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The Yankee Privateer

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

October 1. –A writer in the London Gazette, in a letter 1 to the lord mayor, says: –I was last week on board the American privateer called the Yankee, commanded by Captain Johnson, and lately brought into this port by Captain Ross, who commanded one of the West India sugar ships, taken by the privateer in July last; and, as an Englishman, I earnestly wish your lordship, who is so happily placed at the head of this great city, (justly famed for its great humanity even to its enemies,) would be pleased to go likewise, or send proper persons, to see the truly shocking, and I may say, barbarous and miserable condition of the unfortunate American prisoners, who, however criminal they may be thought to have been, are deserving of pity, and entitled to common humanity.

They are twenty-five in number, and all inhumanly shut close down, like wild beasts, in a small, stinking apartment, in the hold of a sloop, about seventy tons burden, without a breath of air, in this sultry season, but what they receive through a small grating overhead, the openings in which are not more than two inches square in any part, and through which the sun beats intensely hot all day, only two or three being permitted to come on the deck at a time; and then they are exposed in the open sun, which is reflected from the decks and water like a burning glass.

I do not at all exaggerate, my lord; I speak the truth; and the resemblance that this barbarity bears to the memorable black hole at Calcutta, as a gentleman present on Saturday observed, strikes every one at the sight. All England ought to know that the same game is now acting upon the Thames on board this privateer, that all the world cried out against, and shuddered at the mention of in India, some years ago, as practised on Captain Hollowell, and other of the King’s good subjects.

The putrid steams issuing from the hold are so hot and offensive, that one cannot, without the utmost danger, breathe over it, and I should not be at all surprised, if it should cause a plague to spread. The miserable wretches below look like persons in a hot bath, panting, sweating, and fainting for want of air; and the surgeon declares, that they must all soon perish in that situation, especially as they are almost all in a sickly state with bilious disorders.

The captain and surgeon, it is true, have the liberty of the cabin, (if it deserves the name of a cabin,) and make no complaints on their own account. They are both sensible, and well-behaved young men, and can give a very good account of themselves, having no signs of fear, and being supported by a consciousness of the justice of their cause. They are men of character, of good families in New England, and highly respected in their different occupations; but being stripped of their all by the burning of towns and other destructive measures of the present unnatural war, were forced to take the disagreeable method of making reprisals to maintain themselves and their children, rather than starve.

Numbers of gentlemen, and friends of government, who were on board at the same time, will confirm the truth of this my representation, being very sensibly touched themselves at the horrid sight.

English prisoners, taken by the Americans, have been treated with the most remarkable tenderness and generosity, as numbers who are safely returned to England most freely confess, to the honor of our brethren in the colonies. And it is a fact, which can be well attested in London, that this very surgeon on board the privateer, after the battle of Lexington, April nineteenth, 1775, for many days voluntarily and generously, without fee or reward, employed himself in dressing the King’s wounded soldiers, who but an hour before would have shot him if they could have come at him, and in making a collection for their refreshment, of wine, linen, money, &c., in the town where he lived. This is a real fact, of which the most ample testimony may be had.

The capture of the privateer was solely owing to the ill-judged lenity and brotherly kindness of Captain Johnson, who not considering his English prisoners in the same light that he would Frenchmen or Spaniards, put them under no sort of confinement, but permitted them to walk the decks as freely as his own people, at all times. Taking advantage of this indulgence, the prisoners one day watching their opportunity, when most of the privateer’s people were below and asleep, shut down the hatches, and making all fast, had immediate possession of the vessel without using any force.

I shall conclude with saying, that though this letter is addressed to your lordship, I hope that all who may read it, and have any influence, will do all in their power to gain the necessary relief; and it is humbly apprehended, that the well disposed, who are blessed with affluence, could not better bestow their bounty than upon those poor objects. Vegetables and ripe fruits of all kinds, with porter, &c., must be very useful, as well as the means to procure other necessaries. The privateer lies opposite to Ratcliffe Cross, a mile and a half below the Tower, and by asking for Captain Johnson, admittance may be obtained. 2


1 Dated August 6.
2 “Humanitas,” in the Pennsylvania Journal, November 6.

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