During the War of 1812, more than a thousand African-American prisoners in Dartmoor Prison toed the line set by a tall, powerful young privateer named Richard Crafus.
They called him 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 then quickly asserted his leadership of the African-American prisoners. They did it because internal group discipline allowed them 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.
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.
The guards didn’t confine the prisoners to cells and let them 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.
Prison No. 4
The jailers segregated the African-American prisoners in their own barracks, Prison Number Four. There they created their own culture, which whites could join if they wanted.
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 earned fame 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, perhaps older. It isn’t certain where the British captured him.
He may have come from from Vienna on Maryland’s eastern shore or Salem, Mass., and he may have run away from slavery and 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. And most would have known 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 British shipped the prisoners back to the United States in 1815 after the war. Some historians believe Richard Crafus then went to Boston, where he rose to leadership 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.
Richard Crafus probably died around 1835.
This story about Richard Crafus was updated in 2023.