Part Two by Malanna Henderson
A hero who championed American independence was Revolutionary War hero James Forten; not particularly for what he did, but for what he didn’t do.
At the tender age of fourteen, Forten became a prisoner of war aboard the notorious British prison ship, the HMS Jersey, anchored in New York. Like nearly all of his fellow inmates who perished or survived the horrific tribulation, he remained loyal to the patriot cause in the face of death.
The HMS Jersey was one of many floating prison vessels, where over 11,500 military and civilian patriots died; twice as many as those who felled on the battlefields.
Born on September 2, 1766 in Philadelphia to free parents, Margaret and Thomas, Forten was the grandson of slaves. Philadelphia was home to the largest free black community on the eastern seaboard. Blacks who held that status had to navigate the spires of discrimination; but in various instances had access to the burgeoning economic opportunities that made the colony one of the most prosperous. Here, the Quaker influence was strong and anti-slavery sentiment was put into action by its various advocates. Anthony Benezet’s Quaker school for colored children was one such opportunity that provided Forten with a formal education.
In 1767 Benezet, a French immigrant wrote that he, as “teacher of a school…for many years, had opportunity of knowing the temper and genius of the Africans,” and could “with truth and sincerity declare amongst them as great a variety of talents, equally capable of improvement, as amongst a like number of whites.”
Freedom also afforded the senior Forten an economic opportunity to earn a livable wage. He was employed as a journeyman at a sail loft owned by Robert Bridges. Thomas wanted to secure a profession for his son, so he took him to work on occasion teaching him the rudimentary skills of sail making. The following year, economic hardship besieged the family when Thomas was killed in a boating accident; and James, at approximately nine years old, was required to work to help support his family. While his mother probably worked as a domestic servant, the youngster became a chimney sweep and clerk in a grocery store. Thus, he could only attend school part-time.
The year 1781 found Forten, an ardent young patriot, caught up in the fervor that enveloped the colonies to be free of British rule, and he enlisted in the navy. Aboard the heavily armed privateer, the Royal Lewis, Forten performed the duties of sailor and powder boy under Captain Stephen Decatur. It was customary for captains to employ boys or teenagers to ferry gunpowder from powder magazines from the ship’s hold to several artillery units. Their speed and small stature were attributes in limited spaces between decks.
Privateers were commissioned by the Continental Congress to act as naval ships for the fledging Continental Navy. They confiscated bounty from enemy ships which included ammunition, gunpowder, provisions as well as military intelligence. Their abundance alone in gunpowder exceeded one million pounds.
The first time Forten sailed with the Royal Lewis, the voyage was successful. However, during his second expedition, on October 9, 1781, it was hijacked by the British warship, Amphion. The British Captain Bazely required James to look after his young son. The children became fast friends. Impressed by James’ intelligence and honesty, the captain offered him a chance to be educated in England, at his son’s side, if he would renounce his loyalty to the patriotic cause.
James refused, saying he could never betray his country.
The doom of being captured held its own particular horrors to all seamen, but Forten had an additional dread. Unlike whites, the possibility of being sold into slavery in the West Indies, (a death sentence, in most cases) was a real danger. Unscrupulous opportunists sold free blacks into slavery without compunction; and in most cases the law turned a blind eye to the practice.
When they reached the New York Harbor, the captain honored James’ right to be treated as a prisoner of war; and thus, the threat of enslavement was eradicated.
One of the most atrocious facets in America’s struggle for independence occurred in the waters near the New York Harbor, close to the current location of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. From 1776 to 1783, when the British ran out of space on land, they appropriated retired warships anchored just offshore on Wallabout Bay to imprison American combatants and private citizens; the latter for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to the British Crown.
Of all the penal ships in the harbor, the most notorious was the HMS Jersey. For its inhumane conditions and high death rate, the ship earned the nickname: Hell.
This was the prison ship that held James Forten as an inmate.
The British prison guards always gave those captured on privateers a choice to stay on the ship and live in draconian misery or pledge allegiance to the crown and join the Royal Navy. Instead of opting for a chance at freedom, nearly one-hundred percent of the prisoners refused.
More than 1000 men, including some women and children, were trapped in the HMS Jersey at any one time. An average of ten prisoners died daily from torture, small pox, dysentery, yellow fever, typhoid, and malnutrition; and most likely from unattended battle wounds, as well. Food and water were scare and medical treatment, practically non-existent.
An article published in the Washington Post in 1991 defined the hellish conditions.
Alexander Coffin, a teenage seaman, described the typical inmates as “mere walking skeletons, with scarcely clothes to cover their nakedness, and overrun with lice from head to foot.” Meals consisted of worm-eaten bread and salt beef, rations the British Navy had condemned for its own men. The cooks boiled the beef in dirty sea water brought up from the side of the ship, the same place where the waste of the 1,000 or more prisoners was dumped daily.
“Up on deck, you damned Yankee rebels, and bring up your dead!” shouted the British officers each morning. The staggering, emaciated skeletons carried their fallen fellow prisoners up the stairs, boarded one of the ship’s boats and rowed to the shores of Wallabout Bay to bury them.
James Forten spent seven months on the HMS New Jersey. He was freed in a prison exchange in 1782. Afterward, he walked from New York to Philadelphia into the arms of his mother and sister, who thought he was dead. An industrious young man, he spent a year working in shipyards and sail lofts along the Thames in England, before returning to Bridges’ sail loft as a sail maker. Overtime, he was promoted; and when Bridges decided to retire in 1798, he asked the thirty-two-year-old Forten to take over the business. Pleased with his management, Bridges loaned Forten the money to buy the business and within three years, he owned the sail loft.
By the early 1800s, Forten invented a sail that provided greater speeds on the sea and was easier to maneuver. Independence from England freed American merchants from the restrictive mercantile laws and they were able to make fortunes through trading. Forten’s sails became popular and his profits soared, making him one of the wealthiest Philadelphians, regardless of race.
During his lifetime, Forten’s achievements were remarkable. He was a prosperous businessman, who managed an interracial workforce. Used his considerable income to purchase the freedom of slaves, financed William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator; used his home as an Underground Railroad
Station; founded the American Anti-Slavery Society with Garrison and Robert Purvis; funded a school for black children and supported women’s rights.
Before he died in 1842, he saw opportunities in Philadelphia dry up for African-Americans; most likely due to the improvement of the cotton gin, which revived the economic interest in slavery. Moreover, after the insurrection of Nat Turner of 1831, white fear exploded, resulting in a number of innocent blacks being murdered in retaliation and widening of the Black Codes, restricting slaves and free blacks.
In Philadelphia, African American men lost their right to vote and threats against Forten’s life increased. A patriot no les, Forten worked resolutely to shape his country into one that reflected the values of those golden words in the Declaration of Independence … “We hold these truths to be self- evident, that all men are created equal…”
As a resident of Brooklyn, New York in the late 1990s, I used to visit Fort Green Park and often passed an impressive monument. One day, I stopped to read the marker and was awestruck by the scant acknowledgement in American culture about the sacrifices of the ship board prisoners, forgotten heroes of the American Revolutionary War.
Named the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument (also called the Soldiers and Sailors Monument) it was dedicated in 1908 by President Howard William Taft. Designed by the famous architect, Stanford White, the 150 feet obelisk is located at the center of Fort Green Park, on the former site of the Revolutionary War-era Fort Putnam, later re-named Fort Greene Park after General Nathanael Greene. A crypt containing 20 coffins of bone fragments from thousands of men, women and children, who died on the HMS Jersey and other prison ships, lies beneath the monument.
“Bring Up Your Dead” article by Chadwick Allen Harp, Washington Post, July 7, 1991
https://dmna.ny.gov/forts/fortsE_L/greeneFort.htm (New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center)
https://hsp.org Historical Society of Pennsylvania