Balm—and Some Fruitless Research

In the midst of all the flurry and excitement the “Seamen’s Bill” at last came before Parliament, not in all the array of a statute, but as a financial resolution. The shock of the new mutiny, which had come as a complete surprise, had made it clear to the most departmental mind that the greatest speed was essential. Of all the men taken unaware, Spencer had been the most shocked. On the 6th he had written to Bridport:

I am truly happy to find that at length tranquillity and order seem to be perfectly established in your squadron… . We have had a very severe lesson in this business, and I trust all the officers in the Fleet will feel the effect of it.

The lesson was to be severer still, and by the time Bridport had received the prematurely complacent message, , the mutiny had broken out far more violently than before. No one, of course, not even the most virulent enemy of the Government,’ dreamed of opposing the resolution which came up on the 8th, embodying a supplementary estimate of £372,000 for the current year; it was not, after all, such an enormous addition to a war budget of twelve and a half millions. But what stimulated the ire and the loquacity of the opposition was that the Government asked for a silent vote, as though in this way they could slink out of any discussion of their early mismanagement and subsequent bad handling! Fox and Sheridan were not going to let slip such a golden chance as this, and the debate was lively enough to arouse the drowsiest habitue of the gloomy benches at St. Stephen’s. Fox swelled with an accumulation of decorous invective as his wide mouth poured scorn on the Government. How could ministers expect blind confidence when they had so blatantly shown themselves worthy of none at all?—who had displayed, in fact, “a degree of guilt or incapacity, or both, that has led us to the brink of destruction.” He made terrible lunges over the fatal dilatoriness of the Council, and was brilliantly seconded by Sheridan. The resolution, naturally, was passed, but the wordy battle was fought next day in the Lords, and again in the Commons, generalled this time by Whitbread, who later brought a vote of censure against Pitt on this issue. After more fulmination by Sheridan, who pointed out that the sailors were very properly suspicious of promises, and that a resolution was only a promise and would probably not satisfy the seamen, Pitt moved to bring in a Bill to make the resolution law. It was brought in on the spot, rattled through all its stages, and sent up to the Lords, who had been asked to wait; and indeed, after passing the Bill, they postponed their adjournment until a message came to say that the Royal Assent had clinched the affair.

A copy of the resolution had been galloped down to Portsmouth for showing the Fleet, in the hope of allaying the agitation. Unluckily, the sea was running so high that boats could not get near most of the ships; but fortunately among those in more sheltered waters was the London, and the document was taken on board. It was read in triumph by the men, who immediately promised to release Colpoys and Griffith. On the Thursday, they, with Bover, were summoned on shore for a civil trial by the court sitting as coroner’s jury upon the body of a wounded man who had died in Haslar Hospital. The crew were unwilling to give Bover up, fearing the result, but he promised he would come back, and on a verdict of justifiable homicide being returned, the matter was closed. Yet not altogether; for the men throughout the Navy felt such resentment against Colpoys that on the l4th, after many flattering remarks from Spencer, he was ordered to strike his flag and go ashore. Even the next year, when he was appointed to another ship, the feeling against him on the lower-deck ran so high that the appointment had to be cancelled. He was never employed at sea again.

Bover, on the other hand, though implored by his friends not to risk his life by going back to his ship, persisted in rejoining it, was received with three cheers, and requested by the crew not to leave. He assented, and continued to serve on the London till promoted to commander in February of the next year.

The mutiny, however, was not yet over; the men would not, and indeed could not, return to duty until a fresh Royal Pardon had been obtained for the dire offence of the second outbreak. And it would have to be a very embracing one, for the Admiralty order of the 1st, combined with the way Colpoys had acted upon it, suggested clearly to the seamen that as matters now stood the instigators would be hunted out and vindictively hanged. Red flags still flapped viciously at the mastheads, the officers were “nowhere in command, and the authorities were on tenterhooks owing to disturbing news of unrest at the Nore. Some very definite, even flamboyant step would have to be taken to set everything right again, and prevent the disease from spreading. A picturesque vision of the fitting end came in a dazzling gleam to either the King or Pitt: Howe, the venerable Lord Howe as plenipotentiary, armed with lavish powers to treat with the men, occupied the centre of the canvas; his prerogative would extend to the redress of grievances, and even as far as the royal one of bestowing universal pardon. It was an Academy picture of the best kind, but to some it was worse than shocking. Burke, in his final phase of last-ditch Toryism, was furious, and wrote to that now somewhat tarnished oracle, Windham:

But among all the parts of this fatal measure the Mission of my Lord Howe has been by far the most mischievous. Had a great naval commander been sent down—Gravem pietate et mentis virum quem—to awe the seditious into obedience, it would have been the best thing that could have been thought of; but to send the first name in the Navy, and who had been but lately a Cabinet Minister and First Lord of the Admiralty, at upwards of 70 years of age, to hunt among mutineers for grievances, to take the law from Joice, a seditious clubist of Belfast, and to remove by his orders some of the principal Officers of the Navy, puts an end to all hopes for ever. Such mischief need not to have been attended with so much degradation.

Burke was so deeply self-ingrained with his own terror that he was ready to sniff sedition anywhere; and Windham, no doubt, gave strident tongue at this false scent. But still one wonders if it occurred to him to ask Burke who he thought might have been capable of aweing the seamen into obedience? To most people, however, the idea of sending Howe seemed to smack of genius: they were not troubled by the thought of degradation, they wanted the business cleared up. Surely the sailors would listen to their once worshipped Black Dick; and, after all, some may have thought that, since his lack of attention, to put it mildly, had been partly the cause of the outbreak, it was poetically right that he should figure as the balm to heal the running wound. So on the 10th Howe made what was for him, cramped by age and infirmities, the heroic journey to Portsmouth, taking his wife along with him.

It is doubtful if the project of sending Howe as Deus ex machina seemed quite so beautifully apt to Bridport; it must, in fact, have been wickedly galling. Here was he, who had borne the ardours of the day, who had indeed been swamped by a storm which need never have burst if Howe had only had the sense to let him know it was gathering, superseded at the last moment, when honour and glory were about to descend, by the intolerable old fool himself. Addington and Spencer sent him emollient letters, sweetly explaining that they could not help this de\elopment, that the sailors had been promised Howe, and that therefore they must have Howe—not, perhaps, the most tactful form of excuse. But Pitt wrote from Downing Street on the 10th:

… It was thought best to make this a civil commission in order not to interfere with the military command of the Fleet, and at the same time to give the commission to a distinguished na\ al character, though not with any naval authority or functions… I am sure you will continue to contribute your exertions with the same zeal and public spirit which you have shown under such trying difficulties to bring this arduous work, if possible, to a nappy termination.

Bridport may not have been a brilliant sailor, but he was, as he showed all through the mutiny, a man of unruffled sense and great moral courage; that he was a man of unusual generosity as well is revealed in his reply. He swallowed the affront, put his pride m his pocket in the good cause, and wrote to Pitt the next day:

Royal George,

St. Helens,

11th May 1797.

My dear Sir, I feel myself much honoured by your most obliging and affectionate letter of yesterday’s date.

I hope the appearance of Earl Howe, at Portsmouth, will fully answer the expectations of the public by restoring regular order in the fleet at Spithead and at this anchorage. His Lordship will find me ready to give e\ery assistance in my power to obtain this most important and necessary object, which I hope the measure will produce without delay. In many respects we are better than when I sent to the Admiralty yesterday, but still the authority is m the hands of the people.

I have had my dear Sir a most anxious time, and much to encounter with, and if I had not kept quite calm and composed, the consequences would have been more alarming.

He had, after all, a right to say that; and then he let Pitt hear his private mind on the behaviour of the Board, and of the Admiralty with their fatuous orders:

I have always considered peevish words and hasty orders detrimental, and it has been my study not to utter the one or issue the other. I wish that rule had guided the conduct (of) those in higher situations, as I think it wiser to soothe than irritate disturbed and agitated minds.

While I have the honour to command his Majesty’s Fleet, I shall steadily pursue this line of conduct, and to the last moments of my life it will be my pride as well as my duty to manifest my loyalty to the King, and my rooted attachment to our excellent constitution.

With perfect respect and regard

I have the honour to be, my dear Sir,

Your faithful and affectionate humble servant,


The stage, then, was cleared and set for the last act, appropriately, and perhaps a touch sentimentally, with the old hero coming to appease his naughty children, and, helped perhaps with a sugar-plum or two, to make them all good again.

But in every theatre work goes on behind the scenes, which the public drinking in events from the front knows nothing of; and in this theatre it was undertaken by an amiably indefatigable young magistrate called Aaron Graham, who travelled down to Portsmouth at very much the same time as Lord Howe. Known to be painstaking and fired with patriotism, he had been relieved from his duties at Hatton Garden, and sent to ferret out what really lay behind the mutiny: for just as at the present day there is a type of mind which cannot believe that everybody in England is not perfectly happy unless he has been deluded, poor fellow, by some subversive, probably Bolshevik agent, so in 1797 there were people who could not understand how sailors could fail to be contented with their lives unless seditious—Jacobin or Irish revolutionary —elements had been at their horrid work. Of such was 106 Thomas Grenville, brother to the Marquess of Buckingham; he had considered the egregious order of 1st May to be “very proper,” and wrote as pondered thoughts of the second mutiny:

I cannot help fearing the evil is … deeply rooted in the influence of Jacobin emissaries and the Corresponding Society.

I am more and more convinced that Jacobin management and influence is at the bottom of this evil.

One wonders if he would not have changed his mind if he had been rated for a month, say, as Ordinary Seaman on an average ship: he might have discovered other roots equally deep, and a not contemptible power of management.

Burke, we have seen, cast dark looks on Ireland as a main source of the trouble: Joyce was a seditious Belfast clubist.” He had, it was said, been a tobacconist in Belfast, conveniently shipped away to cut short his subversive activities; but there is no proof whatever of this, and since he was only twenty-six, and bis family had evidently lived in Portsmouth a long time (he was himself born in Jersey), it is likely that he has been confused with someone else. There were, it is true, a good many Irishmen in the Navy, as has often been pointed out, though not in the proportion usually assumed;* and among them there must have been United Irishmen, men sworn to damage England, the tyrant country, at the cost of any crime, as some small measure of revenge for the ugly atrocities England was perpetrating in their country, at this time given over to brutal ravage. But that United Irishmen led the mutiny, or had any hand in it, is another matter altogether. No doubt they joyfully helped to stir up dissatisfaction, and eagerly adhered to the cause; but after the organisation was achieved, they were probably a nuisance rather than a help to the leaders. Beyond doubt there were revolutionaries in the Fleet; they may have provided a Delegate or two, but the questions were: Had they any influence on the sailors as a whole? Could you say they were the cause of the mutiny, or could you deduce that they would have any effect on the seamen’s actions in the future? And if this was a revolutionary outbreak, who were the people on land directing the proceedings?

These were the baffling questions to which Graham, full of confidence, came to discover clear answers. What he learnt would be sent to John King, Under Secretary of State to the Home Department, by whom anything of value would be submitted to the discerning eye of the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland. Graham apparently arrived on the 11th, and, bursting with zeal, did not give himself an instant’s rest from the very first moment: he neither sat nor stood still from breakfast till seven o’clock; and since he added, “I have hastily devoured my mutton chop,” he evidently gobbled only a stand-up dinner before dashing out again to see what he could see, or ferret out what he could smell. His best plan, he thought, would be to detach one or two of the Delegates from the rest, and “through them tracing the incendiaries (if there are any) who have been wicked enough to stimulate the seamen either to a beginning or a continuance of their disorderly behaviour.” He was optimistic: “Hopes I have—and great ones too,” he wrote, “of being able to secure the evidence of Joyce of the Royal George and Melvin of the Pompee and if he founded his hopes on rather flimsy material, that is an attitude proper to youth. The direct approach, he saw at once, would be useless, too crude; he must display ingenuity and guile, and the brilliant notion struck him of worming his way into Joyce’s secrets through family influence:

The mother of the former [Joyce] I have completely the possession of through the management of a lady of this town 108 who can also if it should be found necessary, prevail upon the sister to join her influence to the mother’s, and as the father likewise is said to belong to the Invalid Corps in the garrison, there can be little doubt of his assistance being had if it should be wanted.

An opportunity occurred—or was it engineered?—when Joyce’s mother was reported ill: it might be easy to get hold of him then, for who knew what unlockings of the heart the pleadings of an ailing mother might not procure? But Joyce came attended by a great bodyguard of sailors, and remained obstinately silent about any sedition-mongers; so the management of the lady of the town reaped a barren harvest.

Melvin might be easier to catch and to pump; someone who knew him intimately assured Graham that the Delegate would peach if he could be sure of his discharge from the Navy—”his present disagreeable situation.” Graham took it that he was authorised to make Melvin—a Sunderland man, thirty-four years of age—a tempting offer; “and as to pecuniary considerations,” he added nobly, “they will never stand in my way.” But Melvin provided thrilling revelations no more than Joyce did: perhaps it was that, having been promoted Quarter-Master only two months before, he did not find his situation disagreeable after all; or else, perhaps, he knew of no sedition.

But Graham was not easily balked, and obviously enjoyed the fun of detective work. He betook himself incognito to every likely and unlikely place, talking to everyone—to sailors, dockers, publicans—peering about everywhere, and hobnobbing in Haslar Hospital, on the beach—where he found all the sailors most attached to the King and panting to fight the French—and at pot-houses. If from vague hearsay he gathered that a suspicious character was prowling in the Isle of Wight, he instantly sailed over to investigate. He was never idle for a minute. Plying his busy avocation he crossed the harbour to Gosport, “searching backwards and forwards (as you would do for a bank note) 8 or 10 times a day.” It was all useless, lie drew blank every time.

But he did get one exciting hint that a sinister incendiary was at work somewhere. An acquaintance flew to tell him of an adventure he had met with. When walking about he had noticed a sailor idling outside a public-house with a girl. They had been approached by another sailor, on closer inspection a very queer sailor, with unsullied hands, neat footwear, and a clean white shirt peeping indiscreetly out from below his tarnished chequered one. This pseudosailor went up to the honest tar and asked how the mutineers were getting on; and when he was told that they were doing very well, thrust a guinea into the fellow’s unexpectant hand, and slipped away. “Damn him 1 ” the astounded sailor remarked, “I don’t know him, by God 1 ” The girl, however, who evidently had realistic views, and knew that lost opportunities do not recur, at once said, with sound feminine practicality, “Never mind; let’s go and have a drink.” And that was all, for though Graham’s informant pursued the mysterious stranger, he never caught another glimpse even of his heels.

The worst of it, Graham found, was that everyone was brimful of information; it was most distressing.

So great is the abominable itch (‘among all descriptions of persons) for inventing something new, and so common is the practice of circulating as a matter of fact what is considered only as a story of the day, that treason itself might easily be planned, executed, and publicly talked of long before it would be seriously noticed by the magistrates.

For instance, the rumour that seditious pamphlets were being distributed among the seamen. Everybody took it for granted that they were, but nobody had ever seen one, and no magistrate, captain, or admiral could ever produce one; and seeing how difficult and dangerous it was to get such things printed, the result is not surprising. Whether this proved that the magistrates had grown careless from 110 the too frequent cry of wolf, or that there were no pamphlets, Graham could not determine. But the point did not matter, for in the end he was forced to admit failure all along the line, since he never ran a single quarry of any kind to earth: and at any rate, incendiaries or no incendiaries, the men remained inconsiderately loyal.

I am persuaded from the conversation I have had with so many of the sailors that if any man on earth had dared openly to avow his intention of using them as instruments to distress the country his life would have paid forfeit. Nothing like want of loyalty to the King or attachment to the government can be traced in the business.

It was all very sad for persons like Grenville, and perhaps for those who felt that a startling,, possibly lurid discovery would exonerate the high and mighty from a charge of maladministration. Lord Howe, on the contrary, may have been relieved: he knew where he was with sailors, while Jacobins and United Irishmen would be another kettle of fish altogether.