Massachusetts

Richard Crafus, Black Captive King of the War of 1812

richard crafus feature and twitter

During the War of 1812, more than a thousand African-American prisoners in Dartmoor Prison were ruled by a tall, powerful young privateer named Richard Crafus.

Richard Crafus

Richard Crafus

He was known as King Dick, and he was the most famous man in the prison.

He arrived on Oct. 9, 1814, forced to march 17 miles to the gloomy stone prison high upon a rocky, windy moor.

Richard Crafus quickly asserted his leadership of the African-American prisoners. By acknowledging his authority, they were carrying on the black New England tradition of electing or appointing black kings and governors. Internal group discipline was a way to survive in a hostile and uncertain environment.

“His word is supreme, no higher authority can be appealed to than his," wrote one white inmate.

Dartmoor Prison

In the spring of 1813 the first of 6,553 captive United States sailors made the miserable 17-mile march from Plymouth to Dartmoor Prison. Some were captured privateers, and some were sailors impressed into the British Navy who refused to fight against their countrymen.

Twenty percent of the sailors aboard privateers and U.S. Navy vessels during the War of 1812 were black.

By 1814, 1,000 African American sailors and 5,000 of their shipmates were incarcerated in Dartmoor Prison. Some 271 died there.

Conditions at Dartmoor Prison were brutal. It was perched 1700 feet above sea level on a windswept moor. The prisoners were exposed to winter blasts of rain and snow, given starvation rations of beef tea and black bread once a day and abused by cruel guards. They slept in hammocks stacked high in crowded, lice-infested barracks.

Dartmoor Prison

Dartmoor Prison

The prisoners weren’t confined to cells and so were able to govern themselves. They had courts that punished miscreants, a gambling room, a market, sporting events and a theater. Prisoners could volunteer to work in stone quarries or build the prison chapel.

The African-American prisoners were segregated in their own barracks, Prison Number Four. There they created their own culture, which wasn’t closed to whites.

One white sailor wrote,

In No 4 the Black’s Prison, I have spent considerable of my time, for in the 3rd story or Cock loft they have reading writing Fenceing, Boxong Dancing & many other schools which is very diverting to a young Person, indeed there is more amusement in this Prison than in all the rest of them.

And unlike the white prisons, the African-American prison held Sunday worship services.

King Dick

Entrance to Dartmoor Prison

Entrance to Dartmoor Prison

King Dick was famed throughout Dartmoor Prison for ruling Prison Number Four with an iron hand. One white prisoner noted, “ If any of his men are dirty drunken or grossly negligent, he threatens them with a beating, and if they are saucy they are sure to receive one.”

According to some accounts, he was 23 years old when he arrived in Dartmoor Prison. He may have been older. It isn't certain where he was captured.

He may have been from from Vienna on Maryland's eastern shore or Salem, Mass., and he may have been a runaway slave who shipped on board New England vessels.

Twenty-eight percent of the African-American prisoners were born in New England. Many of the rest sailed from New England ports. Most would have been familiar with the tradition of electing or appointing black kings and governors on Election Day.

Kings and governors were often chosen for their physical prowess. Richard Crafus was 6’ 3” when the average height was 5.6,” physically powerful and a masterful bare-knuckle boxer. He wore a bearskin grenadiers’ cap as a symbol of his authority.

Richard Crafus negotiated with prison authorities and kept order among the prisoners. He made daily rounds, checking each berth for infractions.

Richard Crafus Again

The prisoners were shipped back to the United States in 1815 after the war. Some historians believe Crafus went to Boston, where he became a leader in the city’s African-American community.

Boston's King Dick taught boxing between 1826-35 in a tenement on St. Botolph Street, wearing a red vest, white shirt and carrying a cane. He also wore an old-style police cap because he served as an auxiliary police officer.

He led an annual procession around Boston Common on Election Day, after which he gave a patriotic speech. He is believed to have died around 1835.

 

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Paula Mine

    Paula Mine

    February 9, 2015 at 9:14 am

  2. Matthew Barnes

    Matthew Barnes

    February 9, 2015 at 9:34 am

    What a cool story! I had no idea!

  3. Jon Koohy

    Jon Koohy

    February 9, 2015 at 9:56 am

    Fascinating!

  4. Cindy Barris-Speke

    Cindy Barris-Speke

    February 9, 2015 at 11:06 am

    Mark Williams

  5. Mark Williams

    Mark Williams

    February 9, 2015 at 11:15 am

    Thanks Cindy Barris-Speke

  6. Pingback: Tobias Gilmore, an African-American Soldier in the American Revolution - New England Historical Society

  7. Lloyd L. Thoms Jr.

    May 6, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    King Dick is a prominent character in the 1939 novel The Lively Lady by Kenneth Roberts.

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