Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 13: June 2010


Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

Sclater, Graham. Hatred is the Key. Tabitha Books, 2010. 317 p. ISBN 0956397719 $19.50 US.

Reviewed by John Grodzinski

This historical novel follows the tragic story of a number of Americans that were captured following a sea battle off the American east coast in 1812. The prisoners are eventually sent to the British prisoner of war facility at Dartmoor, in Devon, England. Their story culminates in April 1815, in a bloody encounter with their guards. This is a well known, albeit rarely studied event from the War of 1812. The author of this book, Briton Graham Sclater, was inspired to write this story learning the story of the American prisoners at Dartmoor. Sclater found the story so haunting, he decided to study the topic further and his studies formed the basis of this novel. Sclater has a wide variety of interests; he is also an accomplished songwriter, musician, recording producer and a screen and teleplay writer. He two other novels to his credit and Hatred is the Key is his first on a historical subject.

The story centres on Dartmoor Prison, built in 1806 as a depot for prisoners of war. The depot was designed to accommodate up to 10,000 prisoners, who were guarded by 2,000 soldiers. Over 6,500 Americans were eventually sent to join French prisoners-of-war at Dartmoor. Most of the Americans were taken from privateers, letters of marque and merchantmen. Unlike Americans prisoners held in the Canadas, where repatriation often occurred shortly after capture through exchanges of prisoners, those who were sent to Dartmoor stayed there for the duration of the war and beyond, as the mechanism of their repatriation turned into a protracted affair. The depot eventually became overcrowded and the prisoners suffered from many privations. The American agent for prisoners in England, Reuben Beasley, showed little concern for their situation. Several hundred Americans died while in captivity.

Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, incident that occurred at Dartmoor was on 6 April 1815, when the militia guards rushed the main yard and fired upon prisoners who were trying to escape. Seven Americans were killed and about 60 wounded; several of the wounded died later. Public outrage at this apparent massacre caused the British government to transport the former prisoners back home, rather than wait for American ships to do so. Unfortunately, the actual course of events on April 6 is unclear, given the emotion the incident created (“massacre” is a very emotive term in the United States), while conflicting evidence still leaves many questions unanswered. Fearful and inexperienced militia, poor leadership by several individuals, difficult and shoddy conditions, prejudice (on both sides including the prisoners) and bickering at Ghent, combined with the anxiety of the prisoners wishing to get home, produced the tragic results.[1]

Historical fiction provides a wonderful vehicle to explore topics in a manner that is difficult in non-fiction. Several years ago, I read two passages on the employment of lances in battle to a friend. The first was a technical description of the handing of the weapon and its effects on the target. My friend was intrigued by the power of the weapon and was interested by several technical aspects of its handling. Then I read a passage from a historical novel (Sharpe’s Waterloo) describing an encounter between a British cavalrymen and French lancer, in which the British officer was mortally wounded. That account brought my friend to tears. The exploration of what individuals, real and fictional, thought, said and did in fiction, allows a story to be examined in a far different way than in non-fiction. Sclater achieves this sense through his description of the naval engagement that opens this book, the conditions within the depot, the events of 6 April 1815 and in the reactions of several characters that were either in or at Dartmoor.

Gerald Sclater (third from left), author of Hatred is the Key, at the Dartmoor Prison Museum.

It is an unavoidable facet of historical fiction there is some licence taken with the historical record. The author makes a common error in suggesting the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on 24 December 1814 (p. 146) marked the end of the War of 1812. While the signing of a treaty normally ends a conflict, this was not the case in 1814. The British insisted that as the American government had, on three previous occasions, in 1794, 1803 and 1806, insisted on changes to treaties that had already been signed, the Treaty of Ghent should not come into effect until both governments had ratified it (this was stated in the first article of the treaty). Sclater has the agent for prisoners-of-war at Dartmoor, Captain Thomas Shortland, RN, make the point about ratification forcefully (p. 150). However as Shortland would not have been privy to the particulars of the treaty, he would have been ignorant of this clause (p. 146). The Prince Regent ratified the treaty for Britain on 26 December, while the American president did the same on 17 February 1815. The war was technically over, but it would take some weeks to get the news to London and to those ships still at sea. For example, confirmation of the war was not proclaimed in Canada until 9 March 1815, while it was only received in London on 28 March. Unfortunately the return of prisoners of war was delayed due to haggling over who should conduct and pay for the return of prisoners.

There is also reference to the Prince of Wales (p. 240, 273), who would have been more properly referred to as the Prince Regent. In one passage, the Prince Regent is reported to have raised the matter of Dartmoor with the American ambassador. How would details of a private interview between the Prince regent and Adams be known to someone, even a former secretary to the Prince so quickly? John Quincy Adams was appointed to the post of Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary on 28 February 1815 and presented his credentials to the Court of the Prince Regent on 8 June 1815. None of the accounts of the meeting mention any discussion of Dartmoor, although this passage does highlight the beauty of historical fiction, where one can depart from the historical record to explore other themes. There is also reference to the soldiers carrying rifles, which is completely inaccurate, as their primary weapon would have been a musket.

Several readers with great interest in the War of 1812 may find objections with the historiography that will get in the way of their enjoying Hatred is the Key. Try ignoring the compulsion to focus on those elements and simply enjoy the novel for its portrayal of the period and for what the author has to say on this subject. Hatred is the Key is an interesting read that will inspire further study of this topic. It did that with me, so it should with other readers.



[1] A fine account of the events at Dartmoor is Christopher D. Leonowicz, “The Dartmoor Prison Massacre, April 6, 1815,” Journal of the War of 1812, vol. VI no. 4 (Fall 2001): 16-27.

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