The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn by Robert P. Watson

Review published on August 10, 2017.

Post-Brexit, the UK is seeking to ramp up its connections and love for America. Reading this book, I am not sure the trans-Atlantic relationship is always favourable to our past links.

This is sub-titled ‘An Untold Story of the American Revolution’ and I have to admit it’s a part of history I am quite unaware of. Not surprisingly perhaps as the author has written with past archive personal accounts of the prisoners held in prison ships on the edge of New York City between 1776-1783 when the British occupied the city and neighbouring Long Island. This was the major staging ground for the British military operations in America, yet more men died each day aboard HMS Jersey than on the battlefields and skirmishes of the Revolutionary War. HMS Jersey was used as by 1770 it was a battered warship. ‘Hulking’ meant removing her canons, bridge, masts, sails and figurehead and using it for captured prisoners- or ‘colonial troublemakers’ as they were known by British military men like General Thomas Gage sent to quell the US rebellion in 1775. It was ‘Hell Afloat’ for many in intolerable, diseased and dirty inhumane conditions with bodies being flung into the water each day to clear the dead. On the American side was the young General George Washington gaining his military experience. He surely could in later political life have been no fan of the British after what he saw.

This is well researched and written, using actual transcripts from the few survivors. There is now a monument to their memory in Brooklyn and the poet Walt Whitman was inspired to write about them after the bones of prisoners washed up near his home. This wasn’t Britain’s ‘finest hour’. But it is of its time during our desperation to pursue the great Empire project.

Well worth a read – even if you’re not interested in military history as such.

Philipa Coughlan 4/3

The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn by Robert P. Watson
Da Capo Press 9780306825521 hbk Aug 2017

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