A Prisoner’s Poem: Philip Freneau’s Account of a British Prison Ship

Custom graphic made of: "Philip Freneau" by Frederick W. Halpin, nineteenth century (New York Public Library) and a facsimile of the first page of Freneau's prose account (Library of Congress).

Most veterans have an aversion to publicly telling their traumatic experiences, preferring instead to let sleeping devils lie. Philip Freneau, however, was a professional writer and poet, not an enlisted soldier. Perhaps that is why he decided to tell his tale of terrortwice—once in prose and once in poetry.

Philip Morin Freneau was born in New York City on January 2, 1752. The sea and literature were apparently in his blood. His father, Pierre Freneau, was a wine merchant who often sailed to and from the West Indies while plying his trade. The family also owned a substantial library. The Atlantic Ocean could be seen from the hills surrounding Mount Pleasant, the Freneaus’ country house in New Jersey.[1] This view no doubt inspired some lines Philip later wrote in a poem about John Paul Jones.

Thou, who on some dark mountain’s brow
Hast toil’d thy life away till now,
And often from that rugged steep
Beheld the vast extended deep,
Come from thy forest, and with me
Learn what it is to go to sea.[2]

Philip attended Princeton where his penchant for poetry and patriotism found an outlet in a fraternal group called the American Whig Society. A snatch of verse penned by one of the members could well be a theme for the pugilistic poetry of Freneau’s future career:

—Arm’d for virtue now we point the pen
Brand the bold front of shameless, guilty men
Dash the proud Tory in his gilded Car
Bare the mean heart that hides beneath a star.

By the 1770s, Philip’s writing was winning converts to the Whig cause. It has been claimed that Freneau did not wholeheartedly embrace the Revolution until after his imprisonment.[3] Yet as early as 1774 he was “writing and publishing satirical pieces and political burlesques, ridiculing the King, Royalists, and neutrals.”[4]

History is blurry about just how deeply Freneau was involved in the Revolution. He is listed as “Private; Serjeant [sic]” in the First Regiment of Monmouth (New Jersey) militia from 1778 thru 1780.[5] Some maintain that having obtained letters of marque and reprisal from the Continental Congress, Freneau set about to privateer in the West Indies.[6] Yet his surviving writings do not clearly mention this naval service.[7] What is known is that one afternoon in late May of 1780, he was on deck of the newly-christened Aurora,[8] cruising down the Delaware Bay, bound for the West Indies.

Twelve hours later, the ship had been taken by the HMS Iris.[9] At least seven weeks after that,[10] Freneau stumbled on foot back to his home at Mount Pleasant, “… through the woods for fear of terrifying the neighbors with my ghastly looks ….”[11] What happened in the interim was published the next year as a poem titled The British Prison Ship. Freneau also penned a manuscript version which remained in his family and wasn’t published until 1899.[12] Discrepancies exist among various revisions of the poem, Freneau’s manuscript account, and the log book of the Iris. This has led to conjecture that Freneau merely copied a manuscript account that was written by another author, or that he lied about some of his experiences.[13] The poem, however, may provide more sound information considering that Freneau’s authorship is unquestioned. Assuming that he was actually on the prison ships and experienced all that he claimed—as opposed to simply writing a poem in the first person for dramatic effect—a fairly credible account can be pieced together.

Between 2:30 and 3:00 in the afternoon,[14] the Aurora and the Iris sighted each other, the latter giving chase as the former attempted to flee.

Too soon the Seaman’s glance, extending wide,
Far distant in the east a ship espy’d,
Her lofty masts stood bending to the gale,
Close to the wind was brac’d each shivering sail,
Next from the deck we saw the approaching foe,
Her spangled bottom seem’d in flames to glow
When to the winds she bow’d in dreadful haste
And her lee-guns lay delug’d on the waste.
From her top-gallant flow’d an English Jack;
With all her might she strove to gain our track,
Nor strove in vain—with pride and power elate
Wing’d on by hell, she drove us to our fate,
No stop, no stay her bloody crew intends,
(So flies a comet with its host of fiends)
Nor oaths, nor prayers arrest her swift career,
Death in her front, and ruin in her rear.[15]

The Iris fired while the Aurora, outgunned, attempted to beach on Cape Henlopen, the southern cape of the Delaware Bay.

Meantime the foe, advancing from the sea,
Rang’d her black cannon, pointed on our lee,
Then up the luff’d, and blaz’d her entrails dire,
Bearing destruction, terror, death, and fire.
Vext at our fate, we prim’d a piece, and then
Return’d the shot, to shew them we were men.
Dull night at length her dusky pinions spread,
And every hope to ‘scape the foe was fled.
Close to thy cape, Henlopen, though we press’d,
We could not gain thy desert, dreary breast,
Though ruin’d trees beshroud thy barren shore
With mounds of sand half hid, or cover’d o’er.
Though ruffian winds disturb thy summit bare,
Yet every hope and every wish was there,
In vain we sought to reach the joyless strand,
Fate stood between, and barr’d us from the land.[16]

The Aurora returned fire with six-pounders.[17] The Iris continued her barrage with twelve-pounders which struck Freneau’s vessel “betwixt wind and water,” causing a leak in the ship and the eventual death of a captain of Marines.[18] After about an hour of “very unequal contest,”[19] the Aurora struck her colors.

‘Twas then the Master trembled for his crew,
And bade thy shores, O Delaware, adieu!
And must we yield to yon destructive ball,
And must our colors to these ruffians fall!
They fall!—his thunders forc’d our pride to bend,
The lofty topsails with their yards descend,
And the proud foe, such leagues of ocean pass’d,
His wish completed in our woe at last.[20]

James Squire, shipmaster of the Iris, wrote that he “sent a Masters mate & 20 Men to take Charge of [Aurora].”[21] Freneau wrote that Squire himself boarded the vessel with “some midshipmen” and six sailors.[22] Either way, the men on the Aurora were now prisoners of war. Freneau’s insistence that he was merely a passenger fell on deaf ears.[23] Thus began his imprisonment on the Scorpion, one of the notorious British prison ships moored in the rivers of New York City.[24]

Convey’d to York, we found, at length, too late
That Death was better than the prisoner’s fate,
There doom’d to famine, shackles and despair,
Condem’d to breathe a foul, infected air
In sickly hulks, devoted while we lay,
Successive funerals gloom’d each dismal day.[25]

From this point on, the manuscript tells a swashbuckling tale of a squall and an attempted prison break. The parallel lines of poetry only list generalities about the prisoners’ treatment, yet this section contains one of the most famous passages in the poem.

Hail, dark abode! what can with thee compare
Heat, sickness, famine, death, and stagnant air—
Pandora’s box, from whence all mischief flew,
Here real found, torments mankind anew—
Swift from the guarded decks we rush’d along,
And vainly sought repose, so vast our throng
Three 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 blessing of the evening air,
Pensive we lay with mingled corpses there,
Meagre and wan, and scorch’d with heat, below,
We loom’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.
No waters laded from the bubbling spring
To these dire ships the British monsters bring—
By planks and ponderous beams completely wall’d
In vain for water, and in vain, I call’d
No drop was granted to the midnight prayer,
To Dives in these regions of despair!
The loathsome cask a deadly dose contains,
Its poison circling through the languid veins …
Dull flew the hours, till, from the East display’d,
Sweet morn dispels the horrors of the shade,
On every side dire objects meet the sight,
And pallid forms, and murders of the night,
The dead were past their pain, the living groan,
Nor dare to hope another morn their own,
But what to them is morn’s delightful ray,
Sad and distressful as the close of day,
O’er distant streams appears the dewy green,
And leafy trees on mountain tops are seen,
But they no groves nor grassy mountains tread,
Mark’d for a longer journey to the dead.[26]

Freneau caught the fever that was spreading amongst the inmates and actually succeeded in getting a transfer to a hospital ship, the Hunter. His hopes for better conditions were soon dashed.

Now toward the Hunter’s gloomy sides we came,
A slaughter-house, yet hospital in name;
For none came there (to pass through all degrees)
Till half consumed with dying and disease…[27]

The manuscript and the poem both tell that a German doctor treated the prisoners, and that two or three died each day and were buried by fellow prisoners on shore. While the manuscript gives the nameless doctor an inkling of credit for curative treatments, the poem dismisses him as a fool. It also adds a very martial and very eerie chief doctor, who paid the delirious prisoners a memorable visit.

Once, and but once, by some strange fortune led
He came to see the dying and the dead—
He came—but anger so deform’d his eye,
And such a falchion glitter’d on his thigh,
And such a gloom his visage darken’d o’er,
And two such pistols in his hands he bore,
That by the gods!—with such a load of steel
He came, we thought, to murder not to heal—
Hell in his heart, and mischief in his head,
He gloom’d destruction, and had smote us dead
Had he so dared—but fate withheld his hand—
He came—blasphem’d—and turn’d again to land.[28]

The poem ends a bit abruptly with a plea for Americans to remember their prisoners of war, and to “glut revenge on this detested foe [the British].”[29] For the rest of Freneau’s story we have to consult his manuscript, which is equally brief. He was eventually paroled, although the exact date is somewhat hazy,[30] and came out of his ordeal in a miserable physical state. As soon as he arrived home, he did what most would not do: commit the horrid memory to paper, in rhyme.

Freneau had always been extremely sensitive to the personal wrongs he suffered. Even before the war, he had avenged himself with the weapon he most preferred—words. As early as 1772, he had announced,

“I intend to write a terrible Satire upon certain vicious persons of quality in N. Y. who have also used me ill and print it next fall; it shall contain 5 or 600 Lines.”[31]

As The British Prison Ship testifies, it would become his lifelong penchant to write epic poems that display self-pity as much as righteous indignation.


[1] Mary S. Austin, Philip Freneau, The Poet of the Revolution: A History of His Life and Times (New York: A. Wessels Company, 1901), 69.

[2] Philip Morin Freneau, The Poems of Philip Freneau. Written Chiefly During the Late War (Philadelphia: printed by Francis Bailey, 1786), 167.

[3] Mary Weatherspoon Bowden, “In Search of Freneau’s Prison Ships,” Early American Literature, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Fall, 1979), 174.

[4] Jay Milles, “Introduction,” Some Account of the Capture of the Ship “Aurora” by Philip Freneau (New York: M. F. Mansfield & A. Wessels, 1899), 11.

[5] Official Register of the Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Revolutionary War, 465.

[6] Austin, Philip Freneau, The Poet of the Revolution, 104-105.

[7] Some stray notes in Freneau’s hand claim that he was captain of the supply ships Indian Delaware and John Couster. In a list of voyages composed over twenty years after the fact, Freneau purported that he was third mate aboard the ill-fated Aurora. In the manuscript account, however, he stated that he was a passenger on his own private business to St. Eustatius (he added that he was in “common ship clothes,” which could mean that he was dressed as a crew member). For his pension application in 1832, Freneau simply deposed that “he entered on board the Pennsylvania Letter of marque, called the Aurora” (Bowden, “In Search of Freneau’s Prison Ships,” 186; Freneau, Account, 23).

[8] There are records of about twenty-six ships bearing this name, but it was likely the Pennsylvania-built vessel with twenty guns (http://www.awiatsea.com/Privateers/A/Aurora%20Pennsylvania%20Ship%20[Sutton].html#T000028B). Freneau stated that the ship came from “Philadelphia’s crowded port” (Freneau, Poems, 186), and he described the Aurora’s guns in combat. The registry lists a crew of 70, but only 48 including captain and officers, were marked as captured in the British log (Bowden, “In Search of Freneau’s Prison Ships,” 188).

[9] The HMS Iris was actually an American-built ship formerly in service for the Continental Navy. Under the name Hancock, she was captured by the British in July 1777, and re-christened.

[10] The prose version dates his parole as July 14, 1780. The twenty-year ex post facto voyage list says August 29, while the pension deposition states September 25.

[11] Freneau, Account, 47.

[12] Milles, “Introduction,” 13.

[13] Bowden, “In Search of Freneau’s Prison Ships,” Early American Literature, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Fall, 1979), 189-190.

[14] According to the log book of the Iris, the day was Saturday, May 27. According to Freneau’s prose account, it was Friday, May 26. Bowden, “In Search of Freneau’s Prison Ships,” 187; Freneau, Account, 15.

[15] Freneau, Poems, 188.

[16] Ibid., 190-191.

[17] This is size of her guns given in the poem. In the manuscript, she fires four-pounders and one nine pounder.

[18] Freneau, Account, 19.

[19] Ibid., 21.

[20] Freneau, Poems, 192.

[21] Bowden, “In Search of Freneau’s Prison Ships,” 187.

[22] Freneau, Account, 21.

[23] In the prose account, Freneau states that he was mistakenly listed as a gunner aboard the Aurora. Yet, as already stated, over twenty years later Freneau claimed that he sailed as third mate (Bowden, “In Search of Freneau’s Prison Ships,” 186).

[24] Prison ships were typically older vessels no longer useful for regular naval service. Besides the sloop Scorpion, prison ships in New York included the fireship Strombolo, the ship Jersey, and the sloop Hunter. The last was a hospital ship.

[25] Freneau, Poems, 192.

[26] Ibid., 196-197.

[27] Ibid., 199.

[28] Ibid., 203.

[29] Ibid., 205.

[30] See note 10.

[31] Philip Freneau to James Madison, November 22, 1772. Quoted in Austin, Philip Freneau, The Poet of the Revolution, 180-181.

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