2017-08-16 / Arts & Entertainment News

A penetrating look at forgotten horrors of America’s Revolutionary War


Lynn University Professor Robert P. Watson makes reading history a totally engaging experience. He does so by choosing unusual and challenging topics, setting them into contexts rich in detail and presenting them in a prose style that is clear, vivid and uncluttered by academic jargon. Mr. Watson makes historical events shine as if they were today’s news.

His latest book is a piece of fine storytelling. Readers will care about what happened on HMS Jersey, the major British prison ship during the American Revolution.

As he must, the author attaches his relatively narrow topic to a few larger concentric circles: prison ships in general; overcrowded British prisons in the colonies and insufficient buildings to repurpose; and the overall Revolutionary War. The book’s spatial focus is New York, particularly Brooklyn waterways, and New England.

The chapters are enticingly compact and action-filled, each opening with a quotation from Philip Freneau’s 1781 poem, “The British Prison-Ship.” Even though it’s not about the HMS Jersey, the poem still gives a powerful contemporary insight into the horrors of prison ships.

WATSON WATSON The early chapters provide a detailed overview of the dismal situation for the colonial rebels in the early period of the war. Even under the estimable General Washington, retreat was often the order of the day. Overwhelmed by the much larger British fleet and its professional sailors, colonial forces, even when supplemented by privateers, were not making much headway.

The hows and whys of the turnabout become clear as the narrative proceeds, but once the focus is on the prison situation and the bright idea of prison boats, Mr. Watson’s voluminous research on this generally unknown element takes over.

The Jersey is at once the most extreme example of prisoner conditions and the iconic one. It’s hard to imagine that over several years 11,500 prisoners died on that ship alone (around a dozen every day by 1783) — more than on all the others put together.

¦ “The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn” by Robert P. Watson. Da Capo Press. 304 pages. Hardcover, $28. ¦ “The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn” by Robert P. Watson. Da Capo Press. 304 pages. Hardcover, $28. Simply put, conditions went from abominable to worse.

Food to sustain the incarcerated population was not sufficient and was most often dangerous to consume. You could die without it or die from eating it. Fresh water was a rare commodity. Sanitary conditions? There weren’t any. Medical treatment? Uh-uh. People were crushed together in their disintegrating garments. Disease was rampant. No sympathy was shown to the prisoners, and they were not granted the protections of the laws of war.

Though this book allows readers to meet a great many prominent historical characters, many of the less-known or totally obscure individuals are just as interesting. Among these are the five young men whose recorded experiences as Jersey prisoners allow the author to bring the conditions and cruelties of the Jersey fully to life. Each of the five lived to write about their war experiences, and especially their ordeal on the prison ship. Mr. Watson’s judicious selections of the men’s own words and his summaries of other passages in their writings enliven his study enormously.

Astonishingly, several of these young men were barely men at all. At least two of the five had just entered their early teens when they went off to war as patriot-adventurers.

Not long after the war ended, the few viable prison ships were turned to other purposes, while the worst of the wrecks were either scavenged or simply abandoned. The latter was the fate of the Jersey, with the hundreds and thousands of corpses on and around the ship reduced to piles of bones that were eventually recovered. Their final disposition became a matter of political controversy and indecision for decades.

This sobering book reminds us that no one can overestimate the human capacity for cruelty or underestimate the capacity for perseverance and courage.

About the author

Robert P. Watson, Ph.D., has published more than three dozen nonfiction books, two encyclopedia sets, three novels and hundreds of scholarly journal articles, book chapters and reference essays on topics in politics and history. A frequent media commentator, he has been interviewed by outlets throughout the United States and internationally and serves as the political analyst for WPTV5 (NBC) in West Palm Beach. For many years he was also a Sunday columnist with the Sun- Sentinel newspaper in South Florida. His “The Nazi Titanic” was reviewed last year in these pages. Mr. Watson lives in Boca Raton. ¦

— Phil Jason, Ph. D., United States Naval Academy professor emeritus of English, is a poet, critic and freelance writer with 20 books to his credit, including several studies of war literature and a creative writing text.

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