Freedom and Revolution

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, with about 100 women and children sent to live nearby.

Together with the National Youth Theatre and the University of Warwick, we created a play called ‘The Ancestors’ as part of a project entitled ‘Freedom and Revolution’. The project shines new light on the lives of these prisoners and offers an important window into England’s story.

Portchester Castle

The Story of Portchester Castle

The site of Portchester Castle has gone through many transformations in its long history. Situated at 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 camp 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 they even had their own daily market where prisoners could sell items to visitors, locals or to each other. Prisoners also took part in activities such as drawing and fencing as well as putting on plays in the theatre they built themselves within the castle in 1810.

The Prisoner's Theatre at Portchester Castle

One of the plays believed to have been performed in the Portchester theatre was an historical drama entitled “The Revolutionary Philanthropist”, first staged by prisoners-of-war on one of the prison ships anchored 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 seemingly mirror those of the black and mixed race soldiers imprisoned at Portchester in 1796.

With performers from the National Youth Theatre, experienced writers, directors, and local youth groups, we reimagined this play, switching the focus away from the original colonial male perspective, and retelling it from a black female point of view. Through the project and the play we reveal the hidden stories of the Portchester prisoners whilst also exploring themes of race, identity and discrimination that are still relevant today.

Sculpture at Portchester castle of a ship wreck

Community Workshops

From November 2020 to early 2021, we worked with young people local to Portchester Castle to explore the prisoners’ untold stories and shed light on this part of their local history. With the National Youth Theatre we’ve delivered a series of workshops with young people from KIDS Young Carers and students from Bourne Community College, which explored this history through drama.

These fun and interactive workshops, led by Mumba Dodwell and NYT Members Naomi and Tatenda, used games and confidence building activities to explore what the journey to Portchester Castle from the Caribbean may have been like. We learned about the new play and how to tell stories by using objects. We also reflected on our own family stories to relate to the prisoners’ experience and learnt how to make ‘tableaus’ which are a way of creating still images that represent a scene or theme in a play.


NYT member Naomi creating a story using an object

NYT Member Naomi using an object as inspiration to create a story

Bourne Community College students improvising a scene

The group (and our evaluator Kirsty!) improvising a scene

As we became more confident throughout the sessions, we were able to create and act out our own improvised scenes using some of the characters of Portchester Castle as inspiration.

Check out Tatenda’s Vlog below about being part of the project.

Behind the scenes

The Making of The Ancestors

Go behind the scenes for ‘The Ancestors’ rehearsals and play development at Portchester Castle. Hear from the cast, directors and the writers as they get ready for a performance.

Interview with Mumba

Interview with Mumba Dodwell, Research and Development director of ‘The Ancestors’.

Interview with Lakesha

Interview with Lakesha Arie-Angelo, writer of ‘The Ancestors’.

Interview with Jade

Interview with Jade Lewis, director of ‘The Ancestors’.

The Play