“The British Prison-Ship” by Philip Freneau

The British Prison Ship (1780) is a famous poem about how the British treated American prisoners of war (the British did not consider them prisoners of war, but terrorists, until 1781). The death rate on these ships were 70% (much greater than in Andersonville which was about 35%), because of overcrowding and terrible food, so they were really death ships.

The terrible treatment that prisoners of war experienced backfired on the British and set forth a precedent that prisoners of war should be treated with decency and humanity- which we believed in until recently.

Here are some excerpts from this influential poem:

THE various horrors of these hulks to tell,
These Prison Ships where pain and penance dwell,
Where death in tenfold vengeance holds his reign,
And injur’d ghosts, yet unaveng’d, complain;
This be my task —ungenerous Britons, you
Conspire to murder whom you can’t subdue. —

Four hundred wretches here, denied all light,
In crowded mansions pass the infernal night,
Some for a bed their tatter’d vestments join,
And some on chests, and some on floors recline;
Shut from the blessings of the evening air
Pensive we lay with mingled corpses there,
Meagre and wan, and scorch’d with heat, below,
We look’d like ghosts, ere death had made us so —
How could we else, where heat and hunger join’d,
Thus to debase the body and the mind,——
Where cruel thirst the parching throat invades,
Dries up the man, and fits him for the shades.

…and the 1780 poem ends calling the British traitors to the human race:
Ah! traitors, lost to every sense of shame,
Unjust supporters of a tyrant’s claim;
Foes to the rights of freedom and of men,
Flush’d with the blood of thousands you have slain,
To the just doom the righteous heavens decree
We leave you toiling still in cruelty,
Or on dark plans in future herds to meet,
Plans form’d in hell, and projects half complete:
The years approach that shall to ruin bring
Your lords, your chiefs, your desolating* king,
Whose murderous acts shall stamp his name accurs’d,
And his last efforts more than damn the first.

the full poem can be found here:

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3 Comments

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3 responses to ““The British Prison-Ship” by Philip Freneau

  1. Debbie

    explain yourself. What do you mean “we believed in until recently”?

  2. jimbo

    my great great great fandfather wrote this poem

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