Born to a poor family of American sailmakers, James Forten volunteered to join the fight for independence when he was just 14
Born to a poor family of American sailmakers, James Forten volunteered to join the fight for independence when he was just 14. As a sailor, he took part in several naval battles aboard the Royal Louis, under famed privateer and patriot Captain Stephen Decatur. Forten’s luck took a harsh turn when his ship was captured by the Royal Navy. As a black American freeman, he was at risk not only of being a prisoner of war but also of losing his freedom entirely. The British Empire was known to enslave black American prisoners, sending them to the horrific plantations of the West Indies for the remainder of their lives. In a turn of fate, the young Forten befriended the British captain’s son. The 15-year-old was given a choice: Swear allegiance to the crown and be set free, or refuse and be sent to the notorious prison camps of London. Forten refused to bow to the crown. The captured rebels were then sent to the HMS Jersey, a notorious prison ship kept in Wallabout Bay, off the coast of occupied New York. More than 1,000 men were crammed onto the former warship, kept in darkness, and starved of food and fresh water. About eight corpses a day were buried from the Jersey, as people died from rampant disease and torture aboard the prison ship. After languishing in the Jersey for seven months, Forten was exchanged for British captives by the Continental Army. As the British forces crumbled across the colonies, Forten was finally able to return to his family who rejoiced at his return, having presumed him dead for months.