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A Short History of Prison Ships and Galleys

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 States 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.

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