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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Botto Sculteus Aeneae’s American War

At the Age of Revolutions site, Tessa de Boer shared a new source on the latter years of the American War for Independence through the eyes of a youth.

In August 1781, Botto Sculteus Aeneae was “a twelve-year-old boy from Amsterdam, feverishly excited about his fanciful midshipman job.”

He was serving on a ship called the South Carolina, ferrying military supplies from the Dutch island of Texel to Charleston in the young United States of America.

On 25 Nov 1783, Botto was back in Amsterdam. He described his previous two and a half years to a notary. The intervening experiences included:
  • shying away from the Charleston port on learning that it had been recaptured by the British. 
  • sailing the Caribbean on the South Carolina, taking prizes.
  • helping the Spanish military seize the Bahamas in May 1782. 
  • reaching Philadelphia, where the ship had to be restaffed with “mostly inexperienced youth desiring adventure, and Germans recruited out of British prisoner camps.” 
  • quickly being captured by three British warships. 
  • being sent as a prisoner onto the infamous Jersey prison ship in New York harbor. 
Of course, the existence of the manuscript shows that Botto Sculteus Aeneae survived the Jersey and the war, making it back to his home town. However, the same document suggests he was preparing a lawsuit of some sort, possibly seeking compensation for his service better than the Continental bond and grants of land in North America that American authorities had offered.

That purpose also makes Botto’s deposition somewhat frustrating. He didn’t tell his story to inform his family what he went through, to entertain readers, or to create meaning for himself. He was simply getting his experiences and basic suffering down on paper for the record. The account doesn’t have a lot of daily detail or emotion beyond frustration and suffering. 

Still, it’s a side of the war we rarely see from an even more unusual witness and participant. De Boer’s translation of the text appears under the notes for her essay about it.


adkmilkmaid said...

Thank you for sharing this. However, I think I missed something? Where in his testimony does the boy say he was in a prison SHIP? To me, the narrative makes it appear he was in a prison in New York. Certainly one would expect a lot more detail if he escaped from a ship on the water to the "gates of the city."

J. L. Bell said...

That’s a provocative question. De Boer’s essay states: “ He did not explicitly state the name of the prison where he subsequently ended up, but the historical context matched with his observations makes it abundantly clear: Botto’s destination would be the Jersey.” The boy’s account indeed doesn’t name the ship, but it also doesn’t say the prison was a ship or include any details that would only fit a ship. So the question bears investigating.

I think most of the Royal Navy’s prisoners at this time were sent to prison ships. But that doesn’t mean Botto necessarily was. As a boy, and also an officer, he might have received a less harsh assignment. And I’m working on the story of another teenager captured by the British who downplayed how he got off the Jersey by enlisting in the British army. Did Botto have something to hide?

The British National Archives contains a roll of the Jersey listing every prisoner it held to keep track of the rations the navy needed. Now I wonder if Botto’s name appears on it.