English Literature
The British Prison Ship

The British Prison Ship

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A Brutal and Neglected Aspect of the Revolutionary War: British Prison Ships

American students are taught about the American Revolutionary War during their education, but little attention is given to the tragic and often overlooked reality of British prison ships. These ships were used by the British to hold prisoners of war in inhumane conditions, resulting in over 11,000 American colonials losing their lives - more than the number of deaths in the armed forces during the entire war. One such prisoner, Philip Freneau, a renowned American poet, nearly lost his life while imprisoned aboard the Scorpion, as recounted in his epic poem 'The British Prison Ship' (1781).

The Poet of the American Revolution

Philip Freneau, known as "the poet of the American Revolution," was famous for his political poetry that boldly criticized British influence in the colonies and portrayed the harsh realities of war against an oppressive mother country. He joined New Jersey's militia in 1778 and served as a captain on a privateer ship, actively fighting against the British. However, his ship was captured, and he became a prisoner of war on the notorious Scorpion for six weeks. Freneau's firsthand experience of the deplorable conditions on the ship inspired him to write his long poem 'The British Prison Ship' (1781), consisting of multiple cantos.

Providing historical context to the poem, from 1776 to 1783, the New York Harbor was notorious for the presence of British prison ships. As the British occupied New York City, decommissioned and abandoned ships were used to imprison captured soldiers and civilians. Shockingly, it was not until 1781 that the British recognized American colonials as prisoners of war, previously labeling them as terrorists. Tragically, over 11,000 prisoners lost their lives on these ships due to disease, malnutrition, and cruel treatment. In comparison, only 6,800 American soldiers died in combat throughout the Revolutionary War.

A Harrowing Tale and a Call for Remembrance

The poem 'The British Prison Ship' concludes abruptly, as the speaker calls on future generations to remember and honor the cause of patriotism and the prisoners of war. However, in reality, Freneau was released on July 12, 1780, and returned to his home in New Jersey, where he continued to write satirical pieces in support of the American war for independence.

The conditions on British prison ships were inhumane because American rebels were not recognized as prisoners of war until 1781, being considered domestic terrorists instead. The history of prisoners of war dates back to ancient warfare, where captured soldiers were often killed to minimize upkeep costs. However, as warfare advanced in the 17th and 18th centuries, prisoners of war were treated with more humanity and dignity. They were only seen as enemies when they were in possession of weapons, and their captors were only allowed to keep them off the battlefield. Sadly, this was not the case for American soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The existence of British prison ships played a significant role in the development of laws to protect prisoners of war, but it was not until 1949 that the humane treatment of prisoners of war was officially made a law through the Geneva Convention.

Excerpts from 'The British Prison Ship' by Philip Freneau:

'Transported, at length, to York with fate unkind,
We found Death preferable to a prisoner's mind,
Condemned to shackles, famine, and despair,
Breathing infected air, in a ship's dirty lair,
With successive funerals, each day brought more gloom,
As we lay doomed on that sickly, floating tomb.' (Canto I)

'To recount the horrors of this prison,
Where torment and agony are a given,
Where death holds reign with a vengeance strong,
And the wronged ghosts still cry out, unavenged long.
This be my task - ungenerous Britons, you,
Conspire to murder those you can't subdue.' (Canto II)

'Welcome, dark abode!
Comparing the suffering endured on board the British prison ship to the evils of Pandora's box, this poem showcases the horrors experienced by American prisoners of war during the Revolutionary War. The three cantos of the poem, told from the perspective of the ship's captain, depict the capture of his ship, the Aurora, and the subsequent imprisonment and mistreatment of its crew.

The Aurora, no match for the faster and better-equipped Iris, was quickly captured by the British, leading to the imprisonment of its crew. They were then transferred to the Scorpion, where they soon realized that their fate would have been better had they died in the battle.Their time on the prison ship was a living nightmare. Shackled, starved, and subjected to torture by their captors, the prisoners faced deplorable conditions with death constantly looming. Despite a failed escape attempt, they clung to hope for their eventual release. However, their situation only worsened as sickness spread, claiming an average of three lives per day.As the speaker fell ill, he was transferred to a hospital ship, where he witnessed even more heartless acts. The doctor, a foreigner, administered ineffective treatments and even resorted to poisoning the sick prisoners. Death continued to claim its victims, and the surviving prisoners were forced to bury their fallen comrades on the shore."The British Prison Ship" serves as a poignant reminder of the atrocities committed during war and the incredible resilience of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable suffering. Its vivid descriptions and harrowing depictions are a testament to the sacrifices made by American prisoners of war during the Revolutionary War.The poem concludes with a plea to future generations to never forget the prisoners of war who fought for their freedom but were subjected to brutal torture and death by their British captors.After falling ill and nearly succumbing to death on the prison ship, the speaker is transferred to a hospital ship. This change in setting is portrayed through the use of literary devices such as allusion, personification, and figurative language. Together, they create a stark contrast between the American prisoners and their cruel British captors.One of the most prominent literary devices used in the poem is allusion. The speaker makes references to Greek and Roman mythology, assuming the reader's familiarity with these stories. Despite Christianity being the dominant religion at the time, the author, Philip Freneau, was a deist who believed in the power of human reason over organized religion. This may suggest that as the speaker endures the horrors of war, his own faith is called into question. The allusions begin in the first line, with the speaker invoking "Clio," the Greek muse of history, to aid in his storytelling. The ship, named "Aurora," is also introduced through an allusion to the Greek god Phœbus, associated with the sun. These allusions set the scene and create a contrast between the peaceful morning imagery and the impending violence of the prisoners' capture.In the second canto, the speaker shifts towards allusions to tragic characters, including mythology and Shakespeare. He mourns the loss of his friend, guardian, and "Orestes," a figure from Greek mythology known for his madness and act of revenge. The speaker also references Hamlet's Ophelia, who went mad after her father's death and drowned, similar to the speaker's friend. Additionally, the prison ship is compared to Pandora's box, a symbol of all the evils in the world in Greek mythology, emphasizing the bleak and hopeless reality for those onboard.The third canto continues with tragic allusions to depict the horrors faced by British prisoners. The speaker is transferred to a hospital ship in hopes of better conditions, only to find the same inhumane treatment. The use of allusions to figures such as Autolycus, Orestes, and Alcander heightens the sense of despair and tragedy. The speaker questions if any good can exist in such a desolate place, referencing the polar worlds, barren deserts, and even Pluto's underworld. These allusions highlight the inhumanity and suffering endured by the prisoners.In summary, the use of allusion, personification, and figurative language in "The British Prison Ship" effectively conveys the brutality and injustice faced by American prisoners during the Revolutionary War.

The Poetic Depiction of Injustice and Struggle in "The British Prison Ship"

The poem "The British Prison Ship" draws on Greek and Roman mythology and tragic characters to create a sharp contrast between the prisoners and their oppressors, serving as a poignant reminder of the sacrifices and struggles of those who fought for freedom.

  • In the ancient tales of Greek and Roman mythology, heroes like Autolycus, Orestes, and Alcander were revered for their strength and skill. However, aboard the British hospital ships, where prisoners suffered and perished, this strength was rendered useless. The speaker compares the prison ships to a polar world, a desert, and a volcano, emphasizing the unforgiving nature of these harsh environments. The allusion to Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, highlights the incompetence of the doctor in charge of the ship, who was responsible for the deaths of many prisoners.
  • The speaker also personifies the inanimate objects on the prison ships, attributing human qualities to them. The ships themselves are described as "houses of suffering and death," with pain and horror reigning over the prisoners. The prisoners' own bodies seem to conspire against them, enduring extreme dehydration and starvation. This personification highlights how things that were once sources of comfort and joy have now become meaningless and indifferent in the prisoners' dire circumstances.
  • The prisoners anxiously await the arrival of dawn, hoping for relief from the horrors of the night. But even the morning sun proves to be of no respite, as the prisoners are in a constant state of distress. This shift in perception of the sun, from a powerful deity to a mere source of light, further underscores the dire conditions aboard the prison ship.
  • Rhetorical questions are used by the speaker to emphasize the hopelessness of the prisoners' situation. He questions whether men and animals share the same numbness, whether life can thrive in barren deserts or volcanic regions, and whether any growth is possible in these harsh conditions. These questions paint a bleak picture of barrenness and lifelessness, highlighting the direness of the prisoners' circumstances.
  • The speaker also employs figures of speech to portray the British as merciless and savage beings. The naval officer on the ship is indifferent to the suffering of the prisoners, wishing for them to be "banished and shrouded in eternal darkness." This figurative language suggests that the British officer desired the prisoners' death and held a belief that all rebels should suffer the same fate. This sentiment was widespread among British forces during the war, as they viewed the American colonials as terrorists rather than prisoners of war.

Overall, the speaker's use of personification, rhetorical questions, and figures of speech effectively conveys the harsh reality of life aboard a British prison ship during the American Revolutionary War. The prisoners were subjected to inhumane and cruel treatment, with even the elements working against them. The speaker's vivid descriptions and powerful imagery serve to showcase the brutality and inhumanity of the British forces, who desired bloodshed and violence.

The Use of Literary Devices in "The British Prison Ship"

The poem's heavy tone, foreshadowing the pain and suffering to come, is effectively created through the use of alliteration and consonance. Alliteration, the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of related words, is used throughout the poem. In the first canto, the "D" sound in "dismal day" adds to the foreboding feeling of the prisoners' fate on the ship.

  • The poet also employs consonance, the repetition of similar consonant sounds, to depict the pain and suffering of the prisoners. In the first canto, the "L" sound in "In sickly hulks, devoted while we lay" creates a mournful tone and draws attention to the prisoners' suffering. In the second canto, the soft "N" sound in "found, torments mankind anew" emphasizes the prisoners' resignation and loss of hope.

Remembering the Heroes of American Revolution through 'The British Prison Ship'

In his poem 'The British Prison Ship', American poet Philip Freneau highlights the importance of acknowledging and honoring the sacrifices made by those who fought for freedom during the American Revolution. Through the clever use of literary devices, Freneau vividly portrays the brutality inflicted upon American prisoners of war on British prison ships.

Powerful Figurative Language: The Impact of Alliteration, Consonance, and Simile

While 'The British Prison Ship' employs alliteration and consonance to add depth to the poem, it is the sparing but impactful use of simile that captures the reader's attention. By comparing the British to evil, Freneau strips them of their humanity and portrays them as allies of the devil. For instance, in Canto III, he likens their moral state to the darkness of night by saying "And, black as night, the hell born refugee!" This figurative language is powerful and effectively conveys the poet's view of the British as inhumane and immoral.

The Poem's Central Themes: Pain, Suffering, and Remembrance

At its core, 'The British Prison Ship' explores the themes of pain and suffering, depicting the prisoners' torment on the ship. Through the use of rhetorical questions and allusions, Freneau suggests that even the strongest of mythical heroes or God's own Eden would not be able to endure the suffering inflicted by the British. In Canto I, he emphasizes the severity of the prisoners' plight by stating "Death was better than the prisoner's fate." Moreover, the British kept their prisoners in shackles, adding to their agony and misery.

A Call to Future Generations: Never Forgetting the Price of Freedom

In the conclusion of the poem, the speaker shifts the focus to honoring the fallen heroes and invoking future Americans to take action. He implores them to pay respect to those who fought for their freedom and to avenge them. The final lines read, "Americans! to rites sepulchral just, With gentlest footstep press this kindred dust, And o'er the tombs, if tombs can then be found..." (Canto III). This serves as a reminder to never forget the sacrifices made for freedom and to always remember the atrocities committed by the British.

In Summary

'The British Prison Ship' is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that utilizes literary devices such as alliteration, consonance, and simile to emphasize the themes of pain and suffering. But more importantly, it serves as a reminder to never forget the sacrifices made by heroes of the American Revolution and to honor their memory by upholding the values of freedom and independence.

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