The Hated Cage

An American Tragedy in Britain's Most Terrifying Prison


By Nicholas Guyatt

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A leading historian reveals the never-before-told story of a doomed British prison and the massacre of its American prisoners of war

After the War of 1812, more than five thousand American sailors were marooned in Dartmoor Prison on a barren English plain; the conflict was over but they had been left to rot by their government. Although they shared a common nationality, the men were divided by race: nearly a thousand were Black, and at the behest of the white prisoners, Dartmoor became the first racially segregated prison in US history.

The Hated Cage documents the extraordinary but separate communities these men built within the prison—and the terrible massacre of nine Americans by prison guards that destroyed these worlds. As white people in the United States debated whether they could live alongside African Americans in freedom, could Dartmoor’s Black and white Americans band together in captivity? Drawing on extensive new material, The Hated Cage is a gripping account of this forgotten history.



A Seafaring Life

On a gloomy April morning in 1813, the American sailors held prisoner aboard the British prison hulk Hector awoke to what should have been good news: they were ordered to pack their belongings and leave the ship. The Hector was moored on the outskirts of Plymouth on Britain’s south coast, one of the busiest and most important naval bases in the empire. Some had been in British custody for six months already, captured at sea soon after the United States declared war on Britain in June 1812. The Hector had served Britain with distinction during the American Revolution and the first years of the conflict with Napoleon Bonaparte. Since 1806, it had been lashed to the shore in its current spot, filling up first with French prisoners and now with Americans. When the weather allowed, the prisoners might spend some of their days on deck before being counted back in the hold of the ship at nightfall. When it rained, which it often did, the prisoners huddled in the gloom of the ship’s hold, wondering when (or if) they would ever be released. The 250 Americans on the Hector were delighted to be leaving, until they realised the British were sending them somewhere even worse.1

After gathering their belongings, the prisoners were called forward by name, handed an allowance of bread and fish, and given a pair of new shoes. They were then ferried by launches to New Passage, close to the centre of Plymouth and not far from where the Mayflower had set sail for New England nearly two hundred years earlier. On the shore to greet them were hundreds more British soldiers, a lavish escort reflecting Plymouth’s military importance, and a crowd of curious locals. (Some of the latter were surprised that the prisoners spoke English.) The Transport Board, the arm of the British government which oversaw the prison system, would not give these Americans even the slightest opportunity to slip through their clutches and into the busy naval yards. Instead, they were mustered again, paired up with their escorts, and ordered to march north. They had a lot of ground to cover before nightfall.2

The Americans were mostly young—in their teens or twenties—and came from across the Union, from New Orleans to New Hampshire and everywhere in between. Several were born outside the United States: in Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, and even Britain. The oldest prisoner, Edward Johnstone, had been born in Darlington in northeast England in 1745; he would turn seventy before his release in 1815. Twenty-two of this first complement of prisoners were Black; all of them told the British they’d been born in the United States save for John Newell and James Lawson, respectively, the cook and the steward of their vessels, who gave their birthplace as ‘Africa’. Most had been captured aboard American privateers, commercial vessels which had been retooled after the declaration of war with Britain to complement the (tiny) US Navy. But dozens of the prisoners had been fighting for the other side when the war broke out. These men had been ‘impressed’ into the Royal Navy, seized and bundled onto British ships to serve His Britannic Majesty.3

The War of 1812 had thrown all of these sailors together, but their diverse backgrounds and pathways to captivity complicated the matter of solidarity. Was every prisoner a loyal American? Now that they’d found their way into the sprawling British prison complex, were they all on the same side? Those questions had already been asked aboard the Hector, and they would emerge repeatedly in the months and years ahead. For now, though, on this damp and grey morning in Plymouth, they would have to wait. At half past ten, the prisoners were told to begin their march northward, through the western reaches of the city and out into the countryside. Any prisoner who stepped out of line would be killed, or so went the threat from the British commander. Buildings gave way to fields and hedgerows, and the pace was unrelenting. The party made one stop around eight miles into the journey, and the prisoners rushed to finish the bread and fish they’d been given in the morning. Then they began the march again, and the hedgerows and fields were replaced by a bleak and treeless moor.4

As the rutted road became steeper, snow appeared on the barren land to each side. For the Americans, the emptiness of the terrain was disconcerting. This was, one later wrote, ‘the Devil’s Land, inhabited by ghosts and sundry imaginary beings. Rabbits cannot live there, and birds fly from it.’ Nearly a century later, when Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about the same corner of southwestern England in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes shared the sentiment: ‘Avoid the moor in those hours of darkness when the powers of evil are exalted.’ With the light beginning to fade, more than sixteen miles into their march, the prisoners finally glimpsed their destination. A vast circular wall, fifteen feet high and a mile in circumference, enclosed seven massive prison blocks and a cluster of smaller buildings. The road from Plymouth ended in a huge, turreted gate. ‘Nothing could form a more dreary prospect than that which now presented itself to our view,’ wrote one prisoner. ‘Death itself, with the hopes of a hereafter, seemed less terrible.’ Nearly a year after the war with Britain had begun, American captives had found their way to Dartmoor prison.5

Nearly all of the six and a half thousand American prisoners who would make it to Dartmoor were sailors. In the first half of the nineteenth century, maritime work was the second largest occupation in America (after farming). Sailors were easily the most numerous and visible American presence overseas. In 1800, no American newspaper employed a correspondent in a foreign capital and the United States retained consuls in barely a dozen countries. (The State Department had ten employees in total.) Although American missionaries would spread across the globe by the 1830s, virtually none worked beyond North America before the War of 1812. At that point more than a hundred thousand Americans were already sailing on the open ocean. It was through sailors that peoples of other nations came to know something about Americans. And, in turn, American sailors became a crucial conduit for delivering stories about the wider world to the new republic.6

Americans became sailors for many reasons. The most obvious was proximity to the sea. A young boy with a father or uncle in the merchant marine had immediate connections to the trade and a role model who was likely to act, sometimes inadvertently, as a recruiter. George Little, who would eventually become prisoner no. 1367 at Dartmoor, was born just outside Boston in 1791. His father was a sailor in the infant United States Navy. George later remembered how, as a boy, he’d been gripped by his father’s stories of ‘the scenes he had witnessed in foreign lands’ and ‘the wonders of a seafaring life’. When he realised that George was rapt, his father would abruptly try to ‘throw a somber aspect over the whole picture’ and play up the ‘perils and privations’ of the ocean. But George had other sources of inspiration. A local gardener who had once been a sailor quickened George’s pulse with his own catalogue of ‘thrilling incidents’ at sea. ‘If I had twenty sons,’ he told George, ‘I would make them all seamen.’ George’s family tried to kill his enthusiasm by apprenticing him to a merchant in New Hampshire, but by 1807 the sixteen-year-old had talked his way to a position at a counting house close to the wharves in Boston. Now just a few steps away from the life he’d been dreaming of, George would be on the ocean before the year was out.7

Benjamin Morrell, another sailor who would end up in Dartmoor, also went to sea in defiance of his family’s wishes. Morrell was born in 1795 in Rye, a coastal town near the New York–Connecticut state line. Morrell’s father worked for a shipbuilder, struggled to start his own business, and took to sea when his fortunes were low. In his absence, the young Morrell felt enveloped by ‘marvelous stories’ about ‘the wonders of the mighty deep and the curiosities of foreign climes’. His mother and father refused to let him sail, so at the age of seventeen Morrell left home for New York without ‘intimating my purpose to a single soul’ and joined a merchant vessel bound for Lisbon. It was March 1812, and Morrell knew he’d done the right thing. ‘I cannot describe my sensations on finding myself afloat on the mighty ocean,’ he wrote. ‘My soul seemed to have escaped from a prison or cage.’8

For many sailors who would later write about their experiences, the ocean was a source of boundless possibility. Joseph Bates, another Dartmoor prisoner, was born in 1792 near the busy town of New Bedford on the Massachusetts coast. Like George Little, Bates became infatuated with sea stories and told everyone that his ‘most ardent desire was to become a sailor.’ His mother hoped that the obsession would pass; when it didn’t, she sent Bates to stay with an uncle in Boston, hoping that a bout of homesickness would crush his romance with the sea. The plan backfired. When he saw the ocean, Bates knew that the world of New England was not enough for him: ‘I wanted to see how it looked on the opposite side.’ On his first crossing of the Atlantic, as a fifteen-year-old cabin boy, Bates befriended a fellow crew member who insisted that he had signed up for the voyage to London solely ‘to obtain a certain book which could not be obtained at any other place.’ For most men, the appeal of the sea was more basic. It provided a means of employment, and for all its dangers it offered a measure of security and progression. Novices like Joseph Bates, George Little, and Benjamin Morrell—‘green hands,’ as they were known on board—were promised only a tiny cut of the profits at the end of the voyage. But if they returned safely, they could expect a bigger share on their next outing. Experience and skill trumped every other consideration in the merchant marine, which is why so many sailors remained in the profession even after experiencing its cruellest misfortunes.9

The physical demands of shipboard work suited younger recruits. But some green hands had lived many lives before they went to sea. Henry Van Meter was born into slavery about a decade before the outbreak of the American Revolution. His enslaver, Thomas Nelson Jr., was one of Virginia’s leading planters and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. The British promised freedom to enslaved Virginians who crossed over to fight for George III, but as a personal servant to Nelson—who became Virginia’s governor in 1781—Van Meter’s opportunities for escape were limited. If he actually fought on the Patriot side, he didn’t mention this to the biographers who caught up with him at the end of his long life. But he claimed to have encountered George Washington on several occasions, as the momentous events of independence and war swept through his household.10

Van Meter was in his mid-twenties in 1789 when Nelson died, and he was sold and resold to a series of enslavers in Kentucky who treated him with unremitting cruelty. Resolving to break the cycle, Van Meter stole one of his master’s horses, raced it to the Ohio River, and then (with the help of ‘some benevolent white people’) sailed the river to Cincinnati, a tiny outpost in what was then the Northwest Territory. Van Meter soon found himself in the middle of the United States’s first major war with Indigenous people: the so-called Western Confederacy of Indigenous nations committed to halting the US advance into the southern Great Lakes region. In 1791, the Western Confederacy inflicted a stinging defeat on the US Army expedition which had been sent to suppress them—still the most bloody loss, proportionally speaking, in the history of the American military. Van Meter, destitute and on the run from slavery, volunteered to fight in the replacement force directed by Congress to restore the honour of the republic. Van Meter got to know General Anthony Wayne, the force’s famously obstreperous commander, and helped to secure victory for the American republic at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. The defeat of the Western Confederacy allowed US settlers and officials to expedite their colonization of what is now the Midwest.11

Many of the soldiers who fought at Fallen Timbers made their futures on the land they had stolen. Van Meter, though, journeyed back to the coast—this time to Philadelphia, where he came to the attention of a group of local Quakers who paid for him to attend one of their schools. Van Meter was nearly forty years old when he finally learned how to read and write, and then his trail runs cold until he turns up in Dartmoor prison. We don’t know why he decided to go to sea in his forties. Philadelphia harboured one of the liveliest free Black communities of any American city, along with an energetic (if decidedly paternalistic) community of white philanthropists promoting gradual emancipation and Black uplift. But it was also a place of rising prejudice towards Black people, and it may not have been easy for a man like Van Meter—recently educated but lacking relatives or connections—to obtain a steady position. The sea was always an option if a would-be sailor could convince a captain that he was willing and able. At some point between 1805 and 1814, when he was anywhere between forty and fifty years old, Henry Van Meter decided that the next chapter of his extraordinary life would take place on the ocean.12

People of colour were a mainstay of American crews in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some were Native American. The Indigenous communities along the coast of southern New England and Long Island—Wampanoags, Mohegans, Pequots, Narragansetts, and others—had been sailors since before the arrival of Europeans. Instead of being pushed west by Euro-American settlement, they adapted and persisted in their ancestral lands. At sea, they mobilized their expertise to forge new roles as commercial brokers between the British and Dutch empires in the seventeenth century, and between British North America and the rest of the world in the eighteenth. On land, Native nations discovered that settler colonialism might be kept in check through the judicious playing of one empire against another. The sea offered parallel possibilities for resisting settler supremacy and creating new fronts of Indigenous power. By the middle of the eighteenth century, coastal Indian communities were supplying thousands of sailors to the merchant marine.13

Meanwhile, Native women met, worked alongside, and fell in love with the Black mariners who were also integral to the region’s maritime life. Two of the most famous Black Americans in the late colonial and early national periods—Crispus Attucks, martyr of the 1770 Boston Massacre, and Paul Cuffe, the celebrated sea captain—each had an Indigenous parent. The Native identity of these mixed-race sailors was typically obscured by the tendency of white Americans to flatten racial identity into a simple binary. Some Native sailors may have been able to pass as white; others, even those with two Indigenous parents, were categorized as Black. We’ll revisit these questions when we reach Dartmoor, where the question of racial identity became an urgent challenge not only for the British but also for American sailors themselves. For now, we need to remember that Native Americans formed an important component of the American merchant marine, even if they were sometimes hard to see.14

Although the slave trade—and especially the Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas—has fixed an image of Black people as cargo rather than crew, Black sailors were central to the Atlantic maritime world. Historians have estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of the more than one hundred thousand American sailors in the early nineteenth century were African, African American, or from the broader African diaspora. (This figure includes mixed-race Native-Black sailors like Paul Cuffe.) The overwhelming majority of these sailors were free men. Some had been born free; others had won freedom through manumission, state or judicial action, or their own flight from slavery. Paul Cuffe, who owned his own ships and hired exclusively Black and Native-Black crews, was an exceptional figure. Most Black sailors worked as ordinary seamen for white owners and captains.15

Racial prejudices hardly evaporated when white men took to sea, but a maritime career was attractive to many people of colour. Sailors were paid by ability and experience, which usually meant that Black sailors could receive the same pay as white sailors with comparable skills. Black and white sailors lived and ate together belowdecks, where ordinary seamen of any race were subject to the same sharp discipline of the captain. Narratives, letters, and memoirs attest to a professionalism and even a camaraderie which developed across the colour line. A racial ceiling meant that Black sailors were rare among the petty officers of a merchant vessel, and even rarer among sea captains. Black sailors were also keenly aware of the dangers of enslavement or (for manumitted or emancipated people) re-enslavement. White sailors clumsily compared the threat of the British press gang with the horrors of racial slavery; Black sailors worried about both.16

The sea connected the many parts of the Black diaspora throughout the Atlantic world, bringing African Americans into contact with political communities in which the status of Black people varied wildly. This was usually true even within a particular empire or nation. In 1772, the British judge Lord Mansfield declared that a Black ‘servant’ named James Somerset could not be held against his will in London by his West Indian master. The Somerset decision electrified the nascent antislavery movement in Britain and North America. It horrified planters in the Caribbean and the southern colonies of the British North American mainland, especially when they became aware that their slaves had caught wind of the extraordinary news (carried around the Atlantic by Black sailors). After 1772, Black and white observers—antislavery and proslavery—grappled with the realisation that Britain, suddenly and emphatically, had become free soil.17

In the United States, meanwhile, every state north of Delaware agreed to abolish slavery (either immediately or gradually) between 1776 and 1804. But slavery was expanding in the southern states, fuelled by cotton and the expulsion of Indigenous people. Black sailors knew that ‘man stealers’, who threatened to drag both runaway and freeborn Black people into slavery in the South or the Caribbean, operated as far north as Boston during the first half of the nineteenth century. They also knew that anti-Black prejudice was a mainstay of white sentiment in the northern states, even as the institution of slavery contracted wherever its economic and social footprint was limited. Virtually nowhere was safe from the reach of slavery and prejudice, and the sea enabled Black people to transmit and share knowledge about different communities and regimes among African diasporic peoples everywhere. It was by this means that Black communities—free and enslaved—gained an extraordinary knowledge of the Atlantic world. Sailors were the vital points of connection between nodes of Black resistance and self-rule, enabling runaways, uprisings, and revolutions and providing hope to those trapped within the plantation system. The historian Julius Scott puts it this way: ‘Whereas slavery and its regime demanded a fixed status and clear boundaries, ships and the sea came to symbolize, for many people, possibilities for mobility, escape and freedom.’18

Black mariners went to sea with an obvious interest in alternatives to white supremacy. They found these in many places: among the Maroon communities of Jamaica, which comprised enslaved people who had run away from plantations and formed free settlements in the island’s interior; among Black and Native communities in Florida, which remained outside the United States until 1821; and, particularly, on the island of Saint-Domingue, which became the scene of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), the largest Black uprising in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Black enterprise and self-determination were everywhere if you were paying attention: among the free Black women who kept stores and ran boarding houses across the Caribbean’s major cities and among the African Americans who stitched sails or unloaded cargoes in the seaports of the United States. But sailing constituted a kind of refuge for Black people, and for many the sea became a destination in itself.19

American sailors, white and Black, came to their profession from a vast number of places and backgrounds. Did their time at sea bind them together as Americans? One historian has urged us to see sailors as ‘individuals invested in their national origins and articulate about their instrumentality in world affairs’. This may have been true in the second half of the nineteenth century, but in the three decades between the Revolution and the War of 1812 neither American power nor the idea of the nation was a fait accompli. Sailors certainly imbibed prejudices from their upbringing and culture, but they also found themselves spending months or years at a time away from the United States. Even those who confined themselves to the coastal trade traversed the very different political and social worlds of Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, and Jamaica. Sailors who visited Europe, the Baltic states, and Russia—let alone the Pacific whaling grounds or China—encountered diverse cultures, languages, customs, and political arrangements. The age of revolutions was thrillingly (and often dangerously) vivid: men at sea would move through wars and upheavals seeking opportunity, while always scouting the exits.20

Sailors who began their journeys on American ships didn’t always return on the same vessel. A ship might be damaged en route from New England to the Caribbean or laid up in a foreign port for months awaiting cargo. Captains fell sick, cargoes spoiled, business deals collapsed, personal relationships went sour. Sailors’ wages were paid in arrears, giving them a strong incentive to see the voyage through. But circumstances and possibilities changed, and a sailor who refused to serve on ships of other nations could end up stranded, destitute, or both. Although it’s impossible to give a precise figure, a substantial number of Americans who spent time at sea would have worked on foreign ships under a non-American captain. This makes it harder for us to fix the merchant marine of a particular country or empire within the simple bounds of nationality.21

The idea of the sea as a place where national affinity wielded a looser grip than on shore isn’t completely alien to our own historical moment. In the twenty-first century, pirates and outlaws exploit the emptiness of the oceans in defiance of national interests and international law. Even for those who do their business in the open, the patchwork of national conventions and standards makes the sea a place of creative exploitation. From industrial fishing vessels to giant cruise liners, the merchant marine snatches up men and women from every nation and places them under flags of convenience—for the most part, the flags of nations with permissive labour and environmental laws. The sea is a space of exception in our world of nation-states, and at the opening of the nineteenth century it was just as unruly.22

For a sense of how the sea might shape the experience of a young American sailor, we should re-join George Little as he stepped from his Boston counting house to find a sailing ship in December 1807. It didn’t take him long. The Dromo, bound for China via South America and Mexico, was in a hurry to leave. The ship’s captain nonetheless instructed the sixteen-year-old to think carefully before signing on: ‘Young man, you have chosen a life full of toil and hazard,’ the captain told him. ‘As this voyage will perhaps be one of great period, it would be well for you to reflect maturely on the measure you are about to adopt.’ Little was warned that the voyage would bring him little money and that he’d be gone for a very long time. And yet here he was, standing on an actual sailing ship, his eye drawn from the harbour to the sea stretching past the horizon. He had longed for a ‘career of dazzling adventure’, and now his childhood dreams drowned out the captain’s warning.23

The Dromo and its crew of eighty sailed all the way to Tierra del Fuego at the foot of South America before making their first stop. Technically, Americans were not permitted to trade with the Spanish colonies, but the Dromo had work to do along the Pacific coast of Spanish America. The Chinese had very little interest in the cloth and other finished goods which had been loaded into the Dromo’s hold at Boston, but if the crew could exchange these for seal skins (or Spanish dollars) from South American traders or Indigenous people, they would have a way to pay for tea and silk at the Chinese port of Canton. This was a risky endeavour: mariners’ knowledge of colonial Spanish politics and the Indigenous people of the region was limited at best. A seasoned captain had an idea of where he might put in to trade illicitly, but both he and his crew had constantly to expect the worst. The Dromo’s twenty-six guns had initially surprised George Little, but he soon realised why his captain thought them necessary.24

Despite the hardships of a green hand’s life, Little loved his new profession. He gawped at the ‘sublime and magnificent’ sight of the sun rising behind the snow-capped Andes, and he revelled in the intrigue of finding obliging Spanish colonists as the Dromo


  • “The Dartmoor Massacre provides the dramatic climax of Nicholas Guyatt’s The Hated Cage, a compelling and compassionate study of the largest overseas contingent of American POWs before World War II… Vivid and convincing.”
     —Stephen Brumwell, Wall Street Journal
  • “Guyatt has written an engrossing account of a little-known incident from the War of 1812 in which over 6,000 Americans were held as prisoners of war in England… A powerful depiction of race relations, international politics, and governmental neglect in the early years of the American republic.”—Library Journal (starred review)
  • “With breathtaking revelations, Guyatt illustrates poignantly why the past is not to be disregarded.”—Booklist
  • “[A] colorful account… Expertly weaving digressions on the history of incarceration and the racial dynamics of America’s shipping industry into the narrative, Guyatt delivers an engrossing look at an intriguing historical footnote.”—Publishers Weekly
  • “In Britain, American military cemeteries dot the landscape, none more forgotten or haunting than the one at Dartmoor, with 271 American sailors from the War of 1812. Guyatt has written a stunning, revealing history of one of the darkest and most inhumane outposts of the British empire, hidden in plain sight and historical memory in southwest England. The book is a withering tale of race and the suffering fate of seamen in the age of sail. It is also a brilliant reminder of why we do research and why we remember.”—David W. Blight, Sterling Professor, Yale, and author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
  • “Nicholas Guyatt’s absorbing story of the early nineteeth-century Dartmoor prison ‘massacre’ asks who was an American and could Black men, detained as British as prisoners of war, be citizens? Told by way of archival sleuthing and exacting analysis, The Hated Cage is a fascinating study of how ideas about racism and the state became fused to one another in the early American republic. It is a must-read for anyone concerned with the origins of the anti-Black thought of our own time.”
     —Martha S. Jones, author of Vanguard
  • “In Guyatt’s truly extraordinary recovery of Americans imprisoned long ago, he has excavated a most disturbing racial as well as carceral past, one that will feel disturbingly familiar, and one that underscores on every page the imperative of finally reckoning with white supremacy if there is to be a different future.”—Heather Ann Thompson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy
  •  “In this brilliant book, Nicholas Guyatt tells the fascinating story of a long-forgotten massacre of American sailors in a British prison. While that tale on its own is gripping, The Hated Cage uses this prison drama to unlock a range of insights about life and death across the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. A must-read work.”
     —Kevin M. Kruse, professor of history, Princeton University
  • “This is history as it ought to be — gripping, dynamic, vividly written, and altogether brilliant in its interpretation. Nicholas Guyatt has liberated a motley crew of American sailors from the double darkness of Dartmoor Prison and our own poor historical memory.”—Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship: A Human History
  • “Mostly set in a prisoner-of-war camp located on an otherworldly English moor, Nicholas Guyatt’s The Hated Cage is history at its most beguiling. Guyatt expertly synthesizes critical maritime and prison scholarship to give us a unique window into war, repression, racial violence, and incarceration in early modern American history. Anyone interested in exploring the meaning of the American Revolution would do well to lay off its founding fathers and read Guyatt’s account of long-ignored, tellingly so, events in Dartmoor’s ‘Black Prison.’”—Greg Grandin, Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History, Yale University

On Sale
Apr 5, 2022
Page Count
432 pages
Basic Books

Nicholas Guyatt

About the Author

Nicholas Guyatt is professor of American history at the University of Cambridge and the author of five previous books, including Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation. He lives in Cambridge, UK.

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