“Between The Acting of A Dreadful Thing …”

This swift exaltation of a gaol-stained nobody to the pinnacle of command of a fleet in rebellion has led fertile minds to suppose that Parker must have rejoined with the stark purpose of fomenting mutiny, bent upon mischief, emissary of some revolutionary club. But there is no reason to doubt the truth of the statements he made immediately before what he called his “extremely 1 boisterous” exit from life at the end of the yard-arm, in which he explained how he had had his lurid greatness thrust upon him. Till the 12th he knew nothing about 138 the mutiny; the cheers took him by surprise as he was innocently working in the carpenter’s mate’s berth, and when he ran up on deck he was astonished to see the forecastle guns pointed aft. He soon after went below, and only heard about the expulsion of the officers. He considered that the whole affair, with a31 its rash talk about hanging, was far too violent, and the next day expressed his opinions to Simms, the carpenter’s mate. Simms agreed, and thought it a pity that some cool, levelheaded person was not in charge. On the third day the Delegates invited Parker to join them in one of the starboard bays, given an air by being hung round with hammocks; and in one day more he was asked to take the chair at their meetings. Then before he knew where he was, and without his making even a gesture, he found himself, in style and function, president.

It is easy enough to see why the men elected Parker to this dizzy height, though he had not been with them long. Here was a man of vivacity and intelligence, of much more education than most of them, who knew the ways of the Navy, and had been an officer. He would be able to write a good letter, and talk on more equal terms than they could with the high and mighty. And obviously he sympathised with them. It is also quite easy to see why Parker accepted. He believed that the sailors wanted no more than to have their grievances redressed, and he thought their condition so appalling that their behaviour was justified. “As a human being,” he wrote,

I stand subject to human passion, the noblest of which is a tender sensibility at every species ofhuman woe. Thus influenced, how could I indifferently stand by, and behold some of the best of my fellow-creatures cruelly treated by some of the very worst. I candidly confess I could not, and because I could not, fate consigns me to be a victim to the tenderest emotions of the human heart. 

It is no doubt true that he was not among the first movers of the mutiny; if he had been, it could hardly have flared up so soon, and perhaps it is true that he accepted his elevation with reluctance. Yet to a man of Ms temperament, excitable, neurotic even, the position must have seemed full of glamour. What a chance to be a great man, to benefit his fellows, to earn a glorious name! “I die a martyr in the cause of humanity” he was to declare—and he thought it. He believed in his mission, and saw himself also as a moderator of the seamen’s passions: he would subdue, or so he dreamed, the too tempestuous feelings of the more fiery rebels, guide them into more temperate channels. But he had not, as he was to find out, the dominating qualities of a great leader; he was the tool of the hot spirits, and sometimes in his excitement allowed his own volatile emotions to carry him too far.

It was a difficult position for him, flung headlong into the tumult and bidden to direct it, for by the time he was made president matters had already thrust to a certain distance. Officers had been expelled their ships—from the Inflexible, for instance, the first, second, and third lieutenants, the master and the surgeon; the San Fiorenzo had been fired on, an act which amounted to levying war against the King; and all the ships had refused duty except for the essential routine. A certain manner had been adopted—the parading about the streets in all the panoply of war, heightened by a blatant atmosphere of violence. This last was most fiercely exhibited at the hospital, or sick quarters, where the Delegates, outraged by the treatment, or lack of it, vouchsafed their ailing fellows, adopted such a threatening tone that the surgeon bolted to quieter regions, and his assistant took refuge in the next world by cutting his throat.

The situation was all the more uneasy because at that time nobody, not even the prime instigators, could tell what the object of the mutiny was. To show their solidarity with the men at Spithead, yes; but when the Delegates came back from there, the news they brought rather took 140 the wind out of the sails of the leaders at the Nore. “Though it is honest, it is never good to bring bad news” and the Delegates were so incensed with MacCarthy, one of their emissaries, for carrying back the documents, that they seem even to have threatened him with hanging for disloyalty. Yet, on his own showing, he was the “ founder” of the mutiny on the Inflexible. The result was, of course, infuriating, since a considerable sum of money had been collected to defray the expenses of the travellers, 21 who, instead of bringing back further potent incitements, had done no more than to buy “two or three pennyworth of ballads for twenty pounds,” as Parker is supposed to have grumbled. At any rate, whatever they brought, it was not the material to support a mutiny with, and we might think that the sensible thing to do, since so much had been granted, was to cancel future proceedings.

But however much Parker may have wanted to do this, and there is no evidence that he had the wish, he would not have found it possible. For one thing, a special Royal Pardon would be needed to cover the offences the mutineers had already committed. But more important than this was the feeling of the instigators, or of most of them. They would look foolish if they were to cry off now; and, moreover, the men had been worked up to do something. Acts have a momentum of their own. The sailors were exhilarated by the atmosphere they had created, they were enjoying their liberty, their comparative freedom from the tedious duties of sea life, and their release from the perpetual threat of harsh punishment from officers they hated, and whom they had got rid of. Besides, were they to be outdone by their comrades at Spithead? Must they not add something to what had been gained there —for there were still many things they had at heart — ,and could not they too look fine in the eyes of the world by compelling the Lords of the Admiralty to come and bargain with them? It would be unbearable simply to return to duty with a sheepish grin like schoolboys sneaking back from playing truant.

Yet this is what the Government, and the people of England in general, expected them to do. They looked upon the Nore mutiny merely as a piece of natural ebullience provoked by the Spithead affair, which would subside as soon as it was known that Howe had settled the trouble. The Admiralty allowed it a few hours at most. Probably many of the seamen too thought that the best course was to let all become quiet again, but if so they were overruled by their more imaginative comrades. Yet from the beginning the ultimate movers seem to have had some trouble in getting any approach to unanimity, as is shown by the elaborate procedure they evolved for administering the oath of “fidelity”: their ostentatious parading, their music, their forming of numberless committees to involve as many people as possible in authority, all seem designed rather with the object of arousing enthusiasm, of “bucking the men up” than with any clear end in view.

They would now have to deal, somehow, with the cooling news brought back from Portsmouth. Parker tried to make out that the Act for the increase of pay was only an Order in Council; and when forced to retreat from this position, declared that the Act would be valid for only one year. The single grain of comfort they had got was Howe’s promise that unpopular officers should be removed from their ships, and they proceeded to a more drastic purge, from which, among others, Captain William Bligh of the Director was one of the first to suffer. Bligh’s ship had not been a happy one for some time, a state of affairs that might be expected under the man who a few years before had goaded the men of the Bounty to successful mutiny. As early as 10th April six men had refused duty, and had had their backs lacerated; before long others had shown an insubordinate spirit. Though on the 25th Bligh had published the proclamation granting increased wages on 2nd and 3rd May he had felt it advisable’ to read out the Articles of War, and punish a further batch of men. The ship had come to the Nore to refit on the 6th, and when the men joined in the mutiny on the 12th, three officers had been promptly sent off. Thus the further action the Delegates took on the 19th is significant, as is made plain by the letter Bligh wrote to the Secretary of the Admiralty:


19th May 1797.

You will please to inform my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty that this morning about nine o’clock, soon after the return of the delegates from Spithead, they came on board and declared to me they had seen Earl Howe, who told them all officers were to be removed from their ships who they disapproved of, they were in consequence directed to inform me in the name of the ship’s company that I was to quit the command of the ship and for it to devolve on the first Lieutenant, who they in the same breath ordered to supercede me.

Being without any resource I was obliged to quit the ship. I have stated the whole transaction to Admiral Buckner, and now wait their Lordships’ directions, being ready to meet any charge that can be brought against me or such investigation as they may think proper to direct.

Such an action, the Delegates no doubt felt, would help to keep matters going.

They had to act quickly, because Buckner sent a message to say that he would come on board his ship, the Sandwich, that day, and notify the King’s pardon on the terms the Admiralty had sent him on the 17th. This had to be staved off, and they returned an answer that they would wait upon the Admiral on shore and attend him to his ship. This seemed satisfactory to Buckner, who, however, had to wait till two o’clock, when a deputation led by Parker called upon him with a paper of grievances in their hand. It shows a certain degree of efficiency in council that they should have produced their demands so soon, demands which bad, of course, to be in excess of those granted at Spithead; and there can be no doubt that the men felt that there were still some outrageous grievances which should be remedied, some alteration in naval rules which justice cried out for. They may even have been angry with their Portsmouth brothers for not having attempted to do more while they were about it. Buckner tried to argue with them. He was an old man—he had been made lieutenant more than forty years before, had been with Rodney in the West Indies, and was comfortably ending his days as Vice-Admiral of the White at the Nore—and he believed that he could reason with the Delegates. He discussed the demands, and, as he wrote plaintively in his report, “endeavoured with every means in my power to shake their resolution of stipulating for them. I had considerable hopes that I had succeeded in doing this,” he went on, because they asked him to go off to the ships the next morning, when all would be satisfactorily settled. Buckner did not quite understand.

At all events, at nine the next day, the 20th, he set out for the Sandwich with two captains and a procession of the Delegates’ boats; and he became all the more full of hope since the crew of the Clyde cheered him as he went by with his flag flying. No doubt all would be well. But from the first there was a hitch. Nobody had been warned at what time he would be coming: they were not ready, and Parker was visiting some other ship. The remaining Delegates disagreed as to how he should be received. They had taken down his flag—they meant to rehoist it when he left the ship—and could they, they debated (it was a nice point of etiquette), receive him in state as an Admiral when he had no flag? So, instead of being shown full honours, he was only received as a private person, politely, with a common civility which in his position he could only regard as damned insolence. When Parker hurriedly came back he did little to reduce the Admiral’s^ ruffled feelings, for though he apologised for the reception, the new commander of the Fleet kept his hat on as a symbol of his position. It is possible that he might have done more than apologise, for both he and many men on the Sandwich were ready to man the ship and cheer; indeed a half-hearted effort to do so was made: but by this time “evil-spirited people had diffused into the minds of the ship’s company that the Admiral was not competent to settle the existing differences”; and, moreover, the Inflexible, fearing weakness, had sent to say that if the Sandwich cheered the Admiral she would come alongside and sink her. Whatever the details may have been, it was plain that nothing could be done, and it is not surprising that the interview was “short and unavailing.” “On my requesting they would attend me on the quarter-deck,” Buckner wrote,

one of them was deputed to acquaint me that they still had something to settle, which they would lay before me in half an hour. Having waited a considerable time, they in a body brought me the enclosed paper, and declared with one voice that they would not resign the charge they now had in their own hands till the conditions therein stipulated for were complied with, and satisfied by the personal attendance of a Board of their Lordships here, which they insist they have a right to expect, there having been a precedent for it at Spithead.

The men had evidently made up their minds: Buckner’s attitude had perhaps helped to harden them, and there was nothing for the Admiral to do but to go away promising to send the paper on. The men disclaimed every idea of disrespect, but they drew his attention to the fact that they were a firm, compact body, determined to persevere in this point.

The document Buckner took away with him on his disillusioned return to the shore was, indeed, in the nature of an ultimatum, consisting of eight articles.

Article 1st.—That every indulgence granted to the fleet at Portsmouth be granted to his Majesty’s subjects serving in the fleet at the Nore, and on places adjacent.

That this would be allowed went without saying; but the statement shows that the men here also were profoundly suspicious of the Admiralty, and of the Government, especially of “Billy Pitt and Dundas,” both of whom they hated.

Article 2nd.—That every man, upon a ship’s coming into harbour shall have liberty (a certain number at a time, so as not to injure the ship’s duty) to go and see their friends and families; a convenient time to be allowed to each man.

This demand had been put forward at Spithead, but little had come of it; yet this lack of leave was certainly one of the seamen’s most bitter grievances, and on every ground of fairness or humanity ought to have been remedied. A man joined for three years, a term which might be extended to four or even six, but sometimes he was kept for more than twelve years, any request for discharge being treated as an act of the greatest contumacy. All this time he was a prisoner at sea, drafted from ship to ship, serving often in unhealthy climates, never allowed to taste “the sweets of home,” and so virtually dead to his friends and family. It was so obviously silly that when a ship came into port, and everybody knew that she would not put to sea again for some weeks, that a proportion at a time should not have been allowed on shore, that it seemed more than silly, it seemed malignant.

Article 3rd.—That all ships before they go to sea, shall be paid all arrears of wages down to six months, according to the old rules.

This was simply to ask that the regulations should be carried out, and is a severe criticism of naval administration.

Article 4th.—That no officer that has been turned out of any of his Majesty’s ships shall be employed in the same ship again, without the consent of the ship’s company.

Article 5th.—That when any of his Majesty’s ships shall be paid that may have been some time in commission, if there are any pressed men on board that may not be in the regular course of payment, they shall receive two months advance to furnish them with necessaries.

This was aimed at preventing extortionate terms for credit being exacted by profiteering pursers; the poor devils 2”of men had to have slops, and were at the mercy of official usurers: this was the one article Buckner said he would forward with wholehearted approval.

Article 6th.—That an indemnification be made any men who run, and may now be in his Majesty’s naval service, and that they shall not be liable to be taken up as deserters.

The sailors must have known it was not very easy to grant this; the likelihood is that there were a great many deserters who had come back, and wished to have the constant fear of discovery and capital punishment removed.

Article 7th.—That a more equal distribution be made of prize-money to the crews of his Majesty’s ships and vessels of war.

This was thoroughly just, and should have been granted without hesitation. The distribution was scandalous, and was not rectified for some decades. Even after the battle of Navarino, thirty years later, the Admiral commanding got £7800, the Able Seaman, 19s.!

Article 8th.—That the articles of war, as now enforced, require various alteration, several of which to be expunged therefrom, and if more moderate ones were held forth to seamen in general, it would be the means of taking off that terror and prejudice against his Majesty’s service, on that account too frequently imbibed by seamen, from entering voluntarily into the service.

There was a good deal to be said for this too, as anyone will agree who reads the antiquated Articles; and there is sound common sense at the end. The declaration concluded with due emphasis:

The committee of delegates of the whole fleet, assembled in council on board his Majesty’s ship Sandwich, have unanimously agreed that they will not deliver up their charge until the appearance of some of the lords commissioners of the Admiralty to ratify the same.

Given on board his Majesty’s ship Sandwich, by the delegates of the fleet. May 20th, 1797.

Richard Parker, President.

The game, real enough for one side at least, had started. What would be the answer to this move?

It was not for Buckner to say, though he could guess. He forwarded the demands, and also wrote suggesting that in the present distracted state of the seamen at the More, “it would be advisable to send no more recruits to the Sandwich, and to stop any ships in the Thames which should have gone to the Nore, since an accumulation of numbers would unavoidably add to the confusion that now prevails,” and he for one did not want his troubles added to.

When Nepean and the Lords of the Admiralty, complacently awaiting a soft answer, received and read the list of articles, they professed themselves “extremely surprised.” They were shocked at the ingratitude of the sailors, who now, surely, were in sight of an almost Utopian way of life. They wrote to Buckner,30 instructing him to refuse all the articles point-blank, except the first, which was already granted; as for the rest, the administration of the Navy was already perfect, or so they implied in bland diplomatic language: the fourth article they would not hear of discussing, for did they not leave such appointments to the discretion of commanders? They did not seem to realise that commanders were not always discreet, and that an officer rejoining a ship from which he had been ousted for brutality might be likely to wreak vengeance on his critics when he got back.

On receiving this letter, Buckner rewrote it in language almost as pompous and certainly more inflated than the original, explaining still more fully that their Lordships had not the least intention of journeying to Sheerness, and that deserters could only be pardoned by the King’s clemency. His last paragraph, which is an unhappy re-phrasing of Nepean’s words, is so lacking in humour that one hopes the seamen laughed, though one fears that it merely enraged them:

When the seamen and marines at the Nore and at Sheemess reflect that the rest of the fleets have returned to their duty, and have proceeded to sea in search of the enemies of their country, their lordships have no doubt that they will no longer show themselves ungrateful for all that has been so liberally granted them, but shall strive who shall be the first to shew his loyalty to his king, and his love to his country, by returning to that state of obedience and discipline, without which they cannot expect any longer to enjoy the confidence and good opinion of their country.

The sailors no doubt asked which had the most cause to be grateful, those on land or those at sea; and whether the confidence so amiably talked about by Papa Buckner was placed as he seemed to imply? It was essential for the country to be sure of its defences; the sailors could live without being patted on the back by those who allowed them the meanest pittance for reward, and condemned them to existences which most of them, we hope, had not the faintest conception of. But in case the letter should have had some effect on the weaker members of the Fleet, Parker thought it advisable to send round a circular informing them that the Delegates were determined not to relax their demands in any way.

These pourparlers do not represent the whole of the activity going on. Since the mutiny had not immediately faded out as soon as the news of the Portsmouth reconciliation had reached the Nore, the Government began to treat the new outbreak seriously, and wrere filled with the determination not to be coerced this time, or inveigled into any weak conciliatory measures. Troops, two regiments of militia, were ordered to Sheerness, and marched in there on Monday, 22nd. Though it was difficult to disguise the meaning of that step, Buckner, in his usual somewhat flabby manner, did try to disguise it, and sent a letter to the Delegates declaring that this appearance of martial force was a mere accident, an innocent frolic, or perhaps an afternoon’s perambulation: or so we conceive from Parker’s answer to the Admiral:

I have received your letter informing the seamen of the Fleet that it was not with hostile intentions that the troops appeared in garrison this afternoon. As I have not the present opportunity of consulting the opinion of the whole fleet, I must m justice say as to my own feeling it is an insult to the peaceable behaviour of the seamen thro’ the Fleet at the Nore. And likewise the Lords of the Admiralty have been remiss in their duty in not attending when their appearance would have given satisfaction, until when no accommodation can take place.

I am, Sir,

Your humble servant,

Richard Parker,

President of the Committee of the Delegates of the Fleet.

This was a good answer, and the irrelevant conclusion contained a hint which might have been extremely useful if only the Admiralty could have had the sense to take it up. It was as though Parker were pleading with them for a little sensibility. The men, he was telling the Admiralty, wanted to feel they were being treated like human beings, and that a man-to-man confabulation might work wonders: the seamen were not prepared to fight — not yet: they wanted to be conciliated.

But if they were not prepared to fight, the Lords Commissioners were getting ready to put events to that issue, getting ready very silently and discreetly. Nepean wrote to Duncan:

(Private and Confidential.)


May 22,

My dear Sir, The ships at the Nore are in the most complete state of mutiny, and it seems to be very difficult to bring them to. any reason without submitting to conditions which would be highly disgraceful. You know the state of your fleet, I believe, as well as anyone can do, and what use could be made of it. Do you think that you could depend upon any of the ships if you were to bring them up to the Nore, if it should be necessary to employ them in bringing two or three ships of the line over there to reason?

You may give me your private thoughts on this head, but the less they are communicated to other people the better.

Yours ever most sincerely,

Evan Nepean.

The men at the Nore knew nothing about this, but when they got the Admiralty answer from Buckner rejecting all their appeals, they began to think that action on their part might be necessary. And as a signal of determination, they hauled down Buckner’s hag, which had been rehoisted, and replaced it with the red symbol of defiance.