Freedom and Revolution

A project exploring the stories of 18th Century black and mixed race prisoners of war held at Portchester Castle, in partnership with the National Youth Theatre and University of Warwick.

Portchester Castle

In October 1796 a fleet of ships from the Caribbean carrying over 2,500 prisoners-of-war, who were mostly black or mixed-race, began to arrive in Portsmouth Harbour. By the end of that month, almost all of them were held at Portchester Castle, accompanied by their families of about 100 women and children who were sent to live nearby.

Together with the National Youth Theatre and the University of Warwick, we are creating ‘Freedom and Revolution’ a play and project that will shine a new light on the lives of these prisoners and will offer an important window into England’s story.

Throughout history, the site of Portchester Castle has gone through many transformations. Based in Portsmouth Harbour, it began life as a large Roman fort, before later becoming a Saxon settlement. It was only after the Norman Conquest that a corner of it was first turned into a castle. During the medieval period, the site was re-imagined once again, this time as an impressive royal residence for kings and queens.

The castle was used as a prisoner-of-war from the late 17th century onwards.  In 1796 over 2,000 free French Black and Mixed Race soldiers were imprisoned inside the castle having been captured whilst fighting for France on the Caribbean islands of St Lucia, St Vincent and Grenada.  The castle would continue to hold prisoners of war until the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1814.

Unlike later prisoner-of-war camps we hear about today, life at Portchester was not completely cut off from the outside world. Prisoners could find work in the cookhouse, laundry and hospital and it even had its own daily market where prisoners could sell items to visitors, locals or each other. Prisoners also took part in activities such as drawing, fencing and even put on plays in a theatre that they built in the castle themselves in 1810.

The Prisoner's Theatre at Portchester Castle

One of the plays believed to have been performed in the Portchester theatre was a historical drama entitled “The Revolutionary Philanthropist”, first staged by prisoners of war on one of the prison ships out in the bay beneath the castle in 1807. Written by a member of the naval expedition sent by Napoleon to reclaim the former colony of Haiti, the play explored how enslaved people of African descent had fought for their freedom in Haiti in 1791.  The lives and experiences of the fictional characters portrayed in the play mirror those of the Black and Mixed Race soldiers imprisoned at Portchester in 1796.

With performers from the NYT and local youth groups, we will reimagine this play, switching the focus away from the original colonial male perspective, and retelling it from a Black female point of view.

Writer Lakesha Arie-Angelo and Director Mumba Dodwell will help us to creatively retell this story, revealing the hidden stories of the Portchester prisoners whilst also exploring themes of race, identity and discrimination that are still relevant today.

Since Summer 2020 we’ve been exploring the legacy of revolution and rebellion against slavery in the Caribbean as well as the prisoner of war experience through a series of online performance workshops. Historians from the University of Warwick helping us to uncover more about the stories of their journey and their lives. We will also work with a local youth group to explore these themes further and encourage people who live in and around Portchester to share their voice and influence in the production of the new play.

Sculpture at Portchester castle of a ship wreck