A fascinating insight into prison life
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American Prisoners of War at Dartmoor Prison
American Prisoners of War at Dartmoor Prison
Dartmoor – the first racially segregated prison in American history.

Dartmoor was home to some 7500 American prisoners of war between 1813 and 1815. Of these around 1000 were men of colour, Native Americans, African Americans and Africans. From 3rd April 1813 they were marched alongside their white counterparts, with whom they had sailed and fought. In 1813 Dartmoor was still dominated by French prisoners and the first 250 American prisoners were largely accommodated in the cockloft of the Number 4 war prison.

It is difficult to quantify exactly how many men of colour were incarcerated at Dartmoor. The entry book for prisoners contains a column marked ‘complexion’ and it is from this that data has been drawn. Unfortunately there is around 18 different terms used including fresh, sandy, dark, brown and black.

It is reported that in October 1813 the white Americans approached the Agent, Captain Isaac Cotgrave and requested that they be housed away from their black compatriots. Cotgrave wrote to his superiors on 21st October and they wrote back on 23rd October agreeing to this request and thus created at Dartmoor the first racially segregated prison in American history. The white prisoners had decided to divide their numbers by race as opposed to standing together as Americans and their allies.

Black prisoners, numbered at around 90 at the time were to remain in the Number 4 war prison cockloft, sharing the space with French prisoners who had been labelled ‘Romans’ (see French section for more details). White Americans were to occupy the first and second floors. If the white prisoners had hoped that segregation would mean them transferring to one of the other prison blocks they were sadly mistaken.

What drove the white Americans to make this request can be seen in the attitude towards black Americans at the time. Whilst theft amongst prisoners were common, it was thought that this was greater amongst black prisoners. There was also a feeling that black sailors were less loyal to the United States and thus more likely to volunteer to serve in the Royal Navy, thus escaping the confines of Dartmoor. Prisoners were encouraged to form committees and tribunals in order to operate a system of self-governance in the prison blocks and quite rightly black prisoners could expect representation on these bodies. By creating segregation within the prison, white prisoners were ensuring that they would never be held in judgement by a man of colour.

In November 1813 Cotgrave was replaced as Agent by Captain Thomas Shortland. Shortland allowed Americans to visit the daily market and opened the gates between the Number 4 block and the rest of the prison, allowing white and black Americans to mix freely.

In spring 1814, France had surrendered and Napoleon exiled to Elba. From May 1814 French prisoners were repatriated and Dartmoor became the exclusive domain of Americans. More American prisoners, white and black were concentrated on Dartmoor from other war prisons. White prisoners were moved into the now empty prison blocks leaving Number 4 block populated by black prisoners.

Number 4 war prison became the centre for social and economic life at Dartmoor. It put on theatre productions such as Romeo and Juliet, had a boxing school and its own preacher. It was also the centre of gambling which included a roulette wheel smuggled in by the French. These activities were not restricted to the Black prisoners but were also enjoyed by the white prisoners. Rather than being the block for the degenerates, Number 4 block gained the reputation for being the best run in the entire prison. This was primarily attributed to the personality of one man, Richard Crafus or as he would be recorded in history – ‘King Dick’.

In creating this Black governed space, white Americans had caused a problem for themselves. If the Number 4 prison was well run and enjoyed the same liberties and lively activities as the other blocks, why was there a need for segregation? This was answered by deeming and portraying Crafus as a despot, the only alternative was to admit that black people might be as capable of republican government as white people.

As the American stay at Dartmoor continued, the segregation system began to crumble. The first instance of this occurred towards the end of 1814 when Number 4 prison became a safe haven for white prisoners who had had disputes in their own blocks. On one occasion the whole of the petty officers of one block sought permission to live amongst black prisoners in Number 4.

Shortland had tried to bring a sense of religious observance to Dartmoor by inviting preachers to minister to the prisoners. A black preacher, Simon Harris began delivering sermons in Number 4 block and his sermons became widely attended by black and white prisoners alike.
Following the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the American War, prisoners were slowly repatriated. This led to an imbalance in the make up of the prisoner population. Many black prisoners sold heir places on the ships to white prisoners as it was rumoured ships were destined for ports in the southern states. This brought the possibility of black prisoners being sold into slavery when they landed, whatever their status was before the war.

The war with France recommenced following Napoleon’s ecsape from his exile on Elba. It was therefore deemed that Dartmoor would once again be required to house French prisoners. Ironically, having been given the freedom of the prison when the French left in 1814, American prisoners of all colours were once again corralled into the Number 4 block on 16th June 1815. Dartmoor Prison’s time as a racially segregated prison was at an end.

There can be no coincidence that the day before, 15th June, King Dick left Dartmoor on his journey back to the United States.

The Legend of King Dick

Very few contemporary accounts of the American’s time at Dartmoor exist and those that do largely ignore the experience of the black Americans. Consequently, information is either non-existent or at best contradictory.

It is said the Richard Crafus was born in Salem, Massachusetts but is also claimed he was born in either Maryland or Virginia. It is unknown whether he served on an American ship, French ship or had been press ganged into the Royal Navy. He is described varyingly as standing anything between 7 feet and 6 feet 2 inches tall. He was captured near Bordeaux in the spring of 1814 aboard the Requin and upon capture gave his age as 23 years and originated from Vienna, in Dorchester County, Maryland. If this information is to be believed, it is highly likely Crafus was born into slavery, given the 1790 census for Dorchester County listed 95% of its black inhabitants as slaves.

Crafus was initially held on a prison hulk at Chatham before being transferred to the transport ship Niobe which conveyed him to Plymouth. On 9th November 1814 he made the walk from Plymouth to Dartmoor.

Most accounts left behind by American prisoners at Dartmoor make no mention of Crafus, What we know today and how the legend of ‘King Dick’ arose can be attributed to one man, Benjamin Waterhouse whose memoir was printed in 1816. Accounts state that Crafus deposed the elected committee of Number 4 and assumed control himself. It is claimed he wore a bearskin cap and wielded an enormous club with which he maintained order in Number 4 block. Any man found to be dirty, drunken or negligent in any way was threatened with a beating. Despite the segregation in place, Crafus was attended by two young white boys who lived in Number 4 block alongside him. Whilst we owe a lot of what we know about Crafus to Waterhouse, Waterhouse himself was never at Dartmoor and never met Crafus in person.

Alongside discipline, Crafus also was said to control the gambling that took place in Number 4 by both black and white prisoners. He skimmed off profits from traders within the blocks and officiated over event taking place in the block’s boxing ring. The latter was used to settle any dispute with a prisoner who thought to challenge his authority.

His rule was described as that of a despot and those commentators justified this description by once again applying the prejudices in place at the time. Only a despot could rule over a people whose morals were so far removed from their white countrymen. Another writer, Josiah Cobb alleged Crafus was treated more favourably by the Agent. Cobb claimed Crafus was allowed to roam free about Princetown in return for acting as an informant.

Crafus left Dartmoor on 15th June 1815 with 100 other prisoners and made his way to Plymouth to meet a ship destined for the United States. In 1821 he was discovered living in Boston in an area known as Negro Hill and had established a school teaching boxing.

It was reported in March 1831 that Crafus died of consumption.