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‘God Damn Ye’
Part 2 of 4: Impressions of A Narrative of Ethan Allen’s Captivity, 1779, pages 24-64
© 2023 James LaFond
MAY/20/24
Concerning the naval portion of his captivity.
The Plantation Age reserved only a very narrow portion of society freedom:
No women were free, none, unless criminals.
No children were free, none, unless criminals.
No youths were free, none, unless criminals.
That was two thirds of humanity.
Of that dominant third, men, the following classes were not free, had no right to self defense, to bear arms, to move from their habitation without a pass.
-Soldiers
-Sailors
-Servants [to include some 20 designations of bound persons from apprentice to slave]
These stations in life all began with the servile S.
Those men who were free included:
-Frontiersmen
-Tribesmen
-Freemen, a small class of free men who did not own property, to include other men
-Men of rank and property, from esquire on up.
Criminals were not free, but rather condemned men, the enemies of all mankind and of society.
There were no great prison houses or concentration camps such as contrived in our later ages. The majority of humanity, that half of men and all the rest, were rather bounded in social stations with severe restrictions on mobility. Allen’s account is thus very important in providing descriptions of methods by which men were temporarily detained without use before being put to use or killed.
As seen in DeFoe’s A General History of the Pyrates, every ship of the age had sufficient numbers of shackles and irons on board to bind an entire crew and more. Not coincidentally much of Allen’s captivity was aboard ship. Indeed, the term brig for a military prison, was based on the use of decommissioned brigantine ships or “brigs” used as prisons by British and American navies.
It being in the power of officers to have rebels shot or bayoneted, some close calls were had by Allen and others. He describes his restraints:
“...were put on board different vessels in the river and shackled together by pairs, viz. Two men fastened together by one cuff, being closely fixed to one wrist of each of them, and treated with the greatest severity, nay as criminals.” [0]
“...of the irons, which were put to me; the hand cuff was of a common size and form [1], but my leg irons (I should imagine) would weigh thirty pounds; the bar was eight feet long and very substantial; the shackles which encompassed my ancles, [2] were very tight I was told by the officer who put them on, that it was the king’s plate, and I heard other officers say, that it would weigh forty weight. The irons were so close upon my ancles, that I could not lie down in any other manner than on my back, I was put into the lowest most wretched part of the vessel, where I got the favor of a chest to sit on, the same answered for my bed at night, and having procured some little blocks of the guard (who day and night with fixed bayonets, watched over me) to lay under each end of the long bar of my leg irons, to preserve my ancles from galling, while I sat on the chest, or lay back on the same.”
Arnold would be permitted numerous conveniences such as this, due to sometimes the humanity of guards and their commanders, and also to his having money! As brutal as the age was, society had not yet come to the point of denying a person their personal belongings upon incarceration. Evidence of the portable wealth that Arnold took into battle on his person will continue to emerge.
After generally good treatment by enemy officers, Allen and his fellow POWs were transferred to a merchant ship and put under the power of a cruel merchant named Brook Watson. Here we get an idea of how servants and criminals were transported against their will. 30 men were handcuffed together in a 20 by 20 plank chamber with two excrement tubs. Being spat upon by a junior officer, Allen struck him and fought while cuffed. The merchant ordered the soldiers to put him in “the den” of prisoners “dead or alive,” he made peace with the soldiers, “...they were good honest fellows, that I could not blame them, that I was only in dispute with a calico merchant.”
Here Allen shares the hatred for the merchant class that sent many a pirate to sea and turned many an Irishman hillbilly.
Forty days of diarrhoea, [3] fever and body lice afflicted the men in the filthy den until they made anchor at Falmouth. Escorted under guard to Pendennis Castle among a throng of curiosity seekers as Watson sought his reward from Parliament, which was denied, Allen wore two shirts, a vest and a jacket, breeches, stockings, shoes, and a cap, and considered himself under dressed.
While the debate as to what should be done with these rebels raged, military confinement in the castle was sanitary and nutritious, with Allen’s sole complaint that he was treated the same as the privates, with no distinction other than a bottle of wine and forced to share the company of his social inferiors.
While confined, Allen was visited by gentlemen from as far away as 50 miles who asked him many questions. The following incident demonstrates that Allen and the Founding Fathers of the Revolution were not throwing off a yoke but simply wishing to fasten the yoke of service upon lesser men like his privates:
“At one of these times I asked a gentlemen for a bowl of punch, and he ordered his servant to bring it to me, but I refused to take it from the hand of his servant, he then gave it to me with his own hand, refusing to drink with me in consequence of me being a state criminal [yet rated above the servant in status].”
Being accused of Irish ancestry, Allen bantered that he was “a full blooded Yankee.”
In January of 1776, The Frigate Solebay, Captain Symonds commanding, took delivery of Allen and his men, who had legal petitions for his freedom among gentry in London, had their irons taken off and were ordered below decks under a code of honor and a command to stay below. Allen had taken sick and was ushered below. Allen negotiated with the Captain, that since he was a gentleman, if a rebel, that he too should be allowed to walk the deck. The captain permitted this with some stiff acrimony. No argument for the health of his men was made, simply his own social status. The death rate among those forced to stay below with the rats on a ship of sail was higher than that of men who did dangerous work on the open deck, by roughly three. For British sailors died by mishap at 8% and shipped chattel at 25%.
Allen told this captain, “to command his slaves” meaning sailors. An Irish Master at Arms would offer Allen some of his sleeping berth until Cape Fear, North Carolina was reached. So many gifts of food, clothes and drink were given to prisoners by local gentry and merchants that the captain was scandalized and had the tea and sugar taken for use by his crew. The privates were then forced to work as sailors while Allen enjoyed his genteel status. Allen’s men were split, two squads sent to other ships and only a dozen or so remaining with him.
Allen had been given money at Cork, where he was a hero. He was able to make secret purchases for his own relief even when the captain forbade it. A detachment of marines were sent up the Brunswick river and were repelled by rebel “marksmen” they were accompanied by a free negro, who gave Allen intelligence concerning the death of 31 soldiers he helped bury.
A patriot named Peter Noble dove from the prison sloop Mercury and swam from Nova Scotia to New England to report on the fate of the prisoners. This prison sloop, to which they had been transferred, was commanded by a worse man than Symonds, a certain Montague. This ships crew and all the prisoners suffered scurvy. Not permitted to buy supplies from the purser, Allen was relived by the kindness of some midshipmen. Allen still seethed at being shut down with the privates. In June, off of Halifax, crew killed by scurvy were buried in shallow graves on shore. Despite not being permitted medicine, the prisoners were less sick than the sailors! Indians brought some strawberries for sale by canoe and saved some of the prisoners and crew from death. The doctor did try to heal the crew and prisoners with smart drops. [4]
The surgeon made an accurate account of the Captain’s cruel treatment of his prisoners to the Governor, who had the prisoners transferred to Halifax gaol.
Notes
-0. Beaten and whipped
-1. It was assumed all readers had seen men in irons.
-2. Arnold’s spelling of ankle.
-3. period spelling
-4. A proprietary medication and forerunner of frontier snake oil, cocktail bitters and current preparations.
To support Plantation America research and examine annotated and summarized primary source texts go to:
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