Privateers, Prisoners, and Britain’s Black Holes: Maritime POWs in the American Revolution

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Britain’s Royal Navy took 11,000 American sailors captive during the Revolutionary War. They spent months or years buried from the world in prisons in England, Ireland, and Scotland—held indefinitely under the terms of a 1777 law that designated them as pirates and traitors, not as official prisoners of war.

This talk reconstructs their experiences. It uses as its case study the ordeal of William Russell, a privateer from New England who spent thirty months trying to escape from England’s Mill Prison before being transferred to the Jersey, a de-masted prison hulk floating in Brooklyn Bay in British-occupied New York. On the Jersey, Russell who have to fight for simple survival. 

Richard Bell is Professor of History at the University of Maryland and author of the book Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and their Astonishing Odyssey Home which was a finalist for the George Washington Prize and the Harriet Tubman Prize. He has held major research fellowships at Yale, Cambridge, and the Library of Congress and is the recipient of the National Endowment of the Humanities Public Scholar award and the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Fellowship. He serves as a Trustee of the Maryland Center for History and Culture and as a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Image credit: Journal of the American Revolution

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