Letter from Portsmouth - Debate in Parliament - Cost of the War - Petition for a Trial - Traitor Detected - Traitors Punished - Attempt to Escape - Sickness in Prison - Paul Jones at Whitehaven - Letter from Portsmouth - Death of John Foster - Prison Wrangle - Commissioners Sailed - Another Hole - It Founders - Joseph Kensington Died - Sick Prisoners Neglected.
APRIL 17. To-day one of the prisoners received a letter from Captain Harris, of Portsmouth. He writes that we may rely upon it, that he had it from good authority, that the vessels were taken up, and were under repairs, to carry us home; and according to his letter, he expects to be on his passage in a month's time. There are many in prison who gather some encouragement from this.
18. According to the best accounts, there has been a great debate in the House of Commons. - The Duke of Richmond is for giving the Commissioners full power, before they return, even to declare the States independent, if nothing short will answer; Mr. Fox and Mr. Burke are of the same mind. But Lord Chatham declares that he had rather be in his grave than see the day that America is declared to be independent. According to their own account, this American war has cost Great Britain £30,000,000, and thirty thousand of their best disciplined troops - eleven thousand eight hundred the last campaign.
19. We are informed that a packet has lately arrived from America, but as yet we know not what news she has brought.
21. We have accounts in the paper of the Boston frigate, and another frigate out of Boston, having taken a number of valuable prizes.
22. There was one man came from the Black-hole, his time being up. There are four more left therein, but we find means to help them, as we have others before them; we having a plenty of provisions, can help them, and not injure ourselves. To-day I went out to buy a small pocket Bible, the price of which was three shillings and sixpence.
24. Three more came out of the Black-hole; there is but one left, and he will be out in a few days.
25. Captain Lee received a letter from Captain Trott, a prisoner in Bristol. He wrote that those of us who have a mind to write to America, can do so, by immediately sending the letters to him. He will send them to France by a man bound there. Several, therefore, wrote, and sent them to him. He also informed us, that by his own desire, he is going to London to receive his trial, which put us in mind of petitioning for a trial, also. Accordingly, a petition was drawn up, and about one half in prison signed it. The contents of the petition were as follows:
"To the King's Most Excellent Majesty: the petition of sundry of the subjects of the United States of America, showeth, that your petitioners were at several respective periods, in the year of our Lord 1777, committed to Old Mill Prison, in the County of Devonshire, for the suspected crime of high treason; your petitioners are unable to be exactly positive as to the particular style or wording of the crime represented, in whole or either of their commitments, but as their bodily health is at present much impaired, and they fear it will be more so, so that their lives may be endangered by a longer confinement in prison, they humbly request that your Majesty will be pleased to order them to be brought to trial with all possible speed, for the crime or crimes of which they may be supposed guilty. And your petitioners," &c.
26. For some months past we have thought it presumption to try to make our escape from prison by digging out, on account of there being traitors amongst us. An innocent man has borne the scandal of this a good while, but upon being told of it by a friend, he took no rest day or night until he had found the traitors, and upon examination we discovered them to be two negroes, a man and a boy. Accordingly, they were tied up and whipped - the boy was whipped by a boy, two dozen and a half lashes, on his bare back; and we thought it the man's prerogative who had borne the blame of being a traitor and was innocent, to lay the stripes upon the negro man. Accordingly, he gave him three dozen upon his bare back, and spared not; had the negro stayed till night he would have left his ears; but I suppose that he was suspicious of that, so he went and jumped over the gate and delivered himself up to the guard and told his story. The negro boy was sent for; so now they are both separated from us in another yard, and it is well for them that they are so.
27. A man came out of the Black-hole, his time being up, and Mr. Boardman and Deal, who have been only seventeen days on half allowance in the prison hospital, were sent into this yard. They are the only persons who have broke out and been taken, who have not suffered forty days on half allowance in the Black-hole.
28. Last evening being somewhat dark, two young men had a mind to try to make their escape; one of whom cut his hammock and blanket into strips and tied them together; got over the wall at the end of the prison into the yard, and was there caught and sent to the Black-hole. Today all the negroes were taken out of this prison, and put into a separate building, called the itchy yard.
29. To-day is Wednesday, which is our pay day, and each man received sixpence; and as we have received it regularly for some weeks past, we are told that we are to have it weekly; so in future, I shall only mention when we do not have it.
30. There is a number sick now, more than has been since we came to prison, except in time of small-pox. There are three or four in the prison hospital who are very sick with fever, and several more in this prison who are very ill. For a few weeks past, the agent has indulged us with the liberty of pens, ink and paper, so that we have an opportunity for writing and cyphering.
May 1. To-day the Tarbay, a ship of seventy-four guns, as she lay at her moorings, accidentally took fire, and we are told that her upper works are burned to a coal, and being old, she is not worth repairing; she has been but a few days out of dock.
3. We have a newspaper, from which we learn that an American privateer, commanded by Captain John Paul Jones, from Portsmouth, went into Whitehaven, sent her boat on shore, and spiked up the cannon, and set fire to a ship, and had it not been for a man that deserted the boat and alarmed the town, the boat's crew would have set fire to all the shipping in the harbor. They then set off and went to Scotland, where they went on shore and plundered Lord Selkirk's house of £5000 worth of plate, and took several cattle. To-day a large ship arrived in the Sound, which we took to be an East Indiaman, but have since heard that she is a transport from New York.
3. Sunday. To-day we received two letters from the prisoners in Portsmouth. They inform us that there are one hundred and eighty prisoners there. They also inform us that Captain Weeks, in a privateer of sixteen guns, bound from France to America, foundered upon the Banks of Newfoundland, and all were lost but one.
4. To-day, Captain Lee, taken in a merchantman belonging to Manchester, came to see us. He informed us of Captain Tracy's arrival, and that he had taken an East Indiaman; but we do not hear of any homeward bound East Indiamen missing.
5. To-day several of us had an opportunity of writing letters to send by Captain Lee, who came to see us yesterday, as he is bound directly home.
6. This morning about eight o'clock, Mr. John Fowler, a prisoner, died in the prison hospital, with a pleurisy fever. He was only a few days sick, and in the afternoon there was a jury over him. They will not tell us the occasion of a jury's being called, but it appears that the public were jealous that there had been bad usage. This man is the fourth that has died since I came to prison. He is the first of Captain Lee's men that has died since they were imprisoned.
7. To-day there have been several men drunk in prison, as there often is when they can get money to buy beer; and there has been a wrangle between the old countrymen and the Americans. The Americans unanimously hang together, and endeavor to keep peace in prison, but if the former party were stronger than the latter, we should have a hell upon earth.
8. This afternoon there were three prisoners brought to prison, who were taken in a prize upon the Grand Bank, bound to America, by a large old East Indianian, which has been made a transport. She was bound from New York to England, with a few of Burgoyne's officers on board, wounded and exchanged. The three who came to prison tell us that they had the offer of entering the English service, yet they chose to come to prison. The prize-master's mate entered the service; of those who came to prison, there was one Newbury man, one Casco Bay man, and one Philadelphia man.
9. To-day three large two deckers dropped down into the Sound, from Ammoors, bound to Spithead, to join the fleet that is bound to sea, for the purpose of watching the motions of the French.
10. The commissioners sailed from Portsmouth in the Trydant man-of-war, of sixty-four guns, bound for America, April 22d.
11. We have a hole now in hand, and as we have not convenient places in prison to conceal all the dirt, for many days past many of us have been employed in the smuggling way, by carrying it out in our pockets and under our great coats, and emptying it into the vaults; but this afternoon we met with a misfortune, for a hole which we had been digging for ten days past, by times, foundered.
12. This morning after we were turned out, we so contrived it that the officer should enter into conversation with the turnkey and sentry on guard, and draw their attention, and in the meantime we stopped the hole, so that it was not discovered.
13 We are resolved to be in the way of our duty, by embracing every opportunity to make our escape.
14. To-day about one o'clock, another prisoner died in the prison hospital. It is thought that he died of consumption. His name was Joseph Kensington - he was taken in the Lexington privateer, with Captain Henry Johnson. He is the fifth man that has died since we came to prison. If a man is ever so sick in prison, he has nothing allowed him by the doctor that is nourishing, but a little barley-water and milk broth; but we have reason to think that all necessary things are allowed by government, but it is left to the doctor's option; so the sick do not have them at all.
15. It is eighteen months to-day since we sailed from Newbury, but I hope in a few months to be exchanged ; and I expect that matters will be settled amicably, for it is the opinion of many people that come to the gate to see us, and of a great part in prison, that the commissioners are invested with full power to settle the difficulties before they return, upon the best terms; even to declare the States independent, if necessary.