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A Short History of Prison Ships and Galleys

December 31, 2018

Wallabout Bay
During the Revolutionary War (1775-83) our Republic lost more casualties on rotting British prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay, New York Harbor and additional ships in Chatham, Portsmouth and
Plymouth, New England, than the 4,400 to 6,600 battle dead. Over 11,000 soldiers, spies, and suspected “turncoats”, including a number of women and adolescents died in vile, pestilence-ridden hulls. Sewage flowed directly into bilges creating a pestilent, germ-ridden stench. Food, exercise, water, medical help, clothing, heat and fresh air were absent as was any humanitarian assistance from the prison shipmasters.
What better way to confine prisoners than entombing them in worm-eaten, rat crawling, former ships of the line. Those who died were rowed ashore and buried in shallow graves or dumped overboard to ride outgoing tides. Those who cheated death suffered years of brutal neglect and near starvation. Many were driven to insanity and when freed after the war, lived with physical and mental handicaps. The British re-introduced them into the fledging United Sta
tes during the War of 1812. Again Patriots suffered but it did not break them. They won the war and the prison ships were scuttled.
The British started using prison ships earlier on the Thames River in London to hold enemies of the crown, common thieves and murderers. The conventional land-based prisons were overloaded in the tense years of the 17th, 18th,   to mid 19th century. The solution was to use old navy ships rather than invest the King’s money on new prisons. Were the British employing a new, inventive, diabolical device to serve as prisons? Were they the first?? Did this cruel system go way back in the history of mankind’s inhumanity to man? Did it end with Great Britain’s 19th century “Age of Social Reform’’ under Queen Victoria and Prince Albert? It seemed reasonable to me.
So let’s take a small step back into history.
Galley Ships
Starting this article, I was prejudiced by visions of Spartacus as a prisoner-slave, chained and whipped while rowing an ancient Roman trireme, Carthaginians, Athenian Greeks, all masters of the sea in their time, beating prisoner crews while attacking enemy fleets. Research proved me wrong. Slaves and prisoners were used only in rare dire situations and after service were generally freed. The only ancient civilization using prisoner and slave crews on a regular basis were the Ptolemy Egyptians-ruling from 300 BC until its submission to Rome at the death of Cleopatra.

During the early medieval ages, Vikings didn’t use prisoners or slaves on their ships. They crewed their raiders, the scourge of Europe, themselves. This stands to reason, as each crewman was a Viking warrior in his own right. Why take precious space with slaves or prisoners. They needed as many “warriors” as each ship could hold. The one medieval navy using prisoners and slaves on their vessels were the Knights Templar operating out of Cyprus and the Holy Land. They used their galleys, famous for the Maltese cross on its single sail, to take military assets and pilgrims to the Holy Land. They made a fortune doing it and it caused their downfall. But that’s another intriguing story.
It was the Renaissance that gave rise to using prisoners en masse on galley ships. The practice started in France in 1532. By 1561 France was branding slave ship prisoners, some only debtors, with the letters “GAL” to mark them for life. Even the Venetians, master seamen who once controlled the trade with the east, used slaves and prisoners to row their galleys which, in conjunction with those of their Spanish allies, won the great victory over the Muslim fleet at the sea battle of Lepanto in 1571. It halted Ottoman expansion into Western Europe. Over the years other cultures such as the Ottoman Empire used slave galleys. Then there were the Barbary pirates who were as brutal as they come. Their ships were manned prisoners who ate, slept, worked and relieve themselves where they were chained manned their ships. Their fate was to starve, die and be thrown overboard.
The use of prisoners and slaves to man galley oars galleys continued to some degree all the way into the 19th Century. Finally, when sailing technol

Big Apple Prison Ship
 Welcome to the Big Apple! Sad to say we are not without our own prison ship so what we started with, the Revolutionary War prison ships, in Wallabout Bay on the East River, comes full circle. “The Vernon C.Bain Center” was built in New Orleans on the Mississippi River. She cost only $161 million dollars in 1992 and is docked at Hunts Point in the Bronx. She can hold 800 medium to maximum-security inmates. It has the honor of being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as ‘The Largest Prison Ship in Existence”. The swirling waters around her have thwarted four attempts to escape.
Last Words
We look at the sea. We love the waves, the sky and the freedom that it fills our souls with. It is a gift of nature to us. It has also been a place of great sorrow and cruelty. To ignore that fact is to do an injustice. It is difficult to put the trials of slaves and prisoners who endured interments on these vessels into perspective. Whatever the cause of their fates, whether captured in the War for Independence, by Barbary pirates, chained in a hull against their will and sold in the slave markets of New York and Charleston, or committed a crime in NYC, we only wish that the waters “Shall set their souls free’’.
C. 2018 by Mark C. Nuccio. All rights reserved
Contact the Author at: mark@designedge.net


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