Forgotten men of war

The second and last armed conflict between the British Empire and the United States was once a neglected war. But the bicentennial of the War of 1812, as it later came to be known, inspired a wealth of fresh scholarship that has rightly recast it in broader geographic, social and cultural terms. While the war served as an umbrella for a host of local conflicts that raged in North America’s borderlands, from Spanish Florida to Canada, its immediate cause was an American declaration of war over maritime rights. American neutrality in Europe’s affairs had enabled its merchant navy to flourish and, to Britain’s fury, serve as a sanctuary for tens of thousands of British sailors fleeing the hellish conditions of Royal Navy service. Britain’s response was to strangle American trade with Britain’s enemies and forcibly stop and search American vessels to seize sailors, claiming they were British.

The War of 1812 involved the world’s two largest merchant fleets. Lacking warships with any hope of seriously challenging British naval supremacy, the US instead invite merchant vessels to arm themselves as private and attack enemy shipping – the “militia of the sea”. For merchant seamen, privateering appealed as a way to remain employed, if not to enrich themselves. They became the bane of the British Empire, capturing silk-laden British ships in Asian waters, infesting the Caribbean and even raiding British shores. Together, American privateers roughly matched the damage the British visited on American shipping. Not surprisingly, the British government was keen to capture and imprison these men – unlike the militiamen captured on land. More than 6,000 of these prisoners found themselves in Dartmoor prison towards the end of the war. Nicholas Guyatt’s The Hated Cage Tells the story of their confinement and the riot that left nine dead and dozens more seriously injured at the hands of the overzealous British militia guarding them.

The American prisoners at Dartmoor received scant attention in their own lifetimes, and even less in historical accounts. The reasons are plentiful. The episode took place after hostilities had concluded and during a time when both sides were otherwise occupied – Britain with a resurgent Napoleon and the US with recasting the disastrous and domestically divisive war as a victory. The victims were sailors, a less than savoury group that polite society sometimes fêted, but always at a comfortable distance. In consequence, both governments were quite happy to perform their functory duties of perfunctory joint investigation into Dart and failing to fail to.

Guyatt’s account stretches across fourteen chapters – easily the most comprehensive study to date (and probably for quite a long while). Much of the book is context. American prisoners do not begin arriving at Dartmoor until the fourth chapter. In these initial chapters, Guyatt offers a hasty, though not oversimplified, summary of the Anglo-American tensions that erupted into war in 1812, and a short history of the prison.

The book is at its best once the focus shifts to the prisoners’ experiences, when it becomes a model microhistory. Guyatt does not rely exclusively on the handful of prisoners’ written accounts, which are invariably conflicting and sometimes written decades later. Sailors are, after all, known for tall tales. Along with government and personal correspondence, Guyatt carefully employs prison records to balance the embellished personal narratives. The result is a vivid reconstruction of the experiences of the men who endured Dartmoor, as well as the hundreds who did not survive, dying from disease even before the bloody riot. We learn how the prisoners attempted to disrupt the tedium of confinement with theatrical performances, gambling and sports. We also learn about their physical and mental anguish – all made worse by the ineptitude and corruption that characterized the British and American officials responsible for the prisoners’ care. Hunger, cold and violence dominated daily life.

The American inmates, much like the seafaring world that produced them, were a rough and disparate bunch. Most were unsurprisingly young, but no small number had been adults at the birth of the United States. They were overwhelmingly poor and illiterate, although some came from middling backgrounds and several managed to keep diaries or write later accounts of their imprisonment. While Guyatt labels them “Americans”, nationality was a fuzzy, contested concept during this period. The US embraced the idea of ​​voluntary citizenship, whereas Britain clung to the notion of a subject with duties to a monarch, who could dissolve the relationship. With the added factors of easily forged papers and the mobility of seafaring life, these men likely resided in places across the Atlantic world. Several even had British wives awaiting their release. Most inmates were the captured crews of privateers, but some were from US warships and others had been in the Royal Navy and opted for imprisonment over service against their own country. (Foreigners were a mainstay of the Royal Navy, accounting for as much as 15 per cent of the British crews at the Battle of Trafalgar.)

Race is an important part of the story of Dartmoor, and Guyatt is right to emphasize it. Black sailors hailing from across the Atlantic world were a staple of European and US fleets, and they accounted for roughly a quarter of the Americans at Dartmoor. Because the crews of the American ships were mixed (the officers were almost universally white), some historians have exaggerated the egalitarian aspects of seafaring life. The Hated Cage challenges such idealism. Accommodation was segregated at least partly at the behest of white prisoners, and the prisoners’ leadership committees, which maintained order and represented the inmates in negotiations with the prison authorities, excluded Blacks. Black inmates were among the last to be freed and their conditions were notably worse. Moreover, on release they faced the whims of transport captains, who sometimes changed course and landed in American slave states, where an untold number of former prisoners were promptly enslaved.

Chief among the Black prisoners was Richard Crafus, who came to be known as King Dick. A man of Herculean frame, standing at six feet, three and a quarter inches, King Dick possessed an equally impressive ability to lead and control the men in his command. With a mixture of violence and savvy, he presided over the Black prison sector and a gaming racket that attracted more than a few white inmates. The book regularly revisits King Dick and, while the attempt to weave him into the story as a central figure sometimes feels strained, the account is enriched by the story of this once powerful leader who later died homeless in Boston.

Ultimately, the riot and massacre are largely secondary to the story. The likely immediate cause – prisoners attempting to retrieve a ball that had fallen on the guards’ side of a wall – was trivial. Dartmoor was neither the first nor last time a British militia would overact and brutally attack unarmed people. Neglect, divisions among the prisoners, the guards’ anxieties and uncertainty all made Dartmoor a powder keg. Guyatt’s meticulous reconstruction and vivid telling of these conditions make The Hated Cage a compelling story of human indifference, cruelty and endurance.

Troy Bickham is a Professor of History at Texas A&M University. His latest book is Eating the Empire: Food and society in eighteenth-century Britain2020

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