Britain's Prison Ships

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The Sacrifice and Victory
The Monument
Names of Prisoners
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Britain's Prison Ships, 1776-1783 by Gary North

Fragments from Inside the Memory Hole

The Battle of Brooklyn, in August, and the capture of Fort Washington, in November, 1776, placed in possession of the British nearly four thousand prisoners; and this number was increased, by the arrest of private citizens suspected of complicity with the rebellion, to over five thousand, before the end of the year. The only prisons then existing in the city of New York were: the "New Jail," which still remains, in an entirely altered form, as the "Hall of Records," and the "Bridewell," which was located between the present City Hall and Broadway. These edifices proving entirely inadequate for the accommodation of this large number of captives – to whom they were unwilling to extend the privileges of parole – the British were compelled to turn three large sugar-houses, several of the Dissenting churches, the Hospital, and Columbia College, into prisons for their reception. These buildings, also, were soon crowded to overflowing by daily accessions of captive patriots who in many instances, found not even space to lie down and rest upon the hard and filthy floors. Here, in these loathsome dungeons, denied the light and air of heaven; scantily fed on poor, putrid, and sometimes even uncooked food; obliged to endure the companionship of the most abandoned criminals, and those sick with small-pox and other infectious diseases; worn out by the groans and complaints of their suffering fellows, and subjected to every conceivable insult and indignity by their inhuman keepers, thousands of Americans sickened and died. Almost preferable, by comparison, was the fate of those who, without a moment's warning, and at midnight, were hurried by the Provost to the gallows and an unknown grave.

Great, however, as were the sufferings of those incarcerated within the prisons of the city, they were exceeded, if possible, by those of the unfortunate naval prisoners who languished in the "prison-ships" of the "Walleboght." These were originally the transport vessels in which the cattle and other supplies of the British army bad been brought to America, in 1776, and which had been anchored in Gravesend Bay, and occupied by the prisoners taken in the Battle of Brooklyn. Upon the occupation of the city by the British forces, these soldiers were transferred to the prisons on shore, and the transports, anchored in the Hudson and East rivers, were devoted more especially to the marine prisoners, whose numbers were rapidly increasing, owing to the frequent capture of American privateers by the king's cruisers.

"A large transport, named the Whitby," says General Jeremiah Johnson, "was the first prison-ship anchored in the Wallabout. She was moored near 'Remsen's mill,' about the twentieth of October, 1776, and was then crowded with prisoners. Many landsmen were prisoners on board this vessel; she was said to be the most sickly of all the prison-ships. Bad provisions, bad water, and scanted rations, were dealt to the prisoners. No medical men attended the sick, disease reigned unrelieved, and hundreds died from pestilence, or were starved, on board this floating prison. I saw the sand-beach, between the ravine in the hill and Mr. Remsen's clock, become filled with graves in the course of two months; and before the first of May, 1777, the ravine alluded to was itself occupied in the same way. In the month of May, 1777, two large ships were anchored in the Wallabout, when the prisoners were transferred from the 'Whitby' to them; these vessels were also very sickly, from the causes before stated. Although many prisoners were sent on board of them, and none exchanged, death made room for all. On a Sunday afternoon, about the middle of October, 1777, one of the prisonships was burnt; the prisoners, except a few, who, it was said, were burnt in the vessel, were removed to the remaining ship. It was reported, at the time, that the prisoners had fired their prison, which, if true, proves that they preferred death, even by fire, to the lingering sufferings of pestilence and starvation. In the month of February, 1778, the remaining prison-ship was burnt at night, when the prisoners were removed from her to the ships then wintering in the Wallabout." . . .

Of all these, the "Old Jersey," or the "Hell," as she was called, from the large number confined in her – often more than a thousand at a time and the terrible sufferings which they there endured, has won a terrible pre-eminence in the sad history of the prison-ships, of which, indeed, her name has become the synonym. She was originally a fourth-rate sixty-gun ship of the British navy, was built in 1736, and achieved a long and honorable career; but, in 1776, being unfit for farther active service, was ordered to New York, as a hospital-ship. In this capacity she remained, in the East River, nearly opposite "Fly Market," until the winter of 1779-80, when she was converted into a prison-ship. . . . Her portholes were closed and securely fastened, and their places supplied by two tiers of small holes, each about twenty inches square, and guarded by two strong bars of iron, crossing at right angles, cut through her sides, for the admission of air. These, however, while they "admitted the light by day, and served as breathing-holes at night," by no means famished that free circulation of air between the decks, which was so imperatively necessary to the health and comfort of the prisoners. . . .
The appearance of the Old Jersey, as she lay in the Wallabout, is thus graphically described by Captain Dring. Leaving Now York, together with one hundred and thirty prisoners, brought in by the British ship 'Belisarius,' he proceeded to the place of their imprisonment, under the charge of the notorious David Sproat, Commissary of Prisoners. "We at length doubled a point," he says, "and came in view of the Wallabout, where lay before us the black hulk of the Old Jersey, with her satellites, the three hospital ships, to which Sproat pointed in an exulting manner, and said, 'There, rebels, there is the cage for you!' As he spoke, my eye was instantly turned from the dreaded hulk; but a single glance had shown us a multitude of human beings moving upon her upper deck. It was then nearly sunset, and before we were alongside, every man, except the sentinels on the gangway, had disappeared. Previous to their being sent below, some of the prisoners, seeing us approaching, waved their hats, as if they would say, approach us not; and we soon found fearful reason for the warning." While waiting alongside for orders, some of the prisoners, whose features they could not see, on account of the increasing darkness, addressed them through the air-holes which we have described. After some questions as to whence they came, and concerning their capture, one of the prisoners remarked "that it was a lamentable thing to see so many young men, in full strength, with the flush of health upon their countenances, about to enter that infernal place of abode. 'Death,' he said, I had no relish for such skeleton carcases as we are; but he will now have a feast upon you fresh comers.' " . . .
The first care of a prisoner, after arriving upon the Jersey, says Dring, "was to form, or be admitted into, some regular mess. On the day of a prisoner's arrival, it was impossible for him to procure any food; and, even on the second day, he could not procure any in time to have it cooked. No matter how long he had fasted, nor how acute might be his sufferings from hunger and privations, his petty tyrants would on no occasion deviate from their rule of delivering the prisoner's morsel at a particular hour, and at no other: and the poor, half-famished wretch must absolutely wait until the coming day, before his pittance of food could be boiled with that of his fellow-captives." The vacancies in the different messes daily provided by death, rendered it comparatively easy for the new-comers to associate themselves with some of the older captives, of whose experience they could, in various ways, avail themselves. . . . As soon as it "was called, the person representing it hurried forward to the window in the bulkhead of the steward's room, from which was handed the allowance for the day. This was, for each six men, what was equivalent to the full rations of four men. No vegetables of any description, or butter, was allowed; but, in place of the latter, a scanty portion of so-called sweet-oil, so rancid and often putrid, that the Americans could not eat it, and always gave it to the foreign prisoners in the lower hold, "who took it gratefully, and swallowed it with a little salt and their wormy bread." These rations, insufficient and miserable as they were, were frequently not given to the prisoners in time to be boiled on the same day, thus obliging them often to fast for another twenty four hours, or to consume it raw, as they sometimes did. . . .
When the prisoners ascended to the upper deck in the morning, if the day was fair, each carried up his own hammock and bedding, which were placed upon the spar-deck, or booms. The sick and disabled were then brought up by the working party, and placed in bunks prepared upon the centre deck; the corpses of those who had died the night before were next brought up from below and placed upon the booms, and then the decks were washed down. The beds and clothing were kept on deck until about two hours before sunset, when the prisoners were ordered to carry them below. "After this had been done," says Dring, "we were allowed either to retire between decks, or to remain above, until sunset, according to our own pleasure. Every thing which we could do conducive to cleanliness having then been performed, if we ever felt any thing like enjoyment in this wretched abode, it was during this brief interval, when we breathed the cool air of the approaching night, and felt the luxury of our evening pipe. But short, indeed, was this period of repose. The working-party were soon ordered to carry the tubs below, and we prepared to descend to our gloomy and crowded dungeons. This was no sooner done, than the gratings were closed over the hatchways, the sentinels stationed, and we left to sicken and pine beneath our accumulated torments, with our guards above crying aloud, through the long night, "All's well!"
What these "accumulated torments" of the night were, may be best understood from Dring's words: "Silence was a stranger to our dark abode. There were continual noises during the night. The groans of the sick and the dying; the curses poured out by the weary and exhausted upon our inhuman keepers; the restlessness caused by the suffocating heat and the confined and poisonous air, mingled with the wild and incoherent ravings of delirium, were the sounds which, every night, were raised around us in all directions." Frequently the dying, in the last mortal throes of dissolution, would throw themselves across their sick comrades, who, unable to remove the lifeless bodies, were compelled to wait until morning before they could be freed from the horrid burden. Dysentery, small-pox, yellow fever, and the recklessness of despair, soon filled the hulk with filth of the most disgusting character. "The lower hold," says [Rev. Thomas] Andros, "and the orlop deck, were such a terror, that no man would venture down into them. Humanity would have dictated a more merciful treatment to a band of pirates, who had been condemned and were only awaiting the gibbet, than to have sent them here. . . . While so many were sick with raging fever, there was a loud cry for water; but none could be had, except on the upper deck, and but one allowed to ascend at a time. The suffering then from the rage of thirst during the night, was very great. Nor was it at all times safe to attempt to go up. Provoked by the continual cry for leave to ascend, when there was already one on deck, the sentry would push them back with his bayonet." This guard, which usually numbered about thirty, was relieved each week by a fresh party; sometimes English-at others, Hessians or refugees. The latter were, as might have naturally been expected, most obnoxious to the prisoners, who could not bear the presence of those whom they considered as traitors. The English soldiers they viewed as simply performing their legitimate duty; and the Hessians they preferred, because they received from them better treatment than from the others.
A very serious conflict with the guard occurred on the 4th of July, 1782, in consequence of the prisoners attempting to celebrate the day with such observances and amusements as their condition permitted. Upon going on deck in the morning, they displayed thirteen little national flags in a row upon the booms, which were immediately torn down and trampled under the feet of the guard, which on that day happened to consist of Scotchmen. Deigning no notice of this, the prisoners proceeded to amuse themselves with patriotic songs, speeches, and cheers, all the while avoiding whatever could be construed into an intentional insult to the guard; which, however, at an unusually early hour in the afternoon, drove them below at the point of the bayonet, and closed the hatches. Between decks, the prisoners now continued their singing, etc., until about nine o'clock in the evening. An order to desist not having been promptly complied with, the hatches were suddenly removed, and the guards descended among them, with lanterns and cutlasses in their hands. Then ensued a scene of terror. The helpless prisoners, retreating from the hatchways as far as their crowded condition would permit, were followed by the guards, who mercilessly hacked, cut, and wounded every one within their reach; and then ascending again to the upper deck, fastened down the hatches upon the poor victims of their cruel rage, leaving them to languish through the long, sultry, summer night, without water to cool their parched throats, and without lights by which they might have dressed their wounds. And, to add to their torment, it was not until the middle of the next forenoon that the prisoners were allowed to go on deck and slake their thirst, or to receive their rations of food, which, that day, they were obliged to eat uncooked. Ten corpses were found below on the morning which succeeded that memorable 4th of July, and many others were badly wounded.
Equal to this, in fiendish barbarity, is the incident related by Silas Talbot, as occurring on the Stromboli, while be was a prisoner upon that ship. The prisoners, irritated by their ill treatment, rose one night on the guard, "the commander being on shore, and several, in attempting to escape, were either killed or wounded. The captain got on board just as the fray was quelled, when a poor fellow lying on deck, bleeding, and almost exhausted by a mortal wound, called him by name, and begged him, for God's sake, a little water for he was dying!' The captain applied a light to his face, and directly exclaimed: 'What Is it you, d – n you ? I'm glad you're shot. If I knew the man that shot you, I'd give him a guinea 'Take that, you d – d rebel rascal!' and instantly dashed his foot in the face of the dying man!" . . . .
We have already alluded to the poisonous and disgustingly impure nature of the water in which the prisoners' food was cooked. Equally deleterious in its effects was the water with which they were obliged to slake their constant and tormenting thirst. This was contained in a large water-butt, on the upper deck, and guarded by one of the marines, with a drawn cutlass. From the copper ladles, chained to the cask, the prisoners could drink as much as they pleased, but were not allowed to carry away more than a pint at a time. Dring estimates the daily consumption of water on board the Jersey at about seven hundred gallons, and a large gondola was constantly employed in conveying it from the Brooklyn shore. Brackish as it was, when brought on board, the haste and exertions of every one to procure a draught, gave rise to fearful scenes of confusion, which often called for the interposition of the guard. So much of the water as was not required for immediate use, was conveyed, through leathern hose, into butts, placed in the lower hold of the hulk; and to this the prisoners had recourse, when they could procure no other. These butts had never been cleaned since they were first placed there; and the foul sediment which they contained, being disturbed by every new supply which was poured in, rendered their contents a compound of the most disgusting and poisonous nature, to which is directly attributable the death of hundreds of the prisoners on the Jersey. . . .
Near the Jersey, as before mentioned, lay three hospital-ships – the Scorpion, Stromboli, and Hunter – of whose interiors Dring (who, more fortunate than others, managed to maintain his health) says he could only form some idea "from viewing their outward appearance, which was disgusting in the highest degree." . . . . The condition of the hospital-ships, however, was scarcely less crowded, filthy, and uncomfortable than that of the Jersey itself. Insufficient clothing, scarcity of blankets, the want of dry fuel to keep up even the small fires that were allowed, caused great suffering among the patients, whose only provision was a gill of ordinary wine, and twelve ounces of musty and poorly baked bread, per day. The surgeons visited the ships only once in several days, their manner was indifferent and even unfeeling, their stay on board very brief, and their medicines very sparingly bestowed.' The greatest neglect was exhibited by the nurses, of whose conduct all our authorities speak in terms of indignant reprobation. These nurses seemed to take more interest in the death of their patients than in relieving their wants, and scarcely waited for the breath to leave their bodies before they despoiled them of their blankets, clothes, and even their hair. By day their duties were most carelessly performed, and with a heartlessness which added additional pangs to the sufferings of those who depended upon their assistance; but at night there was "not the least attention paid to the sick and dying, except what could be done by the convalescent; were so frequently called upon, that in many cases they overdid themselves, relapsed, and died." . . .
The Jersey became, at length, so crowded, and the increase of disease among the prisoners so rapid, that even the hospital-ships were inadequate for their reception. In this emergency, bunks were erected on the starboard side of the upper deck of the Jersey, for the accommodation of the sick from between decks. The horrors of the old hulk were now increased a hundred-fold. Foul air, confinement, darkness, hunger, thirst, the slow poison of the malarious locality in which the ship was anchored, the torments of vermin, the suffocating heat alternating with cold, and, above all, the almost total absence of hope, performed their deadly work unchecked. The whole ship, from her keel to the taffrail, was equally affected, and contained pestilence sufficient to desolate a world-disease and death 'were wrought into her very timbers.' " . . . .
There was, indeed, one condition upon which these hapless sufferers might have escaped the torture of this slow but certain death, and that was enlistment in the British service. This chance was daily offered to them by the recruiting officers who visited the ship, but whose persuasions and offers were almost invariably treated with contempt, and that, too, by men who fully expected to die where they were. In spite of untold physical sufferings, which might well have shaken the resolution of the strongest; in spite of the insinuations of the British that they were neglected by their Government – insinuations which seemed to be corroborated by the very facts of their condition; in defiance of threats of even harsher treatment, and regardless of promises of food and clothing -- objects most tempting to men in their condition; but few, comparatively, sought relief from their woes by the betrayal of their honor. And these few went forth into liberty followed by the execrations and undisguised contempt of the suffering heroes whom they left behind. It was this calm, unfaltering, unconquerable SPIRIT OF PATRIOTISM – torture, starvation, loathsome disease, and the prospect of a neglected and forgotten grave-which sanctifies to every American heart the scene of their suffering in the Wallabout, and which will render the sad story of the "prison-ships" one of ever-increasing interest to all future generations. "They chose to die, rather than injure the Republic. And the Republic hath never yet paid them the tribute of gratitude!" . . . .


Prison Ship Martyrs Association

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Warships - such as the Royal Navy's old aircraft carriers when it gets its new ones - could be used as prison ships.


Is this the first prison ship?

Possible prison ship ... vast hulk rusting in Barrow docks - the Bibby Renaissance - could become a prison ship

OCTOBER 28, 2006
Why empty vessels make
the loudest argument

Bibby Renaissance

THIS is the ship which could ease Britain’s prison overcrowding crisis. The vast hulk has been rusting in Barrow docks for the last eight years.

But last week the Home Office finally bowed to The Sun’s prison ship campaign, accepting that floating jails could help solve the problem of overflowing cells.

Now the 400-foot Bibby Renaissance has become the frontrunner in the race to become Britain’s next sea-prison. We say next because, embarrassingly, the Government’s hunt for new prison ships began just months after Britain’s last floating jail, HMP Weare — was SCRAPPED.

The owners of the Bibby Renaissance — Liverpool-based Bibby Line — have put in a bid to have one of their so-called “floatels” adopted as a prison ship.

The 15-year-old Renaissance is typical of the type.

The six-storey barge would have room for up to 800 cons after being refitted for use as secure accommodation.

The empty ship offers dramatic evidence which rubbishes Home Office claims that there is a lack of suitable ships to use as prisons.

Refitted ... how it may look

Instead of scouring the globe for suitable vessels, Home Office pen pushers only needed to travel as far as Cumbria to find a solution to their overcrowding problems.

Last night a Barrow port insider revealed: “The boat looks as though it’s rusting away from the outside but the interior is, appropriately, in perfect nick.

“The floors and steel shell are so clean you could eat your dinner off them.

“We’ve been told the ship will soon be on the move to get a refit in a dry dock at Birkenhead.

It’s the ideal shape and structure to put in cells for prisoners or house asylum seekers.”

Bibby Line also operates a string of other accommodation barges, which could be put into service to ease our prison problems.

One is already being used in Rotterdam harbour by the Dutch to house illegal immigrants.

Last night a Dutch government spokesman told The Sun: “There is much less red tape involved in opening a prison ship than a normal jail. They are much more flexible and also cheaper to run than normal land-based prisons.

“What is more, they are more difficult to escape from than normal jails because they are stuck out on the water.”

The Bibby Renaissance could be called up for duty after the Home Office advertised for ships in in the official journal of the European Union.

A Whitehall source explained: “The Home Secretary John Reid has made clear he wants to explore all innovative solutions.”

The prison crisis escalated this month after the jail population spiralled to 79,825 — just over 100 inmates from bursting point. It forced the Home Secretary to rush through emergency powers to allow him to hold lags in police cells.

The owners of the Bibby Renaissance recently published an artist’s impression - revealing how the refitted vessel would look as a prison or detention centre.

The pictures prove the vessel WOULD offer a cheaper, cleaner and effective alternative to land-based prisons. The Sun has fought tirelessly to raise the number of jail places across the country since the 1990s.

Our hard-hitting campaign has highlighted empty jails left to rot — as well as demanding that MOD camps should be converted to prisons in order to ensure that dangerous crooks are kept off the streets.

We will keep monitoring the Government’s progress to ensure they deliver on their pledge to create more cell space.

And if they don’t deliver . . . we’ll blow them out of the water.

Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument

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Coordinates: 40.6918°N 73.9756°W
Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument (2013)
Adolf Weinman's brazier at the top

Program for the dedication ceremonies, November 14, 1908
The Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument in Fort Greene Park, in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, is a memorial to the more than 11,500 American prisoners of war who died in captivity aboard sixteen British prison ships during the American Revolutionary War.[1] The remains of a small fraction of those who died on the ships are interred in a crypt beneath its base. The ships included the HMS Jersey, the Scorpion, the Hope, the Falmouth, the Stromboli, Hunter, and others.[2][3]
Their remains were first gathered and interred in 1808. In 1867 landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, designers of Central Park and Prospect Park, were engaged to prepare a new design for Washington Park as well as a new crypt for the remains of the prison ship martyrs.[4] In 1873, after urban growth hemmed in that site near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the remains were moved and re-interred in a crypt beneath a small monument. Funds were raised for a larger monument, which was designed by noted architect Stanford White. Constructed of granite, its single Doric column 149 feet (45 m) in height sits over the crypt at the top of a 100-foot (30 m)-wide 33 step staircase. At the top of the column is an eight-ton bronze brazier, a funeral urn, by sculptor Adolf Weinman. President-elect William Howard Taft delivered the principal address when the monument was dedicated in 1908.


Remains of deceased prisoners

Origin of remains

During the Revolutionary War, the British maintained a series of prison ships in the New York Harbor and jails on the shore for captured prisoners of war..[5][6] Due to brutal conditions, more Americans died in British jails and prison ships in New York Harbor than in all the battles of the American Revolutionary War.[7][8]
The British quickly disposed of the bodies of the dead from the jails and ships by quick interment or throwing the bodies overboard. Following the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, the remains of those who died on the 16 prison ships[9] were neglected, left to lie along the Brooklyn shore on Wallabout Bay, a rural area little visited by New Yorkers.[10] On January 21, 1877, the New York Times reported that the dead came from all parts of the nation and "every state of the Union was represented among them."[11]

Collection of remains

Officials of the local Dutch Reformed Church met with resistance from the property owner when they sought to remove the bones to their churchyard.[12] Nathaniel Scudder Prime reported that the “skulls and feet, arms and legs [were] sticking out of the crumbling bank in the wildest disorder”.[13] Edwin G. Burrows described the skulls on the coast “as thick as pumpkins in an autumn cornfield”.[14][15] During construction at the Naval Yards, workers were not sure what to do with the bones, and they started to fill casks and boxes.

Volume of remains collected

Eventually, "near twenty hogsheads full of bones were collected by the indefatigable industry of John Jackson esq, the committee of Tammany Society, and other citizens, to be interred in the vault."[16] The monument's dedication plaque estimates that 11,500 prisoners of war died in the prison ships, but others estimate the number to be as high as 18,000 people.[17] I

Political resolve

The movement to commemorate the dead only took off when political differences between Federalists and Republicans deepened in the last years of the eighteenth century and the Republicans took up the question of a memorial in response to the Federalist erection of a statue of George Washington in 1803.[18] The Tammany Society, (headed by Benjamin Romaine)[19][20] was created and grew into a Republican organization. On February 10, 1803 Republican Congressman Samuel L. Mitchill asked the federal government to erect a monument to the fallen, but had no success[21][22] They then turned their efforts to a grand ceremonial re-interment of the prisoners' remains, emphasizing less the construction of a monument than something more suited to the common man. Tammany formed the Wallabout Committee in January 1808. Their efforts took strength from renewed anti-British feeling stemming from British incidents in 1806 & 1807. Finally, when President Thomas Jefferson enacted the Embargo Act of 1808, Tammany and the Republicans used their plans for a re-interment as part of their campaign to bolster anti-British sentiment.

First vault and monument

On April 13, 1808, they held a ceremony to lay the cornerstone of a planned vault and a grand ceremony of re-interment followed on May 26, 1808.[23] A small square building stood above the 1808 vault with an eagle mounted at the point of the roof. It was located on a triangular plot of land near the Brooklyn Navy Yard waterfront (Wallabout Bay) in what is now called Vinegar Hill.[24] A wooden fence with thirteen posts and bars painted with the names of the original thirteen states was erected in front. At the entrance through the fence, an inscription said: "Portal to the tomb of 11,500 patriot prisoners, who died in dungeons and prison-ships, in and about the City of New York, during the Revolution."[25] The remains were put in long coffins made of bluestone. Extra space was provided in case more bones were discovered during continuing renovations in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.[26] Little was done to repair or upkeep the vault and eventually, the original monument was in a state of disrepair and neglect.[24] In 1839, Benjamin Romaine purchases the land where the Martyrs were buried, in a tax sale from Henry Reed Stiles for $291.08.[27] Later that year on 4 July 1839, Benjamin Romaine made an appeal for support (governmental or civic) to build a monument. In this appeal, Romaine talks about the monument and his intention to use his Revolutionary War pension for the monument.[28] On 31 January 1844, Benjamin Romaine dies and is also interred in the crypt[29] as he was also one of the men who had been a prisoner of war on the ships.

Second vault and monument

Later in the nineteenth century, the idea of erecting of a monument on the vault site attracted only occasional interest until 1873 when an appropriation of $6,500[30] was established for a new mausoleum. The new 25 by 11 foot brick mausoleum in Fort Greene Park, then known as Washington Park, was constructed.[3][31] The new mausoleum was constructed of Portland granite embellished with pillars and fret work of polished Aberdeen stone. The front of the tomb had the following inscription: "SACRED TO THE MEMORY, OF OUR SAILORS, SOLDIERS AND CITIZENS, WHO SUFFERED AND DIED ON BOARD BRITISH PRISON SHIPS IN THE WALLABOUT DURING THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION".[30] On June 18, 1873, the first tomb was emptied of bones and they were moved to this tomb.[27] The bones remained here until interest was again built and a new monument could be constructed.

Third monument

Project interest

Following the discovery of additional bones in the Brooklyn Naval Yard in 1899, interest in establishing a significant monument was again renewed.[32][33] June 16, 1900 the bones found during additional excavations in the Brooklyn Navy Yard were interred in the Crypt with full Military Honors. The boxes were reported to be oak, 5 feet long and two feet wide.[34] On June 19, 1900, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that a committee had been appointed to build a larger memorial to replace the current one. Due to the work of this committee, funds for a new monument were finally considered and raised.

Development and funding

Funding for a larger monument came from all levels of government. On June 28, 1902, a joint resolution of the House and Senate appropriated $100,000 for the memorial construction under the provision that an additional $100,000 be raised from other sources.[35][36] In the following months, New York State provided $25,000, and New York City $50,000, while private contributions provided another $25,000.[37][38] Following funds being established, the Prison Ship Martyrs Association was incorporated in Albany on May 9, 1903[39] to oversee the work and the renowned architect Stanford White (1853–1906) of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White was commissioned to design it. The contract for construction of the monument was awarded to Carlin Construction Company under the project supervision of Lieut. Col. W. L. Marshall.[40]

Monument details

The plaque at the base of the monument

One of the four Adolf Weinman eagles that stood at the base of the large column until 1966


Constructed of granite, its single Doric column 149 feet (45 m) in height sits over the crypt at the top of a 100-foot (30 m)-wide 99 stairs staircase. When it was built, it was the world’s tallest Doric column.[41] At the top of the column is an eight-ton bronze brazier or a funeral urn.[42] The urn, which is 22.5 feet tall and weighs 7.5 tons, was cast by the Whale Creek Iron Works in Greepoint from designs of Manhattan sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman.[43] The top had a light, The “eternal flame”, at its top. It went out in 1921 and was never relit until 1997 when a new solar-powered eternal beacon was turned on as part of that ceremony.[44] The solar powered beacon or “eternal flame”, now consisting of solar powered lights reflected from a mirror, lit daily during the hours of darkness.
The column carries this inscription: "1776 THE PRISON SHIP MARTYRS MONUMENT 1908". The grand staircase of 100 80-feet-wide granite steps rises in three stages. At the foot of the staircase, the entrance to the vault was covered by a slab of brown sandstone, now in storage,[42] that bears the names of the 1808 monument committee and builders and this inscription:[45]
In the name of the spirits of the departed free
sacred to the memory of that portion of American seamen, soldiers and citizens who perished in the cause of liberty & their country on board the prison ships of the British (during the Revolutionary War) at the Wall-about.
This is the corner stone of the vault which contains their relics.
Erected by the Tammany Society or Columbian Order of the City of New York.
The ground for which was bestowed by John Jackson Nassau Island,
season of blossoms
year of discovery, the 316th
of the institution the 19th
and of American Independence the 32nd
April the 6th, 1808.
The monument's column contained a staircase accessed by a bronze door.[45] The stone for the monument came from Lacasse quarry, about 4 miles east of Newport Vermont.[46]


Four 3-foot-high open-winged 300-pound eagles stood at the corners of the 200-foot square terrace at the column's base, each on its own 2-foot pedestal in front of a 7-foot Doric column. They were designed by Adolf Weinman, who also designed the 6-ton brazier that sits upon the Monument's principal column.[47]


The crypt is in a vault at the base of the stairs. Inside the vault the floor is made of concrete and the walls and ceiling are a bisque-colored brick. One enters the crypt through a copper-clad door. One must take three or so steps down, enter a short passageway into the hill and at the end of the passage is the brick-lined crypt, with approximately 15–20 feet square. There are a series of slate coffins inserted into a double-set of shelves on the right and left.[48] Various bones are said to be sorted into different coffins, presumably because individual bodies could not be identified and re-assembled for burial.[30]

Dedication ceremony

The dedication ceremony on November 15, 1908, included a parade with 15,000 participants, including military and National Guard units, veterans, and civic organizations, including representatives of Tammany Hall in their first parade since the Civil War. President-elect Taft, Secretary of War Luke E. Wright, New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes, New Jersey Governor Franklin Fort, and Delaware Governor Preston Lea watched along with approximately twenty thousand spectators as "the enormous flag draping the Prison Ship Martyr's Monument on the highest point of Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, was allowed to slide slowly to the ground from its heighth [sic] of 198 feet in the air." The ceremony was opened with a prayer delivered by Rev. S. Parkes Cadman[49] and the principal address was delivered by Taft. He set out in detail the treatment of American prisoners and of the dead he said: "They died because of the cruelty of their immediate custodians and the neglect of those who, in higher authority, were responsible for their detention." He carefully described British culpability:
I do not wish to be understood as charging that these conditions were due to the premeditations of the English commanders in chief or to the set purposes of anyone in authority having to do with the fate of the unfortunate men whose bravery and self-sacrifice this monument records. Such a charge would make the British commanders human monsters. The conditions were the result of neglect, not design.
He discussed the treatment of prisoners of war throughout history and praised the recent Hague Convention on the rights of prisoners of war and the recent Sino-Japanese War in which "both parties exceeded, in the tenderness and the care which they gave to the prisoners of the other, the requirements of the Hague Convention."[50]
Following the initial dedication, the Society of Old Brooklynites has hosted an annual memorial for the martyrs every year since President Taft dedicated the monument in 1908.[51]

Monument additions

A plaque was added in 1960 located across from the front label on the monument. The plaque reads:[52]
In memory of the 11,500 patriotic American sailors and soldiers who endured untold suffering and died on the prison British ships anchored in Wallabout Bay during the Revolutionary War 1776- 1782. Their remains lie buried in the crypt at the base of this monument which was dedicated on November 14, 1908. This plaque was afforded by The Society of Old Brooklynites on June 1, 1960. Farelly Crane M.D. President.
During the Bicentennial Year - 1976, King Juan Carlos of Spain dedicated a plaque honoring 700 Spaniards who died on the prison ships.[1]
Currently surrounding the monument are secured exhibits explaining the history of the Prison Ships, the Battle of Brooklyn and a list of the 8,000 known martyrs.[53] It is not documented when these exhibits were added.
Near the monument, a small building designed to coordinate with the work of McKim, Mead, and White once provided restroom facilities but was re-purposed as a visitors' center for the park.[54] The visitors center has pictorial exhibits plus displays of Revolutionary War weapons and uniform buttons that have been uncovered in the park over the years.

Timeline of repeated neglect and restoration

In February 1914, one of the eagles was stolen. The thieves attempted to sell it as scrap metal for $24.[55] When police found it at a recycling yard, the wings of the eagle had already been removed and partially melted.[56]

One of four bronze eagles by Adolph Weinman at the restored monument site.
By 1921, the beacon was out. The twin helix stairways to the top of the monument, which visitors once paid a dime to climb,[57] were closed. Until then, visitors could go to the top to get impressive views of Manhattan. In 1923, the bronze door to the crypt was "battered from its hinges" by vandals and the crypt was exposed. The New York Times report of the incident described how the monument provided a play area for neighborhood children: "[A] score of children, white and black, who live in the neighborhood were using the granite coping of the walls leading to the crypt as a sort of 'chute the chutes.' The color line was sharply drawn. The slope of one side was used by the negro children while the slope of the other side amused the whites. The children of neither hue were concerned with the crime. They realized vaguely that something unusual had taken place, but it was not important enough to them to stop their daily sport."[58] However, neglect and damage to the park required it to be renovated. The memorial had become so scarred by vandals and unkempt from lack of proper maintenance as to present a dilapidated appearance. Work was done to clean and preserve the site. A staircase and elevator were installed inside the large column and it was reopened in 1937 by Park Commissioner Robert Moses.[59] Again, the park was neglected and restoration work was required. It began in 1948 to "keep the shrine from falling apart".[60] The staircase and elevator that had been installed inside the large column in 1937 were both removed in 1949.[1][42]
In the ensuing years, however, the park slowly decayed again and, by the 1970s, graffiti covered much of the base of the monument and vandalism was taking its toll.[61] After being vandalized repeatedly, the four eagles were removed for repairs in 1966 and restored when $251,000 was spent to repair the monument about 1974,[47] part of a larger $780,000 restoration of Fort Greene Park.[62] They were again removed in 1981 and two of them are on display at the Central Park Arsenal, the administrative headquarters of the New York City Parks Department.[42] They presently flank the third floor entrance.[63]
In 1995, an examination of the vault reported it held bone fragments in 20 slate boxes, each two feet by two feet by seven feet.[1] During this inspection in 1995 by the park system, Graffiti was noted to be on the crypt's interior walls. The graffiti is dated but the dates are in question as they reflect 1973, 1908 and, one tag was scribbled, 1776—before the tomb was even built, in 1908.[51]
By the year 2000 the monument was missing plaques, the plaza was potholed,[57] the crypt had a plywood door, and the eternal flame had long been extinguished.
During a site review on January 7, 2000, Park System workers raised the lid of the stone coffin of Benjamin Romaine. The interior of the coffin appeared to have contained a partially collapsed wooden coffin.[48]
The city launched the renovation of the Prison Ship Monument with a $3.5 million budget in 2004.[64][dead link][65]
A budgetary study was conducted from March 6, 2006 to September 5, 2008 on electrical improvements and the cost estimated to about $341,000.[66] The restored monument was unveiled on November 15, 2008, a centennial celebration. That night, the column and urn were lit by a spectacular lighting scheme.[67] The overall restoration cost for the monument from 2006 to 2008 was an estimated $5,100,000.[68]

Current designation and responsibility

In the first half of the 20th century efforts were made to seek a national designation. However, the United States Department of the Interior declined at the time and noted that the prisoners didn’t die at the site itself.[9] Currently, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is responsible for the preservation and supervision of the monument. A budgetary study was conducted from March 6, 2006, to September 5, 2008, on electrical improvements and the cost estimated at $341,000. The overall restoration cost for the monument from 2006 to 2008 was estimated at $5,100,000.[69]

Archaeology of original site

In December 2003, a dig was done on the original site of the Martyrs' Monument. The site dig was funded by a grant of $2,500 from the J. M. Kaplan Fund.[70] It was supervised by Dr. Joan H. Geismar an archaeological consultant. The original site (block 44, lot 14 Brooklyn) is located on 89 Hudson Ave (formally Jackson Street named after an early donor of the property for the Monument in 1808).[71] The goals of the dig were to review if any more human remains could be found on the site and if evidence of the original crypt remained. The site was scheduled for housing development to begin on the site. The Crypt location was specifically identified from an 1855 Perris insurance atlas as well as a mid-19th century manuscript map found in the National Archives. The work determined that the site at one time contained a deep void, but no foundations were found. They did find a massive stone side wall as well as the likely original post holes for the rail fence. The site development was allowed with a recommendation of a plaque when work was done.[72] The redevelopment of the site was completed and eventually the property changed owners. The status of the plaque is not known and currently there is no plaque on the site.

See also

On this day: Australia's last convict ship docks

IT'S A WARM SUMMER'S day on 9 January 1868 in Fremantle, Western Australia, and the last convict ship to transport prisoners to Australia is just coming in to port.

Upon seeing Australia for the first time, the prisoners no doubt feel a frisson of excitement mingled with a little fear, despite their sentences - compared to the gallows, Australia isn't looking too bad.

It has been a relatively uneventful voyage - only one convict has died in the 89 days the ship has been at sea - but an unusual one; due to the reasonably high number of literate convicts from the complement of political prisoners from the Fenian Rising the previous year, the voyage even had its own newspaper: The Wild Goose, of which all seven handwritten issues survive in the State Library of New South Wales.

Babette Smith, historian and author of Australia's Birthstain: the startling legacy of the convict era, says that transportation wasn't as bad as its legacy decries. "Most of the prisoners got access to medical care and to meat," she says. "And their children were often markedly taller and stronger."

Some crimes were even carefully premeditated to warrant transportation with a lenient sentence as an escape from poverty in Britain, or to join family members.

Hougoumont - the last convict ship

The ship itself was no stranger to penal transportation; it was originally owned by Duncan Dunbar, who between 1840 and 1868 provided nearly a third of the ships that transported convicts. Under the direction of Luscombe of London, it set off from the Sheerness, on the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames Estuary, on the 30 September 1867, sailed along the south coast of Britain to Portland in Dorset to pick up more convicts, and finally departed Portsmouth on the 12 October, with 280 convicts and 108 passengers, helmed by William Cozens.

The complement of convicts included 62 Fenians, including 17 from the military, a contingent which contravened an agreement between the United Kingdom and Western Australia, leading to a brief panic in Fremantle. The inclusion of military Fenians also flouted the UK's unwritten policy not to transport military prisoners.

Due to the high literacy rate amongst the prisoners, the voyage produced a number of diaries and accounts, notably those of Denis Cashman and Thomas McCarthy Fennell, and John Boyle O'Reilly's letters.

This final complement of convicts signalled the end of a significant period in Australian history. Between 1788 and 1868, more than 165,000 convicts were transported to Australia, of which 10,000 were sent to Western Australia.

Australia's convict legacy

Now, it is estimated that two million Britons and four million Australians have convict ancestors.

Without convict labour, the first arriving with the First Fleet in 1788, Australia might have initially struggled as a British colony, especially after 1810, when convict labour was increasingly used to develop the colonial infrastructure - roads, causeways, bridges, courthouses and hospitals.

Babette says "the expectation developed very early on that [Australia] provided a better opportunity for poor people." By 1868, transportation had been campaigned against in Eastern Australia, originating some of the brutal legends about convict history, but in WA it was a case of brushing it under the carpet. "For Western Australia, the whole period was best forgotten."

By the time penal transportation ended, Australia had grown to a population of more than 1 million - compared to just 30,000 in 1821 - and it was finally large enough to be autonomous, to sustain itself and grow.

And while the shroud of convict transportation has hung over Australia's shoulders as somewhat of a negative stereotype, there's no doubt it wouldn't be the country it is today without them.