Poems relating to the American Revolution
Philip Freneau
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THE BRITISH PRISON-SHIP.*. [Written towards the close of 1780, and first published by Mr. Francis Barley, Philadelphia, early in the year 1781.]

CANTO II. —The Prison-Ships.*

THE various horrors of these hulks to tell,
These Prison Ships where pain and penance dwell,
Where death in tenfold vengeance holds his reign,
And injur'd ghosts, yet unaveng'd, complain;
This be my task —ungenerous Britons, you
Conspire to murder whom you can't subdue. —
That Britain's rage should dye our plains with gore,
And desolation spread through every shore,
None e'er could doubt, that her ambition knew,——
This was to rage and disappointment due;
But that those legions whom our soil maintain'd,
Who first drew breath in this devoted land,
Like famish'd wolves, should on their country prey,
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Assist its foes, and wrest our lives away,
This shocks belief —and bids our soil disown
Such knaves, subservient to a bankrupt throne.
By them the widow mourns her partner dead,
Her mangled sons to darksome prisons led,
By them —and hence my keenest sorrows rise,
My friend —companion —my Orestes dies
Still for that loss must wretched I complain,
And sad Ophelia mourn her loss—in vain!
Ah! come the day when from this bleeding shore
Fate shall remove them, to return no more —
To scorch'd Bahama shall the traitors go
With grief, and rage, and unremitting woe,
On burning sands to walk their painful round,
And sigh through all the solitary ground,
Where no gay flower their haggard eyes shall see,
And find no shade—but from the cypress tree.
So much we suffer'd from the tribe I hate,
So near they shov'd us to the brink of fate,
When two long months in these dark hulks we lay
Barr'd down by night, and fainting all the day
In the fierce fervours of the solar beam,
Cool'd by no breeze on Hudson's mountain-stream;
That not unsung these threescore days shall fall
To black oblivion that would cover all!——
No masts or sails these crowded ships adorn,
Dismal to view, neglected and forlorn;
Here, mighty ills oppress'd the imprison'd throng,
Dull were our slumbers, and our nights were long——
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From morn to eve along the decks we lay
Scorch'd into fevers by the solar ray;
No friendly awning cast a welcome shade,
Once was it promis'd, and was never made;
No favours could these sons of death bestow,
'Twas endless vengeance, and unceasing woe:
Immortal hatred does their breasts engage,
And this lost empire swells their souls with rage.
Two hulks on Hudson's stormy bosom lie,
Two, on the east, alarm the pitying eye——
There, the black SCORPION at her mooring rides,
There, STROMBOLO swings, yielding to the tides;
Here, bulky JERSEY fills a larger space,
And HUNTER, to all hospitals disgrace——
Thou, SCORPION, fatal to thy crowded throng,
Dire theme of horror and Plutonian song,
Requir'st my lay —thy sultry decks I know,
And all the torments that exist below!
The briny wave that Hudson's bosom fills
Drain'd through her bottom in a thousand rills:
Rotten and old, replete with sighs and groans,
Scarce on the waters she sustain'd her bones;
Here, doom'd to toil, or founder in the tide,
At the moist pumps incessantly we ply'd,
Here, doom'd to starve, like famish'd dogs, we tore
The scant allowance, that our tyrants bore.
Remembrance shudders at this scene of fears —
Still in my view some tyrant chief appears,
Some base-born Hessian slave walks threatening by,
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Some servile Scot, with murder in his eye,
Still haunts my sight, as vainly they bemoan
Rebellions manag'd so unlike their own!
O may we never feel the poignant pain
To live subjected to such fiends again,
Stewards and Mates, that hostile Britain bore,
Cut from the gallows on their native shore;
Their ghastly looks and vengeance-beaming eyes
Still to my view in dismal visions rise——
O may I ne'er review these dire abodes,
These piles for slaughter, floating on the floods,——
And you, that o'er the troubled ocean go,
Strike not your standards to this venom'd foe,
Better the greedy wave should swallow all,
Better to meet the death-conducting ball,
Better to sleep on ocean s oozy bed,
At once destroy'd and number'd with the dead,
Than thus to perish in the face of day
Where twice ten thousand deaths one death delay.
When to the ocean sinks the western sun,
And the scorch'd Tories fire their evening gun,
"Down, rebels, down!" the angry Scotchmen cry,
"Base dogs, descend, or by our broad swords die!"
Hail dark abode! what can with thee Compare ——
Heat, sickness, famine, death, and stagnant air——
Pandora's box, from whence all mischiefs flew,
Here real found, torments mankind anew!——
Swift from the guarded decks we rush'd along,
And vainly sought repose, so vast our throng
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Four hundred wretches here, denied all light,
In crowded mansions pass the infernal night,
Some for a bed their tatter'd vestments join,
And some on chests, and some on floors recline;
Shut from the blessings of the evening air
Pensive we lay with mingled corpses there,
Meagre and wan, and scorch'd with heat, below,
We look'd like ghosts, ere death had made us so —
How could we else, where heat and hunger join'd,
Thus to debase the body and the mind,——
Where cruel thirst the parching throat invades,
Dries up the man, and fits him for the shades.
No waters laded from the bubbling spring
To these dire ships these little tyrants bring——
By plank and ponderous beams completely wall'd
In vain for water and in vain we call'd——
No drop was granted to the midnight prayer,
To rebels in these regions of despair!——
The loathsome cask a deadly dose contains,
Its poison circling through the languid veins;
" Here, generous Briton, generous, as you say,
"To my parch'd tongue one cooling drop convey,
"Hell has no mischief like a thirsty throat,
"Nor one tormentor like your David Sproat."*
Dull pass'd the hours, till, from the East displayed,
Sweet morn dispell'd the horrors of the shade;
On every side dire objects met the sight,
And pallid forms, and murders of the night,——
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The dead were past their pain, the living groan,
Nor dare to hope another morn their own;
But what to them is morn's delightful ray?
Sad and distressful as the close of day;
O'er distant streams appears the dewy green,
And leafy trees on mountain tops are seen,
But they no groves nor grassy mountains tread,
Mark'd for a longer journey to the dead.
Black as the clouds, that shade St. Kilda's shore,
Wild as the winds, that round her mountains roar,
At every post some surly vagrant stands,
Cull'd from the English or the Hessian* bands, —
Dispensing death triumphantly they stand,
Their musquets ready to obey command;
Wounds are their sport, as ruin is their aim;
On their dark souls compassion has no claim,
And discord only can their spirits please:
Such were our tyrants here, and such were these.
Ingratitude! no curse like thee is found
Throughout this jarring world's tumultuous round,
Their hearts with malice to our country swell
Because, in former days, we us'd them well! —
This pierces deep, too deeply wounds the breast;
We help'd them naked, friendless, and distrest,
Receiv'd them, vagrants, with an open hand;
Bestow'd them buildings, privilege, and land —
Behold the change! —when angry Britain rose,
These thankless tribes became our fiercest foes,
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By them devoted, plunder'd, and accurst,
Stung by the serpents, whom ourselves had nurs'd.
But such a train of endless woes abound,
So many mischiefs in these hulks are found,
That on them all a poem to prolong
Would swell too far the horrors of our song —
Hunger and thirst, to work our woe, combine,
And mouldy bread, and flesh of rotten swine:
The mangled carcase, and the batter'd brain,
The doctor's poison, and the captain's cane,
The soldier's musquet, and the steward's debt,
The evening shackle, and the noon-day threat.
That balm, destructive to the pangs of care,
Which Rome of old, nor Athens could prepare,
Which gains the day for many a modern chief
When cool reflection yields a faint relief,
That charm, whose virtue warms the world beside,
Was by these tyrants to our use denied;
While yet they deign'd that healthsome balm to lade
The putrid water felt its powerful aid,
But when refus'd —to aggravate our pains —
Then fevers rag'd and revel'd through our veins;
Throughout my frame I felt its deadly heat,
I felt my pulse with quicker motions beat:
A pallid hue o'er every face was spread,
Unusual pains attacked the fainting head;
No physic here, no doctor to assist,
With oaths, they plac'd me on the sick man's list;
Twelve wretches more the same dark symptoms took,
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And these were enter'd on the doctor's book;
The loathsome HUNTER was our destin'd place,
The HUNTER to all hospitals disgrace;
With soldiers, sent to guard us on our road,
Joyful we left the SCORPION'S dire abode;
Some tears we shed for the remaining crew,
Then curs'd the hulk, and from her sides withdrew.