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Privateers, Prisoners, and Britain’s Black Holes: POWs in the American Revolution

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Monday, December 4, 2023 - 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2292
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“Interior of the old Jersey prison ship, in the Revolutionary War,” engraving, 1855

During the American Revolution, the British military took almost as many men prisoner at sea as they did on the battlefield. Most of those captured by Royal Navy were privateers—raiding crews licensed by the Continental Congress to torment British shipping and besiege Britain itself. 

Historian Richard Bell examines the untold history of America’s privateers and their experiences as Britain’s captives. Held indefinitely under the terms of a 1777 law that designated them as pirates and traitors, these sailors spent months or years buried from the world in prisons in England and in floating hulks off the coast of Manhattan. Bell traces their lives both at sea and then behind bars, using their surviving diaries and journals to illuminate their ordeal. He examines their campaigns to improve their treatment and build alliances and reconstructs their extraordinary efforts to escape—digging tunnels, climbing over walls, and bribing guards. 

Bell argues that these British prisons and floating hulks soon became nurseries of American nationalism and that their inmates’ experiences changed the course of the war. In America, the patriots publicized tales of British cruelty to their captives to stir up strong feelings of common cause. In Britain, domestic anti-war activists took to depicting these men and boys as martyr-victims of King George’s misdirected aggression. Some even started fund-raising drives to buy them food and clothing, while others helped inmates to plan their escape attempts.

Bell is a professor of history at the University of Maryland.

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