The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn, by Robert P. Watson. Da Capo Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $28.00.
Lynn University Professor Robert P. Watson makes reading history a totally engaging experience. He does so by choosing unusual and challenging topics, setting them into contexts rich in detail, and presenting them in a prose style that is clear, vivid, and uncluttered by academic jargon. His latest book is a piece of fine storytelling, accessible to the general reader. Prof. Watson makes historical events shine as if they were today’s news. Readers will care about what happened on HMS Jersey, the major British prison ship during the American Revolution.
As he must, the author attaches his relatively narrow topic to a few larger concentric circles: prison ships in general; overcrowded British prisons in the colonies and insufficient buildings to repurpose; and the overall Revolutionary War. The book’s spatial focus is New York, particularly Brooklyn waterways, and New England.
The book’s chapters are enticingly compact and action-filled. Each chapter’s opening is graced by a quotation from Philip Freneau’s 1781 poem “The British Prison-Ship,” though while not about the Jersey still gives a powerful contemporary insight into the prison ship horror.
The early chapters provide a detailed overview of the dismal situation for the colonial rebels in the early period of the war. Even under the estimable General Washington, retreat was often the order of the day. Overwhelmed by the much larger British fleet and its professional sailors, colonial forces – even when supplemented by privateers, were not making much headway.
The hows and whys of the turnabout become clear as the narrative proceeds, but once the focus is on the prison situation and the bright idea of prison boats, Prof. Watson’s voluminous research on this generally unknown element takes over. The Jersey is at once the most extreme example of prisoner conditions and the iconic one. It is hard to imagine that over several years 11,500 prisoners died on that ship alone (around twelve per day by 1783) – more than on all the others put together.
Simply put, conditions went from abominable to worse. . . .
To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 16, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 17 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Ghost Ship