August 31, 2017


The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution. By Robert P. Watson. Da Capo. $28.

     There will never be a shortage of small historical matters that have not yet been fully explored, and thus there will always be a way for a dedicated historian to delve into the past in new ways and for a devoted history-focused author to find topics for more books. The reality that these are strictly limited-interest volumes for a very small subset of potential readers is not a significant concern for writers such as Robert P. Watson, who seem as intrigued by finding out details of little-known past events as by communicating those details to a receptive (even if miniscule) audience. And so we have The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn, a book that is partly about the ship referenced in the title and partly about the horribly inhumane way the British treated rebellious Colonials (as they considered them) during the Revolutionary War. The fact that treatment of this type was entirely typical of warfare in this age, or at least of the treatment of criminals (which the British considered many of their prisoners to be), is beside the point – Watson plays strictly to modern sensibilities in unearthing first-person accounts and excerpts from meticulous British record-keeping to show just how horrendous conditions were aboard the prison ships where the British kept many of the people they captured.

     Thus, “one winter, a prisoner named Isaac Gibbs asked permission to go ashore to bury his father, who had died on the old hulk. The guards let him join two other prisoners on the burial detail that day, but would not provide them with coats. All three men returned to the ship shivering and with frostbite, and died soon afterward.” Conditions aboard the “Ghost Ship” – actually a derelict called the HMS Jersey – were so terrible that when one prisoner begged guards to let members of a burial detail “wash themselves in the bay and remain a few minutes to breathe the fresh air” after they had interred someone, the guards granted the men 30 minutes, but “not on account of compassion,” the prisoner thought, “but rather that the guards did not want to return to the polluted, malodorous ship either.”

     The depredations of war are many, and the inhumane treatment of prisoners is scarcely a new story. What Watson does to make The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn interesting is to extract information from primary sources in such a way as to humanize the narrative and, not coincidentally, demonize the British who kept prisoners in such awful conditions. Among the uplifting stories here are one about a prisoner who escaped and swam three miles without being found by the British army, and a woman who delivered food to the prisoners and eventually helped almost 200 of them get away. Most held on the Jersey, however, did not escape. Watson calls the Jersey a “floating dungeon” and discusses the filth, overcrowding, lack of food, rarely emptied waste tub, and morning shouts from the guards of “Rebels, send up your dead!” The conditions on the Jersey were a form of psychological warfare – although that term did not yet exist – as the British publicized the situation aboard the Jersey in Loyalist newspapers and through public announcements, intending the descriptions to frighten potential rebels into supporting continued British rule of the American colonies. George Washington actually turned the tables on the British command’s approach at the end of the war, warning that unless the British treated the prisoners on the Jersey – and elsewhere – in appropriate ways, he would treat captured British supporters as those on the Jersey had been treated. Whether he would have followed through on the threat is unknown, but it was certainly effective at the time – albeit much too late for the thousands who died on the derelict ship-turned-prison.

     Despite some repetitiveness in the writing and occasional veering off-track from the principal story, Watson tells the tale of The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn with all the fervor of a true believer in historical minutiae who has found yet another little-known facet of the past to explore. Interestingly enough, though, the story of the Jersey was far from unknown at the time of the Revolutionary War itself: there were many references to it not only in British propaganda but also in diaries, letters and other forms of communication within the ranks both of overtly rebellious colonists and of the civilian population. The manifest horrors of the prison ship, and of the war itself, were such that once there was peace and a new nation had been established, the newly christened citizens of the United States of America wanted to forget all the awful things involved in establishing their country and go on with their everyday lives under a new government. Indeed, those who live through horrible historical events generally want to move beyond them. It takes the hindsight voyeurism of much later historians, and of readers who are genuinely interested in the past or simply fleeing there through books so as to avoid the difficult issues of their everyday lives, to dredge up and examine material that people in the past certainly considered much better forgotten.

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