Surprisingly gentle confinement: British treatment of Danish and Norwegian prisoners of war during the Napoleonic Wars

Timothy Leunig, Jelle van Lottum, Bo Poulsen

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Abstract

The Napoleonic Wars saw the British capture and incarcerate thousands of sailors in disused Royal Navy ships, the so-called prison hulks. Many Danes and Norwegians–navy personnel, privateers and merchant sailors–were thus interred. This article uses a new data source, the official record books kept in the National Archive at Kew, to test whether the prison hulks were as bad as popular perception might suggest. In doing so, we provide the first rigorous quantitative assessment of the Danish and Norwegian sailors’ prisoner experience. We find that death rates were surprisingly low, suggesting the quantity and quality of food and medical care was reasonable. Prison hulks were not ‘floating tombs’. The records also show which prisoners were released and exchanged, and when. Officers did well, reflecting the age old system of a gentleman’s honour. Privateers did worse than merchant sailors: those who took up arms were likely to serve longer as prisoners.

Original languageEnglish
JournalScandinavian Economic History Review
Volume66
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)282-297
Number of pages16
ISSN0358-5522
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2 Nov 2018

Keywords

  • maritime history
  • prison
  • prisoners of war
  • Anthropometry
  • Denmark-Norway
  • Napoleonic Wars
  • Anthropometric history

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