HMS Jersey (1736)
The Jersey Prison Ship as moored at the Wallabout near Long Island, in the year 1782
Career (Great Britain)
Name: HMS Jersey
Builder: Plymouth Dockyard
Launched: 14 June 1736
Fate: Abandoned, 1783
Class & type: 1733 proposals 60-gun fourth rate ship of the line
Tons burthen: 1,065 long tons (1,082.1 t)
Length: 144 ft (43.9 m) (gundeck)
Beam: 41 ft 5 in (12.6 m)
Depth of hold: 16 ft 11 in (5.2 m)
Sail plan: Full rigged ship
- Gundeck: 24 × 24 pdrs
- Upper gundeck: 26 × 9 pdrs
- Quarterdeck: 8 × 6 pdrs
- Forecastle: 2 × 6 pdrs
HMS Jersey was a 60-gun fourth rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, built to the 1733 proposals of the 1719 Establishment of dimensions at Plymouth Dockyard, and launched on 14 June 1736. She is perhaps most noted for her service as a prison ship during the American Revolutionary War.
Jersey was built during a time of peace in Britain. Length: 44 m; 1,068 bm tons; Crew: 400; Armament: 24x24 pdr, 26x9 pdr, 10x6 pdr; built in 1736. Her first battle was in Admiral Edward Vernon's defeated attack on the Spanish port of Cartagena, Colombia, around the beginning of the War of Jenkins' Ear in October 1739. Jersey next saw action in the Seven Years' War. Jersey also took part in the Battle of Lagos under Admiral Edward Boscawen on 18—19 August 1759.
American Revolutionary War
In March 1771, Jersey's masts were taken down and she was then made a hospital ship in Wallabout Bay, New York, which would later become the Brooklyn Navy Yard. When the American Revolution began, the British used her as a prison ship for captured Continental Army soldiers, making her infamous due to the harsh conditions in which the prisoners were kept. Thousands of men were crammed below decks where there was no natural light or fresh air and few provisions for the sick and hungry. James Forten was one of those imprisoned aboard her during this period. Political tensions only made the prisoners' days worse, with brutal mistreatment by the British guards becoming fairly common. As many as eight corpses a day were buried from the Jersey alone before the British surrendered at Yorktown on 19 October 1781. When the British evacuated New York at the end of 1783, Jersey was abandoned in the harbour, having had approximatively 8,000 prisoners on board.
One of the most gruesome chapters in the story of America's struggle for independence from Britain occurred in the waters near New York Harbor, near the current location of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. From 1776 to 1783, the British forces occupying New York City used abandoned or decommissioned warships anchored just offshore to hold those soldiers, sailors and private citizens they had captured in battle or arrested on land or at sea (many for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to the British Crown). Some 11,000 prisoners died aboard the prison ships over the course of the war, many from disease or malnutrition. Many of these were inmates of the notorious HMS Jersey, which earned the nickname "Hell" for its inhumane conditions and the obscenely high death rate of its prisoners.
Christopher Vail, of Southold, who was aboard Jersey in 1781, later wrote:
'When a man died he was carried up on the forecastle and laid there until the next morning at 8 o'clock when they were all lowered down the ship sides by a rope round them in the same manner as tho' they were beasts. There was 8 died of a day while I was there. They were carried on shore in heaps and hove out the boat on the wharf, then taken across a hand barrow, carried to the edge of the bank, where a hole was dug 1 or 2 feet deep and all hove in together.'
In 1778, Robert Sheffield of Stonington, Connecticut, escaped from one of the prison ships, and told his story in the Connecticut Gazette, printed July 10, 1778. He was one of 350 prisoners held in a compartment below the decks.
"The heat was so intense that (the hot sun shining all day on deck) they were all naked, which also served the well to get rid of vermin, but the sick were eaten up alive. Their sickly countenances, and ghastly looks were truly horrible; some swearing and blaspheming; others crying, praying, and wringing their hands; and stalking about like ghosts; others delirious, raving and storming,--all panting for breath; some dead, and corrupting. The air was so foul that at times a lamp could not be kept burning, by reason of which the bodies were not missed until they had been dead ten days."
The Department of Defense currently lists 4,435 US battle deaths during the Revolutionary War. Another 20,000 died in captivity, from disease, or for other reasons. Estimates of deaths aboard the New York prison ships vary around 8,000. Prisoner exchanges were hardly possible for two reasons: the British often captured far more prisoners than the Americans did, and George Washington did not favour exchanging veteran British soldiers for ragtag American troops, as it would only put his army at a greater disadvantage.
Rediscovery of the Jersey
During October 1902 as the keel of the ship the USS Connecticut was under construction at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the HMS Jersey had been found. While pile driving a new dock, the wood from the ship was encountered, precisely where the burned hulk was reported to lay after the British abandoned the ship and she was set on fire.
The remains of those that died aboard the prison ships were reinterred in Fort Greene Park after the 1808 burial vault near the Brooklyn Navy Yard had collapsed. In 1908, one hundred years after the burial ceremony, the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument was dedicated.
- Lavery, Ships of the Line vol.1, p171.
- Stiles, Henry Reed. Letters from the prisons and prison-ships of the revolution. Thomson Gale, 31 December 1969. ISBN 978-1-4328-1222-5
- Dring, Thomas and Greene, Albert. Recollections of the Jersey Prison Ship (American Experience Series, No 8). Applewood Books. 1 November 1986. ISBN 978-0-918222-92-3 (Author)
- Taylor, George. Martyrs To The Revolution In The British Prison-Ships In The Wallabout Bay. (originally printed 1855) Kessinger Publishing, LLC. 2 October 2007. ISBN 978-0-548-59217-5.
- Banks, James Lenox. Prison ships in the Revolution: New facts in regard to their management. 1903. ASIN: B0008BOCOG.
- Hawkins, Christopher. The life and adventures of Christopher Hawkins, a prisoner on board the 'Old Jersey' prison ship during the War of the Revolution. Holland Club. 1858. ASIN: B000887ON0
- Andros, Thomas. The old Jersey captive: Or, A narrative of the captivity of Thomas Andros...on board the old Jersey prison ship at New York, 1781. In a series of letters to a friend. W. Peirce. 1833. ASIN: B00085RDI4.
- Lang, Patrick J. The horrors of the English prison ships, 1776 to 1783, and the barbarous treatment of the American patriots imprisoned on them. Society of the Sriendly Sons of Saint Patrick, 1939. ASIN: B0008BI27E.
- Onderdonk. Henry. Revolutionary Incidents of Suffolk and Kings Counties; With an Account of the Battle of Long Island and the British Prisons and Prison-Ships at New York. Associated Faculty Press, Inc. June 1970. ISBN 978-0-8046-8075-2.
- West, Charles E. Horrors of the prison ships: Dr. West's description of the wallabout floating dungeons, how captive patriots fared. Eagle Book Printing Department, 1895. ASIN: B000885ACW.
- The Destructive Operation of Foul Air, Tainted Provisions, Bad Water, and Personal Filthiness, upon Human Constitutions; Exemplified in the Unparalleled Cruelty of the British to the American Captives at New-York during the Revolutionary War, on Board their Prison and Hospital Ships, Medical Repository, volume 11, 1808
- Dandridge, Danske. American Prisoners of the Revolution. Retrieved 2009-07-22.
- "The HMS Jersey". Retrieved 12 May 2013.