessian slave walks threatening by,
Some servile Scot with murder in his eye,
Still haunts my sight, as vainly they bemoan
Rebellions managed so unlike their own.
O may I never feel the poignant pain
To live subjected to such fiends again!
Stewards and mates that hostile Britain bore,
Cut from the gallows on their native shore;
Their ghastly looks and vengeance beaming eyes
Still to my view in dismal visions rise,–
O may I ne’er review these dire abodes,
These piles for slaughter floating on the floods!
And you that o’er the troubled ocean go
Strike not your standards to this venomed foe,
Better the greedy wave should swallow all,
Better to meet the death-conducting ball,
Better to sleep on ocean’s oozy bed,
At once destroyed and numbered with the dead,
Than thus to perish in the face of day
Where twice ten thousand deaths one death delay.
When to the ocean sinks the western sun,
And the scorched tories fire their evening gun,
“Down, rebels, down!” the angry Scotchmen cry,
“Base dogs, descend, or by our broadswords die!”

Hail, dark abode! What can with thee compare?
Heat, sickness, famine, death, and stagnant air,–

Swift from the guarded decks we rushed along,
And vainly sought repose, so vast our throng.
Three hundred wretches here, denied all light,
In crowded quarters pass the infernal night.
Some for a bed their tattered vestments join,
And some on chest, and some on floors recline;
Shut from the blessings of the evening air
Pensive we lay with mingled corpses there:
Meagre and wan, and scorched with heat below,
We looked like ghosts ere death had made us so:
How could we else, where heat and hunger joined
Thus to debase the body and the mind?
Where cruel thirst the parching throat invades,
Dries up the man and fits him for the shades?
No waters laded from the bubbling spring
To these dire ships these little tyrants bring–
By plank and ponderous beams completely walled
In vain for water, still in vain we called.
No drop was granted to the midnight prayer
To rebels in these regions of despair!
The loathsome cask a deadly dose contains,
Its poison circles through the languid veins.
“Here, generous Briton, generous, as you say,
To my parched tongue one cooling drop convey–
Hell has no mischief like a thirsty throat,
Nor one tormentor like your David Sproat!”

Dull flew the hours till, from the East displayed,
Sweet morn dispelled the horrors of the shade:
On every side dire objects met the sight,
And pallid forms, and murders of the night:
The dead were past their pains, the living groan,
Nor dare to hope another morn their own.

O’er distant streams appears the living green,
And leafy trees on mountain tops are seen:
But they no grove or grassy mountain tread,
Marked for a longer journey to the dead.

Black as the clouds that shade St. Kilda’s shore,
Wild as the winds that round her mountains roar,
At every post some surly vagrant stands,
Culled from the English, or the Scottish bands.
Dispensing death triumphantly they stand,
Their musquets ready to obey command;
Wounds are their sport, and ruin is their aim;
On their dark souls compassion has no claim,
And discord only can their spirits please,
Such were our tyrants here, such foes as these.

But such a train of endless woes abound
So many mischiefs in these hulks are found
That on them all a poem to prolong
Would swell too high the horrors of our song.
Hunger and thirst to work our woe combine,
And mouldy bread, and flesh of rotten swine;
The mangled carcase and the battered brain;
The doctor’s poison, and the captain’s cane;
The soldier’s musquet, and the steward’s debt:
The evening shackle, and the noonday threat.

That charm whose virtue warms the world beside,
Was by these tyrants to our use denied.
While yet they deigned that healthsome balm to lade,
The putrid water felt its powerful aid;
But when refused, to aggravate our pains,
Then fevers raged and revelled through our veins;
Throughout my frame I felt its deadly heat;
I felt my pulse with quicker motions beat;
A pallid hue o’er every face was spread,
Unusual pains attacked the fainting head:
No physic here, no doctor to assist,
With oaths they placed me on the sick man’s list:
Twelve wretches more the same dark symptoms took,
And these were entered on the doctor’s book.
The loathsome Hunter was our destined place,
The Hunter, to all hospitals disgrace.
With soldiers sent to guard us on the road,
Joyful we left the Scorpion’s dire abode:
Some tears we shed for the remaining crew,
Then cursed the hulk, and from her sides withdrew.

THE HOSPITAL PRISON SHIP

Now towards the Hunter’s gloomy decks we came,
A slaughter house, yet hospital in name;
For none came there till ruined with their fees,
And half consumed, and dying of disease:–

But when too near, with laboring oar, we plied,
The Mate, with curses, drove us from the side:–
That wretch, who banished from the navy crew,
Grown old in blood did here his trade renew.
His rancorous tongue, when on his charge let loose,
Uttered reproaches, scandal, and abuse;
Gave all to hell who dared his king disown,
And swore mankind were made for George alone.
A thousand times, to irritate our woe,
He wished us foundered in the gulph below:
A thousand times he brandished high his stick,
And swore as often, that we were not sick:–
And yet so pale! that we were thought by some
A freight of ghosts from Death’s dominions come.
But, calmed at length, for who can always rage?
Or the fierce war of boundless passion wage?
He pointed to the stairs that led below
To damps, disease, and varied forms of woe:–
Down to the gloom I took my pensive way,
Along the decks the dying captives lay,
Some struck with madness, some with scurvy pained,
But still of putrid fevers most complained.
On the hard floors the wasted objects laid
There tossed and tumbled in the dismal shade:
There no soft voice their bitter fate bemoaned,
But Death strode stately, while his victims groaned.
Of leaky decks I heard them long complain,
Drowned as they were in deluges of rain:
Denied the comforts of a dying bed,
And not a pillow to support the head:
How could they else but pine, and grieve and sigh,
Detest a wretched life, and wish to die?

Scarce had I mingled with this wretched band,
When a thin victim seized me by the hand:–
“And art thou come?”–death heavy on his eyes–
“And art thou come to these abodes?” he cries,
“Why didst thou leave the Scorpion’s dark retreat?
And hither haste, a surer death to meet?
Why didst thou leave thy damp, infected cell?
If that was purgatory, this is hell.
We too, grown weary of that horrid shade,
Petitioned early for the Doctor’s aid;
His aid denied, more deadly symptoms came,
Weak and yet weaker, glowed the vital flame;
And when disease had worn us down so low
That few could tell if we were ghosts or no,
And all asserted death would be our fate,
Then to the Doctor we were sent, too late”

Ah! rest in peace, each injured, parted shade,
By cruel hands in death’s dark weeds arrayed,
The days to come shall to your memory raise
Piles on these shores, to spread through earth your praise.

THE HESSIAN DOCTOR

From Brooklyn heights a Hessian doctor came,
Nor great his skill, nor greater much his fame:
Fair Science never called the wretch her son,
And Art disdained the stupid man to own.

He on his charge the healing work begun
With antmomial mixtures by the tun:
Ten minutes was the time he deigned to stay,
The time of grace allotted once a day:

He drenched us well with bitter draughts, tis true,
Nostrums from hell, and cortex from Peru:
Some with his pills he sent to Pluto’s reign,
And some he blistered with his flies of Spain.
His Tartar doses walked their deadly round,
Till the lean patient at the potion frowned,
And swore that hemlock, death, or what you will,
Were nonsense to the drugs that stuffed his bill.
On those refusing he bestowed a kick,
Or menaced vengeance with his walking stick:
Here uncontrolled he exercised his trade,
And grew experienced by the deaths he made.

Knave though he was, yet candor must confess
Not chief physician was this man of Hesse:
One master o’er the murdering tribe was placed,
By him the rest were honored or disgraced
Once, and but once, by some strange fortune led,
He came to see the dying and the dead.
He came, but anger so inflamed his eye, ”
And such a faulchion glittered on his thigh,
And such a gloom his visage darkened o’er,
And two such pistols in his hands he bore,
That, by the gods, with such a load of steel,
We thought he came to murder, not to heal.
Rage in his heart, and mischief in his head,
He gloomed destruction, and had smote us dead
Had he so dared, but fear withheld his hand,
He came, blasphemed, and turned again to land

THE BENEVOLENT CAPTAIN

From this poor vessel, and her sickly crew
A british seaman all his titles drew,
Captain, Esquire, Commander, too, in chief,
And hence he gained his bread and hence his beef:
But sir, you might have searched creation round,
And such another ruffian not have found
Though unprovoked an angry face he bore,–
All were astonished at the oaths he swore
He swore, till every prisoner stood aghast,
And thought him Satan in a brimstone blast
He wished us banished from the public light;
He wished us shrouded in perpetual night;

He swore, besides, that should the ship take fire
We, too, must in the pitchy flames expire–
That if we wretches did not scrub the decks
His staff should break our base, rebellious necks;

If, where he walked, a murdered carcase lay,
Still dreadful was the language of the day;
He called us dogs, and would have held us so,
But terror checked the meditated blow
Of vengeance, from our injured nation due,
To him, and all the base, unmanly crew
Such food they sent to make complete our woes
It looked like carrion torn from hungry crows
Such vermin vile on every joint were seen,
So black, corrupted, mortified, and lean,
That once we tried to move our flinty chief,
And thus addressed him, holding up the beef–
“See, Captain, see, what rotten bones we pick,
What kills the healthy cannot cure the sick,
Not dogs on such by Christian men are fed,
And see, good master, see, what lousy bread!”
“Your meat or bread,” this man of death replied,
“Tis not my care to manage or provide
But this, base rebel dogs I’d have you know,
That better than you merit we bestow–
Out of my sight!” nor more he deigned to say,
But whisked about, and frowning, strode away

CONCLUSION

Each day at least six carcases we bore
And scratched them graves along the sandy shore
By feeble hands the shallow graves were made,
No stone memorial o’er the corpses laid
In barren sands and far from home they lie,
No friend to shed a tear when passing by
O’er the mean tombs insulting Britons tread,
Spurn at the sand, and curse the rebel dead.
When to your arms these fatal islands fall–
For first or last, they must be conquered, all,
Americans! to rites sepulchral just
With gentlest footstep press this kindred dust,
And o’er the tombs, if tombs can then be found,
Place the green turf, and plant the myrtle round.

This poem was written in 1780, the year that Freneau was captured. He was on board the Scorpion and Hunter about two months, and was then exchanged. We fear that he has not in the least exaggerated the horrors of his situation. In fact there seem to have been many bloody pages torn from the book of history, that can never be perused. Many dark deeds were done in these foul prisons, of which we can only give hints, and the details of many crimes committed against the helpless prisoners are left to our imaginations. But enough and more than enough is known to make us fear that _inhumanity_, a species of cruelty unknown to the lower animals, is really one of the most prominent characteristics of men. History is a long and bloody record of battles, massacres, torture chambers; greed and violence; bigotry and sin. The root of all crimes is selfishness. What we call inhumanity is we fear not _inhuman_, but _human nature unrestrained_. It is true that some progress is made, and it is no longer the custom to kill all captives, at least not in civilized countries. But war will always be “_horrida bella_,” chiefly because war means license, when the unrestrained, wolfish passions of man get for the time the upper hand. Our task, however, is not that of a moralist, but of a narrator of facts, from which all who read can draw the obvious moral for themselves.



MLA Source Citation:

Dandridge, Danske American Prisoners of the Revolution, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1911, 1967. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 23 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/america/a-poet-on-a-prison-ship.htm - Last updated on Jul 15th, 2011


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