The Prison Ship HMS Jersey

sea service musket

Guards posted on the Jersey shot prisoners when they tried to escape. This 18th-century British sea service musket was recently acquired by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation for the Yorktown collection.

Patriots taken as prisoners of war by the British Army in America often were confined aboard prison ships.  Using ships as prisons was a common 18th-century British practice, since the Crown always seemed to have plenty of surplus naval vessels that could be converted to prisons cheaply and easily.  The most notorious of the British prison ships in American waters was HMS Jersey, an obsolete British naval vessel that was used to confine thousands of American prisoners in New York harbor from 1776 to 1783.  Conditions aboard the Jersey and the other New York prison ships were terrible; more than 10,000 American prisoners died on these ships during the course of the war.

While the Jersey was not the only British “prison hulk” to house American prisoners of war, conditions of crowding, disease and abuse seem to have been particularly bad aboard this ship.   To American patriots the Jersey became a symbol of British tyranny.  One famous American confined aboard a British prison hulk was the poet Philip Freneau, who wrote one of his best-known poems about the experience.

ungenerous Britons, you Conspire to murder whom you can’t subdue – line from “The British Prison Ship,” 1780, Philip Freneau

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