250: Black Sailors in Dartmoor, 1814-1815

Dartmoor prison was built by and for prisoners, largely French, of the Napoleonic wars, and opened in 1809. Following peace in Europe the French were released, and as the U.S.A. had declared war on Britain in 1812 (the “war of 1812” lasted into 1815), American prisoners were sent there from April 1813. Most were sailors, seized from ships at sea or arrested when working on Royal Navy ships. Some 6,500 American prisoners were held in Dartmoor, and one of the five barrack blocks became the preserve of African Americans. 1,174 of these formed their own community and elected a leader, Richard Crafus known as King Dick.

Their story is told by W. Jeffrey Bolster in his Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Harvard UP, 1997).

The prisoners were able to move around inside the massive stone walls of the prison, and local merchants came to supply items to the prisoners. The guards were British (Bolster refers to “Irish”). The prisoners would be marched from hulks in the Portsmouth, and would have been seen by local people although few lived on the somewhat bleak moors near the prison.

The last sailor left in mid-1815, and the prison was closed until 1850 when it became a criminal prison. Prisoners who died were buried with little or no ceremony on the moor. In 1865 the skeletal remains were marked by two obelisks, one for the French and the other for the Americans (estimated at 271 in total).

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