Book Review: The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn by Robert P. Watson.

Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Da Capo Press (31 Aug. 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 030682552X

Prisoners are a product of every war. What happens to them can become enshrined in legend, such as in the case of the 2nd World War. Or they can fade into silence and memory as has happened here. As the author states at the beginning, there is no movie about the American Prisoners of War who were held in New York Harbour. These men, thus denied the modern world’s highest mark of respect have no real legacy today amongst the legends of the War of Independence, but their struggle was an important one. They won no battles but they put themselves to the hazard for what they believed in. And many died for it.

A Ghost ship haunts the murky waters of the Hudson River. Her name was HMS Jersey and she was a prison ship. When a friend of mine read the back cover of this book she exclaimed “How is there not a memorial to this?” I had no answer then, but I subsequently discovered that there is one; The Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument. A single Doric column stretching into the sky in a relatively quiet corner of Brooklyn called Fort Green Park. It may not be too surprising that people in Britain are ignorant of this memorial, but to many citizens of the United States its significance would also be puzzling. The objective of this book by Robert P. Watson is essentially to tell us why it is there.

“Ghost Ship” tells the story of a number of American prisoners and their experiences on the Hell ship Jersey. The most infamous of the Prison ships that served as floating jails for rebel captives during the American Revolution. Told with passion and clarity, the author has achieved in his objective, to memorialise in print the struggle of the prisoners and to return them to the fore of American consciousness, arguing that these men fought their own battle and eventually won in the end with everyone else. This is a book with a worthy subject which doesn’t recieve as much focus as it should.

It is popular history, so there are a few irkedome things like calling the war of the Spanish succession the first true World War (impossible unless troops of Louis XIV fought in China, Australia, Africa and South America, or any of the above fought in Europe). As usual it exaggerates British power and cruelty. He is very keen on arguing that the British did not fight fair by the standards of the day. He also follows the usual trope of beefing up the power of the British armed forces to heights not realised until the 19th century. The British navy was apparently the “Undisputed Mistress of the Sea’s”. Well the Royal Navy of France would probably have take an umbridge to that statement, being as they literally disputed the seas until the French Revolution.

It’s a fact that the actions of the British state lead to the, mistreatment of these British American citizens and although we should be careful about believing everything, it was the mother country who was the oppressor and suppresser here and the actions of dominant nations against people who qualify as rebels is never palatable with the ideals of enlightened civilisation. Recall that the term British here is a political identification because for at least part of the book an American was also a type of British subject.

Simply put, prisoners didn’t get a fair go in the 18th century. Be you Civil convict on your way to Australia, or a Jacobite rebel the state would be harsh on you. In the American War, wether you were stuck in a British prison hulk, or condemned to march around the country as part of the “convention Army” unless you were an officer who was also a gentleman your chances of Christian treatment decreased exponentially.

I’m a little cautious about believing everything, too many authors in TV documentaries have declared that this or that was a deliberate action to break the will of the colonies. But because there isn’t really an investigation of the prisoner of war system we don’t find out here. Usually however such mind games tended to be a deterrent to stop men enlisting witnghe enemy rather than ending the war. Some of the atrocities have the distinct ring of propaganda. There is however no doubt that the hulks were the stick of the acarrot and stick system, but we might need to observe that the psychological element of this system might be somewhat passive, as the justice system for all prisoners, wether in arms or civil, was appalling in the 18th century. One might have wished to see a comparison between the civil and military treatment of prisoners in order to get a clearer view of wether this was considered “typical” or “unusual” punishment. One thing is certain by modern standards it was horror incarnate. It would continue to be bad for even enemies who were representing recognised governments, and suspiciously for the same reasons. Bad hygiene, overcrowding, bad rations, poor accommodation and administration.

The strength of the book lies in the experiences of the prisoners, which are backed up by their own testimony, written later in their lives. Here we find an excellent piece of storytelling. Harrowing and sad, but vivid. It is from this that we gather that there was an unusual aspect to the treatment of the prisoners, the one reserved for unlawful combatants who did not come under the remit of honourble treatment.

I’d say in the case of the assertion that this was a deliberate strategy that started right at the top, that there isn’t enough evidence of collusion, especially with Howe. The book only says Howe condoned the conditions for instance. The blackening of the name of General Sir William Howe is interesting given his reputation, at most one might have said he was indifferent to how his prison ships were run, or neglectful of them. Since he barely spent a year in New York, and much of that was spent in the field around it, we might have arrived at the asnwe. However because Ghost Ship doesn’t try to investigate anything more than a superficial conclusion that because he was in command he knew what was going on, we can’t properly appraise the matter. Howe’s system of command was quit possibly one of the most inefficient in the history of the Army in America. A commander who cannot enforce an order to provide forage from Rhode Island, and who was as dilatory as Howe was in prosecuting his Campaign who indeed was accused of being in sympathy with the rebels because of his dead slow style and relative benignity (both sides suggested this), cannot simply be accused of collusion in the crimes of a branch of his forces without more evidence. Only once is an unnamed British officer quoted as saying that he hoped the prison ships would be an example to those out in sympathy. For this reason it seems the author is unwilling to show proper evidence of the commissary and provost’s motivations, even when they exist they are dismissed as biased and ignored.

There are some other issues that seem to have been overlooked, these take the form of unexplained anomalies. The prison gaurds and their officers are merciless cyphers of inhumanity, who restrict all liberties from the prisoners and sadistically make their lives miserable. Maybe this was so but there is little investigation into how these no goods were chosen. And yet now and again we see liberties being granted. Sutlers selling food. Letters being written and sent. Even a fair indication that personal property could be kept a hold of with a little industry. One gets the impression that there is an element of the story that isn’t being told.

The biggest issue of the book however is the claim of cost, the book says on the cover and asserts inside that more men died on the Jersey in the three years she spent as a prison hulk because than all American battlefield casualties combined during the entire war. In the chapter dealing with the casualties of the Jersey, he himself makes it plain that in fact there is no actual way of corroborating any claim made as to numbers of dead on any of the ships. It cannot even be determined wether the numbers reflect all the fatalities aboard all the ships in the harbour during the entire or part of the war. Although some suggested 11,000 or there abouts as a tally for the Jersey alone, and indeed she may well have been the most vile as respecting death tolls, some estimates put the sum total of deaths at about 8-11,000 for the entire prison squadron for the duration. When it is discovered that the number of inmates board the Jersey was somewhere between 7-8,000 men during its stint as a prison ship, I cannot help but think there is more too this assertion. The author himself hedges somewhat by admitting “if” allot.

But wether 11,000 or just 100 died it remains a terrible event. Brought to us in a story of loyalty, sacrifice and endurance. It is well written and emotional, thought provoking and compelling, but limited in some ways and overreaching in others. Nevertheless the point is that this is a story is one that should be told and remembered as a part of the history of the USA, and this book goes some way to doing that.


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