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The Spithead Mutiny

The final decades of the 18th century were ones of revolution. In the New World American colonists led the way, throwing off British rule and creating a republic. Inspired by their example, France followed, executing royals and nobles alike and declaring its own republic. In Britain, the Government was fearful that their country too might go the same way. Radicals and republicans were openly agitating for change, forming themselves into political groupings like the London Corresponding Society and the United Irishmen. Then, on 16th of April 1797 came what many believed was the start of revolution. With the country locked in a war with France, the only force able to stop a French invasion, the Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet, mutinied at Spithead. Within days it had spread to ships at Plymouth and the Nore. “Our only hope is submission to the enemy,” wrote Edmund Burke, “…our navy has already perished, with its discipline, for ever.”

To many in the navy, however, the mutiny had not come out of nowhere. In the years before Spithead there were numerous small incidents on individual ships that hinted at rising discontent. Generally, these took the form of labour disputes, with a crew refusing to work until a grievance had been settled. The causes varied, but there were some common issues. These were a lack of shore leave, unreasonable punishments by officers, the quality of the men’s provisions and most important of all – the sailors pay. Most of these disputes were resolved by the officers on the spot, but their frequency had been increasing, a sure sign of rising discontentment reaching boiling point. In the weeks before the mutiny a number of petitions from crews were received by the Admiralty, all demanding higher pay. Unwisely, the authorities chose to ignore them.

On the face of it, the men had a good case. Their rate of pay had been fixed over a century earlier. When inflation was low, this was less of an issue, but under the pressure of war prices had been rising steeply. The wages of men on merchant ships had risen in response, a fact which was well known to Royal Navy crews recently pressed from these ships. Not only were the men under-paid, but the meagre amount they earned was frequently held back by the navy as a way of combating desertion. Although most sailors were young single men, a significant number were married with families to support. The final straw was when the government introduced a pay increase for soldiers and naval officers, but not the men.

In response the number of petitions reaching the Admiralty became a flood. The Channel Fleet’s commander, Admiral Bridport, urged the Admiralty to negotiate, but instead he was instructed to take his ships to sea. When the order to weigh anchor was given on the 16th of April, it triggered a mass mutiny. Royal navy ensigns were hauled down and replaced with red flags. Unpopular officers were put on shore and the rest confined to their quarters. The rising was achieved with little violence and considerable discipline. Each ship elected two delegates to represent them in negotiations, first with Bridport and later with the Admiralty.

Despite the Government’s fear that the navy had been infiltrated by revolutionaries, the sailors’ terms were actually very reasonable. They made no political demands; refused to allow frigates and smaller warships from joining the mutiny - since they were needed to protect the nation’s trade; and made it clear that they would return to duty if the French fleet came out. When the Grand Duke of Wurttemberg made a state visit to Portsmouth on 19th of April, they even manned the yards for him and fired the relevant salutes. There demands boiled down to four issues - a pay rise, various improvements in their food, better treatment for wounded sailors, and a Royal Pardon for the mutineers. When these were eventually conceded on the 23rd April, the mutiny ended and the sailors returned to their duties.

But the wheels of government turn slowly, and the changes required an Act of Parliament. As the days went by with no sign of the agreement being implemented, the mutineers became increasingly suspicious that they were being duped. On 7th of May they mutinied again, and this time they were met with violence. Bridport’s number two, Vice Admiral Gardiner ordered the officers on his flagship, the London, to fire on the mutineers, and several were killed. Things might have turned nasty, with the enraged crew intent on hanging the admiral and his officers, but they were dissuaded from doing so by two of the uprising’s leading delegates. Instead, Gardiner, ten of the captains and over a hundred unpopular officers were all put on shore. Two days later the act received the Royal Assent, and the mutiny was finally over.

There was considerable anxiety in the Admiralty that former mutineers would not fight well in the face of the enemy. That having once broken the bonds of discipline, they would be unreliable. These fears were put to bed later that year when Admiral Duncan led a fleet of ships that had previously mutinied against the Dutch at Camperdown. After an exceptionally tough fight he was victorious, and reported that all of his men did their duty well.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of the Spithead Mutiny was that no word of it reached Paris until it was over. The three weeks when no disciplined force was stopping the French fleet from coming out of Brest and gaining control of the Channel was France’s best chance of victory over Britain, but it was missed. Such a golden opportunity to defeat her most persistent enemy never returned.

My blog will be taking its summer break now, and will be back on 12th September.


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