It’s 1814 and England is at war with America again. Prisoners-of-war are transported back to Dartmoor prison where they are held even after the war has ended. The result is an attempted break out and a massacre of some of those prisoners.
Heartfelt thanks to the Internet for connecting writers with audiences in the far flung corners of the world!
The web led me to UK author Graham Sclater and Hatred is the Key, an unexpected and brilliant focus on the hatred rampant between early 19th Century English and Americans in the War of 1812-1814.
The book presents a vividly painted world that surrounds and centers on England’s Dartmoor Depot and its sinister role for America during the devastating war in the Atlantic Ocean. Hatred extended to American-held slaves, freedmen, Métis, Caribbean Islanders, and First Nation/Native Americans that became involved as well. Irrational hatred criss-crossed among these subgroups, as you will read first hand in this novel.
Even with at least one ancestor in the Siege of Fort Pitt and the later War of 1812-1814, I knew little of the latter war and less of Dartmoor Depot or Dartmoor prison as it was later renamed. Thanks to Graham Sclater, I now know the rest of the story – the consequences on a personal level to all sides in the War of 1812.
Dartmoor Depot took a bloody grasp of over 10,000 American prisoners of war: sailors and merchants; freemen, slaves and children. Those operating the prison were likely not much better off, particularly in the toll such operations took on these individuals mentally, inhabiting their nightmares for decades in the style those infesting the Vietnam conflict. Not only this, but Dartmoor was built to house only 3,000 prisoners, the overcrowding horrific in its consequences.
Usual American histories of the War of 1812 show nothing of the Dartmoor Depot. Perhaps USA did not wish to publicize the plight of their period POW’S, but it was a Holocaust of proportions that Cecil B. DeMille would have depicted with fervour and drawn many crowds. Picasso’s Guernica in its exquisite agonies does not do the image of Dartmoor justice. Graham Sclater does so in Hatred is the Key.
Hatred is the Key is a work of engaging historical fiction that accurately portrays the aftermath of American losses on the Atlantic Ocean to the English fleet. Much like springtime television cliff-hangers, one cannot stop “watching” this story, continuing to read and re-read the novel at great length.
This was likely the wish of many captains like Captain Sleep and Captain Coombes in the seagoing war, but neither received their shared wish. Captain Shortland as well had no such reward in his assignment as commander of Dartmoor Depot, a UK facility still operating, full of the ghostly habitations of three years and over 10,000 tortured men and boys. The images of capture, the forced march to the prison, and the tumultuous hell on the inside will keep you awake at night, just as they did the prisoners you will meet in the story. Fictional, but hard-wired in fact, the characters and the events will burn into your memory.
Read this book and you will know what most Americans and most people do not yet know about the horrors of the War of 1812-1814. Yet, despite circumstances, these prisoners held onto their personalities and many, to solid character as well. Read and you will see victory in the middle of hell.
HM Prison Dartmoor is an active men’s prison in Princeton, on Dartmoor in Devon, England. Designed by Andrew A. Alexander, it was built from 1806 – 1809 with high stone walls of cold granite. Currently owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and run through Her Majesty’s Prison Service, it was built to house 3,000 (French) men captured by Britain in the Napoleonic Wars, but held many more from 1812 – 1815. It held over triple its limit, in squalor and the coldest winter in a hundred years. Disease, cold, hunger, lack of sanitation, and a horde of insects and other vermin killed many and nearly drove the rest mad. Prolonged solitary confinement and “disappearing” also took a toll of lives and sanity – even months after the war ended.
English restrictions and interference imposed against US-French trade resulted in an American declaration of war on Canada and Britain in June, 1812. This filled the North Atlantic and the Great Lakes with battles in which America lost many ships and men who were jailed in Dartmoor Depot. After the war was over in December 1814, Americans were held overtime in Dartmoor prison and tortured, until finally they gained their release after an uprising on April 6, 1815, in which many more of them were killed.
Neither British nor Americans lost or gained any lands in this war and they lost many lives as well as their peace of mind and parts of their souls; but the First Nations and Native Americans lost everything, including lands promised by the British. Freed slaves and some American boys as young as 13 or younger lost their lives in the prison as well. It was much like the Holocaust of a later war.
This novel describes seagoing battles in the Atlantic in realistic fashion and fills out characters into people to whom we as readers can relate. Captains Coombes, Hawkins, Sleep, and Shortland are so substantial and similar – all British stock or descendant – that one can forget which side they’re on. Members of the opposing navy crews and the civilians are likable or despicable by turns. It seems that real people die as many of them succumb to wounds or disease. This all makes a greater case against war and prejudice in the end.
Americans slaves are as intelligent as their master, the sharp merchant Dylan Chipp, and more likeable, though Chipp is immensely entertaining as he is taken among POW’S from the ship on which he was just a passenger. Just as entertaining are scenes in the local farmers’ and merchants’ market days in the prison yard with a variety of products and services obtainable from sellers’ stalls. The gypsy-type healers have a stall as well and dispense medicine and cures, but tend to whoever summons them in an emergency. They are held in seemingly low esteem, but are well patronized by prisoners, the British military, dignitaries, and others. Physical suffering trumps prejudicial hatred. Additional scenes portray relationships of all sorts between Americans and British people and are particularly poignant and memorable.
Aside from some good lessons in the uselessness of hatred, Mr. Sclater’s book provides some good history of the prison, its construction and operation, the war, and the aftermath for all sides.
“It is a good read and would make a riveting film” – Review by Patty Inglish