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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

On a Prison-Ship

By Ethan Allen (1738–1789)

[From Allen’s Narrative of Captivity, first published in 1779, and quoted in De Puy’s “Ethan Allen.”]

IN this passage the prisoners were infected with the scurvy, some more and some less, but most of them severely. The ship’s crew was to a great degree troubled with it, and I concluded it was catching. Several of the crew died with it on their passage. I was weak and feeble in consequence of so long and cruel a captivity, yet had but little of the scurvy.

The purser was again expressly forbid by the captain to let me have anything out of his store; upon which I went upon deck, and in the handsomest manner requested the favor of purchasing a few necessaries of the purser, which was denied me; he further told me that I should be hanged as soon as I arrived at Halifax. I tried to reason the matter with him, but found him proof against reason; I also held up his honor to view, and his behavior to me and the prisoners in general, as being derogatory to it, but found his honor impenetrable. I then endeavored to touch his humanity, but found he had none; for his prepossession of bigotry to his own party had confirmed him in an opinion that no humanity was due to unroyalists, but seemed to think that heaven and earth were made merely to gratify the King and his creatures; he uttered considerable unintelligible and grovelling ideas, a little tinctured with monarchy, but stood well to his text of hanging me. He afterward forbade his surgeon to administer any help to the sick prisoners. I was every night shut down in the cable tier, with the rest of the prisoners, and we all lived miserably while under his power. But I received some generosity from several of the midshipmen, who in degree alleviated my misery; one of their names was Putrass, the names of the others I do not recollect; but they were obliged to be private in the bestowment of their favor, which was sometimes good wine bitters, and at others a generous drink of grog.

Some time in the first week of June, we came to anchor at the Hook off New York, where we remained but three days; in which time Governor Tryon, Mr. Kemp, the old attorney-general of New York, and several other perfidious and overgrown tories and land-jobbers came on board. Tryon viewed me with a stern countenance, as I was walking on the leeward side of the deck with the midshipmen; and he and his companions were walking with the captain and lieutenant, on the windward side of the same, but never spoke to me, though it is altogether probable that he thought of the old quarrel between him, the old government of New York, and the Green-Mountain Boys. Then they went with the captain into the cabin, and the same afternoon returned on board a vessel, where at that time they took sanctuary from the resentment of their injured country. What passed between the officers of the ship and these visitors I know not; but this I know, that my treatment from the officers was more severe afterward.

We arrived at Halifax not far from the middle of June, where the ship’s crew, which was infested with scurvy, were taken on shore and shallow trenches dug, into which they were put, and partly covered with earth. Indeed, every proper measure was taken for their relief. The prisoners were not permitted any sort of medicine, but were put on board a sloop which lay in the harbor, near the town of Halifax, surrounded by several men-of-war and their tenders, and a guard constantly set over them, night and day. The sloop we had wholly to ourselves except the guard who occupied the forecastle; here we were cruelly pinched with hunger; it seemed to me that we had not more than one-third of the common allowance. We were all seized with violent hunger and faintness; we divided our scanty allowance as exact as possible. I shared the same fate with the rest, and though they offered me more than an even share, I refused to accept it, as it was a time of substantial distress, which in my opinion I ought to partake equally with the rest, and set an example of virtue and fortitude to our little commonwealth.

I sent letter after letter to Captain Montague, who still had the care of us, and also to his lieutenant, whose name I cannot call to mind, but could obtain no answer, much less a redress of grievances; and to add to the calamity, nearly a dozen of the prisoners were dangerously ill of the scurvy. I wrote private letters to the doctors, to procure, if possible, some remedy for the sick, but in vain. The chief physician came by in a boat, so close that the oars touched the sloop that we were in, and I uttered my complaint in the genteelest manner to him, but he never so much as turned his head, or made me any answer, though I continued speaking till he got out of hearing. Our cause then became deplorable. Still I kept writing to the captain, till he ordered the guards, as they told me, not to bring any more letters from me to him. In the mean time an event happened worth relating. One of the men almost dead with the scurvy, lay by the side of the sloop, and a canoe of Indians coming by, he purchased two quarts of strawberries, and ate them at once, and it almost cured him. The money he gave for them, was all the money he had in the world. After that we tried every way to procure more of that fruit, reasoning from analogy that they might have the same effect on others infested with the same disease, but could obtain none.

Meanwhile the doctor’s mate of the Mercury came privately on board the prison-sloop and presented me with a large vial of smart drops, which proved to be good for the scurvy, though vegetables and some other ingredients were requisite for a cure; but the drops gave at least a check to the disease. This was a well-timed exertion of humanity, but the doctor’s name has slipped my mind, and in my opinion, it was the means of saving the lives of several men.

The guard which was set over us, was by this time touched with feelings of compassion; and I finally trusted one of them with a letter of complaint to Governor Arbuthnot, of Halifax, which he found means to communicate, and which had the desired effect; for the governor sent an officer and surgeon on board the prison-sloop, to know the truth of the complaint. The officer’s name was Russell, who held the rank of lieutenant, and treated me in a friendly and polite manner, and was really angry at the cruel and unmanly usage the prisoners met with; and with the surgeon made a true report of matters to Governor Arbuthnot, who, either by his order or influence, took us next day from the prison-sloop to Halifax jail, where I first became acquainted with the now Hon. James Lovel, one of the members of Congress for the State of Massachusetts. The sick were taken to the hospital, and the Canadians, who were effective, were employed in the King’s works; and when their countrymen were recovered from the scurvy and joined them, they all deserted the King’s employ, and were not heard of at Halifax, as long as the remainder of the prisoners continued there, which was till near the middle of October. We were on board the prison-sloop about six weeks and were landed at Halifax near the middle of August.