The British Prison Ship by Philip Freneau

Several weeks ago I did a post on England’s Concentration Camps during the War for Independence. In that post I quoted a few lines from an American soldier held on board one of these infamous prison ships.

Philip Freneau has come to be known as the Poet of the American Revolution. As I have read his poems and come to be familiar with his writing, I can see very much how he has been bestowed that title. Each of his poems holds a raw, haunting eloquence that deserves a place of honor in the annals of American literature.

As a young man only in his twenties, he experienced first hand the sheer horror of the floating death camps of England. Weeks after he was released from the ships, he published a poem recounting his experience. It was in many ways a call-to-arms for America’s patriots to continue fighting for freedom.

The Prison Ship Part I

by Philip Freneau

“The various horrors of these hulks to tell,
These Prison Ships where pain and sorrow dwell;
Where death in tenfold vengeance holds his reign,
And injur’d ghosts, in reason’s ear, complain;
This be my talk — ungenerous Britons, you,
Conspire to murder those you can’t subdue;
Why else no art of cruelty untry’d,
Such heavy vengeance and such hellish pride? 

Death has no charms his empires barren lie, 
A desert country and a clouded sky;
Death has no charms except in British eyes,
See how they court the bleeding sacrifice!
See how they pant to stain the world with gore,
And millions murdered, still would murder more; 
This selfish race from all the world disjoin’d,
Eternal discord sow among mankind;
Aim to extent their empire o’er the ball, 
Subject, destroy, absorb and conquer all;
As if The Power that form’d us did condemn
All other nations to be slaves to them;
“A generous nation” is their endless cry,
But truth revolts against the daring lie;

Compassion shuns them, an unwelcome guest,
They to humanity are foes profess’d;
In their dark bosoms pity claims no share,
For [it was] never plac’d there:
A brutal courage is their ruling pride,
For one short hour of fame have thousands died;
All nations they abhor, detest, decry,
But their dear race emblazon to the sky;
As if the sun for Britain only shone,
And all mankind were made for her alone.

Weak as I am, I’ll try my strength today, 
And my best arrows at these hounds play;
To future years their bloody deeds prolong,
And hang them up to infamy in song.

So much I suffer’d from the race I hate,
So near they shov’d me to the brink of fate;
When seven long weeks in these…hulks I lay,
Barr’d down by night and fainting through the day;
In the fierce fervors of the solar beam,
Cool’d by no breeze on Hudson’s mountain stream;
That not unsung these horrid deeds shall fall,
To black oblivion that wou’d cover all;
Not unreveng’d shall all the woes we bore,
Be swallow’d up inglorious as before:
The dreadful secrets of these prison caves,
Half sunk, half floating on my Hudson’s waves;
The muse shall tell nor shall her voice be vain,
Mankind must shrink with horror at the strain;
To such a race the rights of men deny,
And blame the tardy vengeance of the sky.

See with what pangs yon’ wasted victim dies,
With not a friend to close his languid eyes!
He late, perhaps too eager for the fray,
Chas’d the vile Briton o’er the wat’ry way;
Or close array’d a stranger to all fear, 
Hurl’d the loud thunder from his privateer.

Thus do our warriors, thus our heroes fall, 
Imprison’d here, quick ruin meets them all; 
Or sent afar to Britain’s barbarous shore,
There die neglected and return no more. 
Ah, when shall quiet to my soul return,
And anguish in this bosom cease to burn; 
What frequent deaths in midnight vision rise!
(Once real) now all ghastly to my eyes,
Youths there expiring for their country lay, 
And burnt by fevers breath’d their souls away; 
Where, now so cruel to deny a grave,
They plung’d them downward in the parting wave; 
The parting wave received them to its breast,
And Hudson’s sandy bed is now their place of rest; 
In slumbers deep I hear the farewell sigh.”

Every time I read his work, I get goosebumps. It’s so raw and potent. Understandably he is America’s poet of the War for Independence.

Did you enjoy the poem today? It’s a little different than what we usually do, but I thought it would be a nice change. (Don’t want to get too predictable or anything. 😉)

A. M. Watson

Hebrews 13:8

One thought on “The British Prison Ship by Philip Freneau

  1. The horrors of those prisons ships will bring tears to your eyes. So much suffering and inhumane treatment. Thank you for this post.


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