Well known to the entire world is the horrific conditions within the Nazi Concentration camps of the Second World War. Yet hidden within the pages of time is the history of Great Britain’s concentration camps of the American War for Independence.
Floating death camps. Watery dungeons. Torturous prison ships. These were England’s Concentration camps some 157 years before the atrocities of Nazi Germany.
What was it that made them so terrible? Why were they engraved in the minds of survivors for decades after being released? And most importantly why has it seemingly been swept beneath the rugs of history?
Heinous Recruitment Tactics
Many of the same tactics used on these prison ships would later be used in Hitler’s death camps. Among them were the attempts to recruit American prisoners over to the British cause.
The British were in constant need of more men to fill their ranks. What better way to do so than to use patriot manpower? The prison ships that sat just off the coast were overflowing with prisoners. In the minds of the British, it would be easy to recruit them to the Crown’s cause—with, of course, the right persuasion.
Often torture and abuse was used by the British guards in attempts to coerce the Americans into joining the Royal Navy or Army. Survivors told accounts of being starved and beaten while their captors urged them to change loyalties in order for the abuse to stop.
Upon being captured, the patriot soldiers and sailors were immediately given a choice to desert and serve Great Britain or be taken to a prison ship. By this point in the war conditions aboard the ships were well known throughout the colonies. News articles had circulated, divulging the atrocious conditions with which the prisoners were inundated.
Each detail of the cruel treatments aboard the ships was well planned out with the purpose of deterring colonists from taking up arms against the Crown. And by offering the newly captured prisoners a chance to escape the ships, they felt sure it would only be a matter of time that the patriots would have the man power and support to keep up the “rebellion”.
The British guards made no qualms in ensuring that the Americans knew their only way off the ship alive was through betrayal and promised them that if they tried to escape they would be killed on sight.
Some prisoners were even threatened that if they did not betray the Patriot cause, their families would be killed. In spite of this, the vast majority of American prisoners chose to go to the ships. It has been estimated that only eight percent of patriots captured defected to the British cause. Those who defected were scoffed at and jeered by the prisoners who still remained loyal.
Unfortunately for the British, they failed to understand the ardent loyalty that the patriots held in regard to their cause and country.
Among the attempts to convert their loyalties to the Crown, routine punishments were implemented.
You see, at the beginning of the war, Great Britain had a serious problem on their hands regarding the American prisoners they were taking. They could not officially be recognized as prisoners of war, even though that was what they were, because in order to recognize them as such it would mean that England was acknowledging America to be a separate country. This meant that all prisoners were regarded as “rebels and traitors” with no rights. As such, they were left in the hands of the local British military authorities who would do with them as they pleased. It created breeding grounds for abuse, cruelty, and hatred.
The guards were rotated between being British soldiers, Hessian soldiers, and Loyalist citizens. General consensus among the American prisoners was that they preferred the Hessians far above the British or Loyalists, because they didn’t tend to be quite as brutal.
One account from Phillip Freneau tells of an escape attempt gone wrong aboard the HMS Hunter. The guards fired repeatedly into the hold where the prisoners were kept, maiming, killing, and wounding any unfortunate enough to be in their line of fire. As punishment, British military officials placed the wounded in irons on the top deck, leaving them to swelter in the extreme heat of the summer sun.
Murders and executions were committed openly, and without repercussions for the guards who perpetrated them.
Rough estimates say that between six and twelve patriots died every day on board the ships. Death was so common of an occurrence that every morning the first thing the guards would shout down in to the hold was, “Yankee rebels, turn out your dead!”
Accounts from survivors tell us that the conditions in the ships were so crowded and dark that sometimes the bodies of dead prisoners would lay in the hold for ten days or more before it was discovered they were no longer alive.
The bodies would be taken topside and carried to the nearby beaches, where they were buried in shallow sandy graves. Often the bodies were visible again in a few days, the pathetic scoops of sand shoveled over them having been washed away with the tide.
On any given time aboard these ships, there would be upward of one thousand prisoners crammed below deck. The living conditions bred filth and disease. Smallpox, Dysentery, and yellow fever raged violently uncontrolled. There was no medical help given them by their captors. Actually the prisoners took it upon themselves to inoculate themselves against the smallpox that was killing so many of them. The surface cut was made with a pin or needle they had managed to scrounge up, then they would introduce the smallpox virus to the open wound. In this manner they hoped to give themselves a mild case of the sickness, thus creating an immunity towards it in the future.
Often times this crude way of inoculation was successful. For some though, it failed terribly. Ichabod Perry wrote of the horrors of the smallpox on board his prison ship:
Years after being released from the torturous conditions on board the HMS Jersey, Captain Thomas Dring told the account of a twelve-year old American cabin boy who had fallen into the hands of the British. Being so young, he was taken under the wing of the older soldiers and sailors on ship—most of them being only in their early twenties. Dring and the other men decided that it was too risky for the boy to go without inoculation in the hold that was raging with smallpox. He would have a better chance of survival if he was inoculated than if he waited to catch the disease naturally.
Dring inoculated the young boy, then himself. Of the experience he said, “Having no one to do it for me, it was my task to stand my own doctor.”
Within a short while both of them had come down with the dreaded disease. Dring’s was a mild case, but the cabin boy was not as fortunate. For several days his fever burned out of control, and he would cry out and writhe in pain. Nothing could be done for him. Captain Dring sat and cradled the dying boy in his arms, doing his best to ease some of the terror. Finally around dawn, he slipped into eternity.
The horrors of the ships stayed with the survivors until they died. Sadly many don’t even know of the extreme sacrifices paid by these patriots. To place it in perspective, more American patriots died aboard these atrocious ships than died in every battle of the war combined.
I find it incredibly interesting that somehow this piece of history has been swept under the rug by those who would herald Great Britain’s cause in the war. I believe that in order to find the righteous side of a matter, you have to find where the wickedness is. I urge anyone interested in the matter, to go and compare the two sides of the American War for Independence. If the proper research is done, it becomes quite evident which side was righteous, and which was not.
No cause that would allow, aid, and abet this sort of inhuman treatment on a mass level could ever be a righteous one. I believe this is one of many reasons God allowed, and yes even caused, America to win her independence.
What are your thoughts on England’s concentration camps? Did you know the dark history of Great Britain’s fight against American Independence? Let me know in the comments!
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4 thoughts on “England’s Concentration Camps”
What a heartbreaking story. I’ve heard of this, but not often. Interesting point that most people don’t really talk about this part of the war.
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It is truly so horrific and heart-rending. I wish that it would be taught more, so that we would never forget.
Wow, how did I never know about any of this??!! But it totally makes sense. I’ve been reading Richard Maybury’s books about World War I and II and have been learning so much about what the mainstream narrative leaves out…it’s both fascinating and heartbreaking. England’s government wasn’t exactly the angelic hero it was made out to be (well, neither was the United States’, sadly), and I guess everyone conveniently forgot or ignored their own horrible history of concentration camps during the American Revolution. *sighs*
Thank you so much for this enlightening post, Alyssa!!!
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Yes, it has been swept under the rug of time! Unfortunately so many people don’t care to find out truth anymore. It’s truly heartbreaking.
Thank you for reading, and sharing your thoughts with me! ❤