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Prisoners
John Greenwood at Barbados
First Imprisonment
February-June 1778





John Greenwood at Barbados
February-June 1778



John Greenwood was a young man of eighteen when he joined the crew of the Massachusetts Privateer Ship Cumberland (Commander John Manley) in January 1779. Greenwood, already a veteran of the Continental Army, was serving as the steward’s mate and acting midshipman, and left a journal of his wartime experiences.1 Cumberland sailed from Boston in early January 1779 and was captured by HM Frigate Pomona on 27/28 January 1779. The following is Greenwood’s account of his imprisonment at Barbados in the British West Indies, beginning with the scene immediately following Cumberland’s surrender.


Aboard the Pomona, 28-29 January 1778


“This was no sooner done [the surrender of the ship] than the sailors rushed to the store-room, got out the liquor by pailsful, and became as drunk as so many devils. The regimental red coats of the British soldiers, which we had taken on our prize, were stowed away in the bread room; these also the sailors got at, for all was now good plunder, and rigged out in them, some too long and some too short, with shirt collars thrown open, tarry trousers, and all different manner of phizes, it would have made a saint laugh to see the men tumbling about.”


“Meanwhile the frigate kept constantly hailing us to hoist out our boat and bring the captain on board, threatening to sink us if we did not obey; but as all discipline was now at an end not a sailor would get down the tackles. At last the petty officers made out to lower the small jolly-boat and our captain and two men went aboard the frigate, but had no sooner left their boat than it was dashed against the frigate’s main-chains and stove to pieces, for the sea was running very high at the time. The Pomona was obliged to get out her long-boat to take off our men, numbers of whom were now lying about the deck in their long red coats, dead drunk. When the British officer came aboard he exclaimed: ‘D your bloods! I believe you are all soldiers. Come, come, tumble into the boat and be d...d to you! Bear a hand!’ Some attempted to get in, others were taken up and thrown into the boat like dead hogs. I could not refrain from laughing, for I do not think I ever saw so funny a sight.”


“I tied up a few pounds of chocolate, a little sugar, and some biscuit in a handkerchief, put some clothes in a small bag, and jumped into the boat with the rest. As soon as we were on board the frigate we were mustered on the quarter-deck and the master-at-arms was ordered to search us and take away all our knives. He obeyed his order punctually and with precision, for he took good care to secure everything else that we had in our pockets. A young midshipman with a very demure, innocent-looking face came up to me and told me to give my things into his charge, as he would take good care of them for me; he did so, for I never saw them again. Well, after having been plundered of everything, we were driven into the lower hold, among

the cables, water-casks, and the devil knows what, for it was as dark as pitch and as hot as an oven. Here we were stowed so close that we had no room to stand, sit, or lie, except partly on each other, for with the exception of the captain, doctor, first and second lieutenants, and captain's clerk, we had all, officers and men, to the number of 125, been placed indiscriminately together.

The sailors, being for the most part drunk, were soon snoring, but I could not sleep, could in fact scarcely breathe owing to the excessive heat, as we were now in the West India climate. Presently I ventured to climb up a post that had notches in it, and sat down on the edge of the hatchway, which was open, to get a little air. I soon found the sentry to be asleep, however, so passed by him and, groping my way to the scuttle leading to the boatswain’s store-room, down I went. As I was descending I put my foot, I presume, upon a rolled up steering-sail, but at the time I thought it was a dead man and that a number of them had been put there so that the funeral services might be said over them on the morrow, preparatory to launching them overboard. What made me think this was that we had had a fair chance all day, at times, to fire our stern-chasers plump into her forecastle,—in short, if we had not cut away her rigging as we did, she would have taken us before. You may imagine that I scampered up the hole faster than I went down and resumed my seat on the edge or combings of the hatchway, near the sentry who was still asleep. Although I knew that he would drive me down into the hold again if I woke him up, and perhaps run his bayonet through me, I pitied him, knowing that if caught asleep on his post he would be whipped, receiving from one to two hundred lashes, so I ran the risk and awakened him. The first words he said were: ‘For God’s sake, go down into the hold!’ I begged him to let me sit there awhile, but he said it was as much as his life was worth to do it, and that I must go down, so down I went into the oven again and toughed it out with the rest of them without a drop of water to cool our tongues. Neither did we have a drop until the next day at eleven o’clock. Judge for yourself how dry and thirsty the majority of our men must have been, who were so confoundedly drunk when first put down into the hold.


“The next day was what is called ‘banyan-day,’ that is, the whole ship’s crew have a pea-soup without meat for dinner. At eleven o’clock they gave us some water to drink which was slimy and stank as badly as excrement, and at noon the cook, or some other

devil, came to the hatchway with a large tub of boiled peas, as thin as water. At this time as many as could get there were crowded under the hatchway to get a little breath of air, so the old fellow, as he lowered the tub down, cried out: ‘Hello, below there! Clear the way! Scaldings, scaldings, and be d...d to you, my boys!’ As soon as the tub was down every one who could get nigh tried to obtain some of the peas, but we had nothing either to put them in or to dip them out with, so at last they lent us a tin pot, when we were a little better off. With the peas they gave us some broken biscuit full of worm holes, which was in fact the mere shadow of bread. As I had nothing to get the peas in I took my hat, knocked the crown in with my fist, and receiving some of the mess in the rude bowl thus formed, ate it out with my mouth like a hog when it was cool. Thus were we treated for three or four days, remaining all the while in the ship’s hold, until our arrival in Barbadoes harbor, when we were mustered on deck to be transported ashore.”


At Barbados, February-June 1778


When we were landed and were going up to the prison, the negro slaves were permitted to throw stones at us; which they did, saying: ‘There goes the New Gengelan (England) men that used to fetch fish here for us with one eye,’ meaning split mackerel; for when herrings were dealt out to them they received a whole one, but they never had more than half a mackerel at a time, as they were a larger fish. We were now conducted into the prison yard, which was surrounded by walls on the top of which had been placed broken bottles mixed with mortar, to prevent any person getting over. Here we were kept, under a hot sun, from

noon until sundown, when they told us we must all go down into the dungeon. This we did although we had not received a mouthful to eat during the whole day. Some Spanish and French prisoners whom they had, were permitted to be kept in the upper rooms, but as we were called ‘rebels’ they chose to punish us more severely.


Our dungeon consisted of three apartments connected together, the floors of which were nothing but mud and clay, and, on account of the heavy rains prevalent in the West Indies, the water had settled in the center of these to the depth of two inches. Every part of the place was at times wet and damp, yet here on the ground we were obliged to lie, having been robbed of everything except what we had on our backs. We had nothing to eat until the next day, when each man received some meat and three potatoes, though my share of the former article I could have swallowed in two mouthfuls. No bread was furnished us, nor do I recollect that they gave us a particle during the five months we were kept on the island.


An amusing circumstance occurred when we were first put in the dungeon, which I will now relate. We had among us a boatswain whose name was Jack Brady; he was a very cross, severe man when on board, and as he would often strike the seamen unnecessarily, they owed him a grudge. When we had all fairly got down into the place, which was as dark as pitch, one fellow

called out for Jack Brady, and as soon as he answered to his name, some one knocked him down, which presently brought on a general battle, for he would strike out indiscriminately. Thus, keeping it up and passing the blows round, they would knock each other over into the water until, what with bloody noses, mud, and clay, they were besmeared all over.


The next day we were all mustered out into the prison yard to undergo an examination, as they intended to pick out as many of our fellows as they pleased and put them on board the different men-of-war then lying in the harbor. The yard was filled with people who came from curiosity to see the ‘rebels,’ for many of them were fools enough to think we were a different kind of animal from themselves. (If we were not we must have been miserable creatures indeed, for the Creoles, as they are called, are a poor set of shabby fellows; I mean the lower class.) As we had been informed by the turnkeys that the officers were coming

to distribute us through the fleet, five or six of us had, during the night, tried to break through the wall and make our escape into the town; but just as we had nearly accomplished our design, the patrol discovered us and we were obliged to stop, I then determined to try another scheme to prevent myself alone from being taken away, for I had rather have stayed where I was than go on board a man-of-war. When we were called out into the yard on the morrow, such a spectacle as our men presented was, I presume, never seen,—blood and dirt from head to heels, some with their eyes and some with their noses swelled up, etc. They selected sixtyodd of us, myself among the rest, and then drove us all together down into the dungeon again, saying they meant to take us away the next day at eleven o’clock. On the succeeding day, at ten o’clock, I called to our doctor, who had the liberty of the yard, and told him I wanted an emetic, which I meant to take to prevent my being carried on board a man-of-war. The doctor had been allowed to keep his medicine-chest, so he got me what I wanted, and I took it, but as it did not work readily and the drums had begun to beat, I asked the doctor for another dose. He gave it to me and I swallowed it immediately. In a few minutes, and just as the soldiers who were coming after us marched into the prison yard, the emetic I had taken began to operate. I thought I should have thrown up my entrails and shall never forget how sick I was. Two lackeys or turnkeys dragged me out of the dungeon and supported me between them, for I could hardly stand, while the others were driven out. As I was very young I had been chosen by a particular officer who, however, did not now recognize me, and on being told upon inquiry where I was, he reprimanded the turnkeys severely for their usage, etc., and left me. Sixty-odd of us were taken away and the remainder returned to the dungeon, where for about a month we stayed, starving in the old way, before anything material happened.


The captain, doctor, lieutenant, and captain’s clerk were not confined in the dungeon, but were allowed their liberty night and day. In the middle of the small grate which admitted air and a little light to our apartment was an ironwood support, and the doctor one evening gave me a small saw to remove this with. As the instrument, however, had a brass back, being such a one as is used to take off limbs with, there yet remained about an inch only of the wood which we could not get through after sawing upon each side of the post, and we were therefore obliged to relinquish our design of getting out. The plan was concocted by Captain Manley and communicated only to a few of us petty officers, as it would have been dangerous for the whole of us to attempt escaping at one time. The captain had procured ropes and constructed a ladder to throw over the prison wall, by which means we were to effect our escape into the town. Our part of the plan failed as I have related, but Captain Manley, the doctor, lieutenant, and clerk succeeded In reaching the town, and although a number of men-of-war and other vessels were lying in the harbor, they took a schooner and, running through the whole of them, got off clear. The saw was so thin that the jail keeper never found out that we had attempted to make our escape, and we were treated pretty much In the same old way; but after a confinement of about four months and a half in the dungeon they put us into one of the upper rooms; I think there were perhaps sixty of us left out of the original one hundred and twenty-five.


One night we heard a great noise outside, and on going to the window to look down in the yard of the prison where the alarm drum was beating, we saw, as it was moonlight, the whole place filled with people of all descriptions. Of these some were armed with guns and others with swords, clubs, and even spits, and they all appeared to be very courageous and ready to attack poor, unarmed, half-starved prisoners; it would have made you laugh to see them and to hear the threats which they used toward us. All this bustle and confusion, however, was occasioned by some thirty Spanish prisoners who were in a room above us, a quarrel

among them having ended in their fighting and stabbing each other with their knives. Mr. Callender, the prison keeper, opened the front door and let the mob into the entry, or hall, which led to our room. I must observe that the doors of the rooms in the West India prison are not solid, but made like a grate, with iron, so as to give air, the holes or squares being big enough to put your head through. The mob, thinking we were trying to escape, surrounded our door and, had the jailer permitted them to have got in, I really believe they would have killed some of us.


Determined to sell our lives as dear as possible we prepared to meet them. We first brought close up to the door a half-barrel or tub which had been placed in the room for the accommodation of several of our men who were at the time very sick, and five or six of us stood ready with tin pots to greet the enemy if they attempted to unlock the door. We were likewise armed with black or junk-bottles which, holding by the necks, we intended to dash against the grated door so that the fragments would fly among them. They saw our warlike preparations and when we stirred up our ammunition, afraid of catching the jail-distemper

and almost suffocated, they soon left the doorway clear, —we were used to it, however, and did not mind it. So you see these brave, daring fellows were fairly driven off without even the smell of gunpowder or the appearance of a single weapon. They then went up-stairs where the Spanish prisoners were, but dared not enter the room, and Mr. Callender thereupon opened our door, after inquiring if we would venture among the combatants to quell them. Up we went, without arms, and soon quieted them, and taking the ring-leader, or head of the disturbance, who was then stabbed in the breast with a knife, shut the door and brought him down. The jail keeper put him in irons, hands and feet, and placing a heavy chain around his neck, drew his head down close to his feet, which brought him almost double like a ball, as it were. He was then thrown into what they called the ‘dark hole,’—bad enough you may depend.


A short time after this last event happened we were informed that a cartel, or vessel to release us, had been sent from Martinique, a French island. We were accordingly conducted on board, carried to the Island, and landed at Port St. Pierre.


At St. Pierre Greenwood met an acquaintance from his home town, who helped arrange his transportation home.




Excerpted from: Greenwood, John, The Revolutionary Services of John Greenwood of Boston and New York 1775-1783, New York: The De Vinne Press, 1922. Online here.



Revised 6 August 2014 © awiatsea.com