Weird History

All Aboard The HMS Jersey, The Hellish Floating Revolutionary War Prison  

Quinn Armstrong
1k views 14 items

Everybody knows that battling is hell. However, just like Dante's hell, there are many different circles, and some are worse than others. During the American Revolution, for instance, one could fight a few lackluster campaigns and then retire from the conflict long before any real fighting begins, or one could become trapped in the starving winter of Valley Forge. Or, even worse, one could find oneself on the HMS Jersey.

The Jersey was a British prison ship, and during the Revolution, it held thousands of prisoners. This by itself is unremarkable, but the Jersey often held thousands of prisoners at one time, crammed in hellish conditions under the decks, like sardines in a tin. There was no light, barely any oxygen, no medical care, and little in the way of food and clean water.

To put the depredations of the Jersey in perspective, it is currently believed the Americans suffered around 4,500 field casualties. Compare this to the 11,000 believed to have perished aboard the Jersey and other prison ships. These places were totally unconcerned with keeping their prisoners alive, and the Jersey was the worst of them all.

Their Food Was Moldy, Putrefie... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list All Aboard The HMS Jersey, The Hellish Floating Revolutionary War Prison
Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Their Food Was Moldy, Putrefied, And Eaten Through By Maggots And Pests

Imagine you haven't eaten in a week. You're starving, weak, and your body is starting to break down. What is the foulest, most rotten food you would willingly eat? The prisoners at the HMS Jersey were faced with this question on a regular basis. According to the prisoner Ebenezer Fox:

The bread was mostly mouldy, and filled with worms. It required considerable rapping upon the deck, before these worms could be dislodged from their lurking places in a biscuit. As for the pork, we were cheated out of it more than half the time, and when it was obtained one would have judged from its motley hues, exhibiting the consistence and appearance of variegated soap, that it was the flesh of the porpoise or sea hog, and had been an inhabitant of the ocean, rather than a sty... The provisions were generally damaged, and from the imperfect manner in which they were cooked were about as indigestible as grape shot.

The image of prisoners banging their biscuits against the deck to remove worms appeared to have no effect on the British soldiers, as this treatment continued throughout the conflict.

One Of The Prisoner's Greatest Delights Was Smelling A Piece Of Earth Brought Back From The Shore

No matter how terrible a situation is, people can always adapt to some degree and find small consolations. Captain Dring, a survivor who wrote prolifically about his experiences on the Jersey, recalled one particularly strange consolation.

If anyone passed on the ship, their remains were usually thrown overboard, but occasionally they were allowed to be taken ashore and laid to rest. Dring was part of a group that was tasked with digging graves on land. Of course, those chosen for the duty were ecstatic to be on land again. Dring even took off his boots simply to feel the earth underneath his feet. However, when the crew came across a piece of broken-up turf, they did something extraordinary:

We went by a small patch of turf, some pieces of which we tore up from the earth, and obtained permission to carry them on board for our comrades to smell them. Circumstances like these may appear trifling to the careless reader; but let him be assured that they were far from being trifles to men situated as we had been... Sadly did we approach and reenter our foul and disgusting place of confinement. The pieces of turf which we carried on board were sought for by our fellow prisoners, with the greatest avidity, every fragment being passed by them from hand to hand, and its smell inhaled as if it had been a fragrant rose.

The Psychological Suffering Was Often As Bad As The Physical Suffering

The majority of the prisoners aboard the Jersey were not hardened warriors but young, inexperienced farmhands. Washington's army was composed of only a few soldiers with any experience. The rest were provincial people, some who had never traveled beyond the limits of the small county in which they lived.

These young men had never encountered anything like the Jersey. The constant punishment, meager rations, lack of light, and lack of privacy were one thing, but the inactivity and helplessness majorly contributed to their suffering.

This was the last resting place of many a son and a brother, - young and noble-spirited men, who had left their happy homes and kind friends to offer their lives in the service of their country. Poor fellows! They suffered more than their older companions in misery. They could not endure their hopeless and wearisome captivity...

This was written by Captain Dring, a survivor of the prison ship, who watched these young men perish in droves. Another survivor, Ebenezer Fox, put it even more bluntly: 

The dismal and disgusting scene around... produced a state of melancholy that often ended in [perishing], - the [perishing] of a broken heart.

Americans Were Pressured To Jo... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list All Aboard The HMS Jersey, The Hellish Floating Revolutionary War Prison
Photo: Charles William Jeffreys/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Americans Were Pressured To Join The British Ranks

During the Revolution, the British navy was already the most powerful military force in the world. All across the world, they swelled their ranks by pressing the citizens of their colonies into service, and the Americans were no exception. Captured Americans were all pressured into service but, as always, the British were especially interested in capturing men with naval experience.

The Continental Army didn't have a Navy, per se, but many small vessels were enlisted, pressed into service, or otherwise induced to join the fight. This conscription was surprisingly successful, with over 55,000 men working onboard American privateers. However, even if every single ship on the American coast had been pressed into service, they wouldn't have matched the superior firepower of the British warships. This inevitably meant the capture of American ships and their crews. Upon capture, these sailors could either join up with the Royal Navy or likely perish aboard a prison ship like the HMS Jersey.