Tim Leunig (LSE), Jelle van Lottum (Huygens Institute) and Bo Poulsen (Aarlborg University) have been investigating the treatment of prisoners of war in the Napoleonic Wars.
For most of history, life as a prisoner of war was nasty, brutish and short. There were no regulations on the treatment of prisoners until the 1899 Hague convention, and the later Geneva conventions. Many prisoners were killed immediately, other enslaved to work in mines, and other undesirable places.
The poor treatment of prisoners of war was partly intentional – they were the hated enemy, after all. And partly it was economic. It costs money to feed and shelter prisoners. Countries in the past – especially in times of war and conflict – were much poorer than today.
Nineteenth century prisoner death rates were horrific. Between one-half and six-sevenths of Napoleon’s 17,000 troops surrendering to the Spanish in 1808 after the Battle of Balién died as prisoners of war. The American civil war saw death rates rise to 27%, even though the average prisoner was captive for less than a year.
The Napoleonic Wars saw the British capture 7,000 Danish and Norwegian sailors, military and merchant. Britain did not desire war with Denmark (which ruled Norway at the time), but did so to prevent Napoleon seizing the Danish fleet. Prisoners were incarcerated on old, unseaworthy “prison hulks”, moored in the Thames Estuary, near Rochester. Conditions were crowded: each man was given just 2 feet (60 cm) in width to hang his hammock.
Were these prison hulks floating tombs, as some contemporaries claimed? Our research shows otherwise. The Admiralty kept exemplary records, now held in the National Archive in Kew. These show the date of arrival in prison, and the date of release, exchange, escape – or death. They also tell us the age of the prisoner, where they came from, the type of ship they served on, and whether they were an officer, craftsman, or regular sailor. We can use these records to look at how many died, and why.
The prisoners ranged in age from 8 to 80, with half aged 22 to 35. The majority sailed on merchant vessels, with a sixth on military vessels, and a quarter on licenced pirate boats, permitted to harass British shipping. The amount of time in prison varied dramatically, from 3 days to over 7 years, with an average of 31 months. About two thirds were released before the end of the war.
Taken as a whole, 5% of prisoners died. This is a remarkably low number, given how long they were held, and given experience elsewhere in the nineteenth century. Being held prisoner for longer increased your chance of dying, but not by much: those who spent three years on a prison hulk had only a 1% greater chance of dying than those who served just one year.
Death was (almost) random. Being captured at the start of the war was neither better nor worse than being captured at the end. The number of prisoners held at any one time did not increase the death rate. The old were no more likely to die than the young – anyone fit enough to go to see was fit enough to withstand any rigours of prison life. Despite extra space and better rations, officers were no less likely to die, implying that conditions were reasonable for common sailors.
There is only one exception: sailors from licenced pirate boats were twice as likely to die as merchant or official navy sailors. We cannot know the reason. Perhaps they were treated less well by their guards, or other prisoners. Perhaps they were risk takers, who gambled away their rations. Even for this group, however, the death rates were very low compared with those captured in other places, and in other wars.
The British had rules on prisoners of war, for food and hygiene. Each prisoner was entitled to 2.5 lbs (~1 kg) of beef, 1 lb of fish, 10.5 lbs of bread, 2 lbs of potatoes, 2.5lbs of cabbage, and 14 pints (8 litres) of (very weak) beer a week. This is not far short of Danish naval rations, and prisoners are less active than sailors. We cannot be sure that they received their rations in full every week, but the death rates suggest that they were not hungry in any systematic way. The absence of epidemics suggests that hygiene was also good. Remarkably, and despite a national debt that peaked at a still unprecedented 250% of GDP, the British appear to have obeyed their own rules on how to treat prisoners.
Far from being floating tombs, therefore, this was a surprisingly gentle confinement for the Danish and Norwegian sailors captured by the British in the Napoleonic Wars.