J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ebenezer Fox on the Jersey

Ebenezer Fox was a teenaged sailor aboard the Massachusetts warship Protector when two Royal Navy vessels captured it off the coast of New Jersey on 5 May 1781.

In his 1838 memoir Fox told this story of what happened next:
About a third part of our ship’s crew were taken on board of their vessels, to serve in the capacity of sailors, without regarding their remonstrances; while the remainder of us were put on board of a wood coaster, to be conveyed on board the noted prison ship called the “Jersey.” The idea of being incarcerated in this floating Pandemonium filled us with horror; but the idea we had formed of its horrors fell far short of the realities which we afterwards experienced.
The next few chapters of Fox’s memoir describe life aboard the Jersey, an old hulk anchored in New York harbor. In fact, that topic takes up almost a quarter of the book (excluding appendixes). Citing other reminiscences for support, Fox painted a horrible experience for the prisoners of war confined there:
The miseries of our condition were continually increasing: the pestilence on board spread rapidly, and every day added to our bill of mortality. The young, in a particular manner, were its most frequent victims. The number of the prisoners was continually increasing, notwithstanding the frequent and successful attempts to escape: and when we were mustered and called upon to answer to our names, and it was ascertained that nearly two hundred had mysteriously disappeared without leaving any information of their departure, the officers of the ship endeavored to make amends for their past remissness by increasing the rigor of our confinement…
The British authorities kept offering a way out: enlisting in the royal military forces. Fox wrote of how he and his comrades resisted that enticement at first, but their conditions made it more appealing:
To remain an indefinite time as prisoners, enduring sufferings and privations beyond what human nature could sustain, or to make a virtue of necessity, and with apparent willingness to enlist into a service, into which we were satisfied that we should soon be impressed, seemed to be the only alternatives. . . .

…a recruiting officer came on board to enlist men for the eighty-eighth regiment, to be stationed at Kingston, in the island of Jamaica. We had just been trying to satisfy our hunger upon a piece of beef, which was so tough that no teeth could make an impression on it, when the officer descended between decks, and represented to us the immense improvement that we should experience in our condition, if we were in his Majesty’s service: an abundance of good food, comfortable clothing, service easy, and in the finest climate in the world, were temptations too great to be resisted by a set of miserable, half-starved, and almost naked wretches as we were. . . .

The recruiting officer presented his papers for our signature. We hesitated, we stared at each other, and felt that we were about to do a deed of which we were ashamed, and which we might regret. Again we heard the tempting offers, and again the assurance that we should not be called upon to fight against our government or country; and, with the hope that we should find an opportunity to desert, of which it was our firm intention to avail ourselves when offered—with such hopes, expectations, and motives, we signed the papers, and became soldiers in his Majesty’s service.
One goal for my trip to London earlier this month was to find out more about Ebenezer Fox’s experience. That included going to the British National Archives to examine the muster rolls of the Jersey, which I’d learned about from Todd Braisted’s Facebook feed.

TOMORROW: What the Jersey rolls say about Ebenezer Fox.


Steve MC said...

What happened on those ships will always stay with me, thanks to the 2004 History Channel documentary that had actors playing the parts of the prisoners. Fox's portrayal was particularly moving. As would any actor given his words.

J. L. Bell said...

One reason Fox was so passionate was that he was, um, speaking for other men as well.