Causes: Lessons: Results

1 Causes

There can be no doubt, to any fair mind, that the mutinies, especially that at Spithead, were thoroughly justified. “Doubtless,” Marryat was to write, speaking of the Nore affair,

there is a point at which endurance of oppression ceases to be a virtue, and rebellion can no longer be considered as a crime: but it is a dangerous and intricate problem, the solution of which had better not be attempted. It must, however, be acknowledged, that the seamen, on the occasion of the first mutiny, had just grounds of complaint, and that they did not proceed to acts of violence until repeated and humble remonstrance had been made in vain.

It must be admitted that the men on whom the country relied for its safety, and who brought It a glory of which it was more than proud, were abominably treated. The general conditions of living were as bad as could be found to-day in the vilest slum: the food was disgusting, badly arranged from the point of view of health, and short weight at that; the drink, except for the rum, was nauseating. The system of impressment was bad enough in itself, but the whole scheme of the sailor’s life was made infinitely worse by denying the men leave, even when it could have been easily granted. These things in themselves might have been enough to breed revolt; but the two issues which particularly rasped the men’s feelings were the arrangements for pay and the tyranny of the officers.

It was not only that the pay was too small, being still that which had been considered adequate during the Commonwealth, when prices were very much lower, but that there were often years-long delays in getting it. Nelson, writing to Locker in 1783, told him:

My time, ever since I arrived in town, has been taken op in attempting to get the wages due to my good fellows, for various ships they have served in the war. The disgust of the Seamen of the Navy is all owing to the infernal plan of turning them over from Ship to Ship, so that Men cannot be attached to their officers, or the officers care two-pence about them.

Again, writing to his wife in 1793:

If Parliament does not grant something to this Fleet, our Jacks will grumble; for there is no prize-money to soften their hardships: all we get is honour and salt beef.

Finally, on 30th June 1 :

I am entirely with the seamen in their first complaint. We are a neglected set, and when peace comes, are shamefully neglected. To Nelson, at any rate, the mutiny did not come altogether as a surprise.

The Articles of War, the code under which the seamen existed, had been laid down in 1747, and had been altered only to allow a punishment less than death for cowardice, negligence, etc.: as a consequence of the feeling aroused by the execution of Byng. It was a far fiercer code than that under Charles II, where a man would not be mercilessly flogged for drunkenness, but merely fined a day’s pay; the earlier code was throughout correspondingly milder. The abuses as to pay, however, with the vicious system of tickets, date from 1665, and in the matter of food the sailors in Pepys’s day were as unlucky as their descendants:

Our beef and our pork is very scant,

I’m sure of weight one half it want:

Our bread is black, and maggots in it crawl.

That’s all the fresh meat we are fed withal,

a sea-poet sang, recording also of the purser that

… he upon our bellies still is gaming.

For pursers, it seems, were a race that bred true to type.’

If the Articles of War contained the general formula upon which life at sea was based, it was the “Regulations and Instructions relating to H.M.’s Service at Sea” that determined the sailor’s life, and the punishments he was to undergo. First issued in 1731, it was under the I3th edition of 1 that the mutinies took place; and in both of these it was clearly laid down that no captain was to inflict more than twelve lashes upon the bare back with a cat of nine tails (according to “the Ancient Practice of the Sea” they declared in 1731) without a court martial This regulation was little regarded at the period of the mutinies, terrible punishments being visited upon the men for the least offence. What the sailors objected to was not punishment as such, but the illegality of the monstrous penalties to which they were subjected, and the senseless brutality of many of their officers. When Collingwood exclaimed: “ Mutiny, sir! Mutiny in my ship! If it can have arrived at that, it must be my fault, and the fault of everyone of my officers,” he was making a statement based on long experience.

It is plain that in many respects the Regulations were totally disregarded by the officers. Writing to Spencer on 17th June 1797, Duncan declared:

Many things should now be thought of as fixing the internal regulations of ships on one plan. Of late years every captain has taken upon him to establish rules for himself.

In short, one can say that to our eyes the internal affairs of the Navy present a picture of culpable maladministration from top to bottom. It is only surprising that there was not a general mutiny earlier in the century. For since the reorganisation of the Navy in the seventeenth century, the standard of life of the people as a whole had improved considerably, but that of the Navy had stayed where it was. Men drafted into it, especially quota-men, whose standard 2”was well above the lowest, were acutely conscious of this: and indeed the state of things was curious enough to have called forth suggestive comment:

It may seem paradoxical to say – it is nevertheless true – that, however deplorable in themselves, there was much in these occurrences [the mutinies] of which all concerned might feel justly proud… . The conduct even of the mutinous seamen was far from being without excuse, and the demeanour of nearly all – especially in the Spithead fleet—was such that they had little reason to be ashamed of it. The men always expressed their readiness to go and fight the enemy if he came out of port. They earnestly repudiated the opinion that they were mutineers. …That they had real, great, and long unredressed grievances is beyond question. In the latter part of the eighteenth century the man-of-war’s man was in many important respects worse off than his predecessor in the latter part of the sixteenth… .It is an uncomfortable reflection, but it forces itself on the student of naval history, that as parliamentary government developed, the Empire expanded, and the national wealth increased, so the lot of the sailor deteriorated … the seamen were paid with scandalous irregularity… . Men wounded in action were discharged from pay whilst still uncured. It was to be delivered from this atrocious spoliation, not to resist properly constituted authority, that the seamen mutinied.

As a further comment, one may say that it is remarkable that the men should have fought with such valour for a country which maltreated them so callously.

The Government of the day was extremely anxious to put the trouble down to subversive foreign influence—it is a notion which seems to be attractive to Governments — instead of to its real cause. Some of the men were, no doubt, animated by political ideas, but how far it is difficult to say. There is enough evidence, carefully collected by Mr. Gill, to show that certain of the sailors were not only in communication with Corresponding Societies, but were actually members. It can be added that the mutineers of the Leopard, too, were overheard to murmur the words “Corresponding Society” with the suggestion that they had been “deluded.” There were, of course, libertarian and revolutionary ideas in the air; the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, the troubles in Ireland, not to mention such idealists as Thomas Paine in England, had spread them abroad: the notion had been born that men had rights. To say that many of the mutineers were imbued with a sense of such doctrines is one thing, but to say that these men had any effect on the course of events, or in any way directed the Delegates, is altogether another. Such individuals probably bore the same relation to the leaders as communists to-day bear towards the official Labour Party—that of an irritant impelling in the opposite direction. There can have been no connection with the French, otherwise Hoche and Wolfe Tone would have jumped at the golden opportunity; and we can safely put aside the wholly fantastic if delightful story told by Moreau de Jonnes in his Adventures de Guerre, written some fifty years after the mutinies by a man of whom no trace can be found in the French naval records.

Nevertheless, Pitt and the Government, with a touching fidelity to the idea of foreign influence, made every effort to discover Jacobin propaganda at the bottom of the murky business. Their attempts to discover it at Portsmouth proved futile, but they hoped for better luck at Sheerness, and sent down the trusty Graham, accompanied by Williams, to conduct a searching enquiry at that place. The story they told, as magistrates, used to the disentangling of evidence, should carry enough weight to dispose of the idea that subversive doctrines inspired the behaviour of the men at • the Note. Their report is here given in full, except for an Irrelevant paragraph at the beginning, and two others, equally off the point, at the end:

Mr. Graham and Mr. Williams beg leave to assure his Grace {the Duke of Portland] that they have unremittingly endeavoured to trace if there was any connexion or correspondence carried on between the mutineers and any private person or any society on shore, and they think that they may with the greatest safety pronounce that no such connexion or correspondence ever did exist. They do not however mean to say that wicked and designing men have not been among the mutineers; on the contrary they have proof sufficient to found a belief upon that several whose mischievous dispositions would lead them to the farthest comer of the kingdom m hopes of continuing a disturbance once begun have been in company with the delegates on shore, and have also (some of them) visited the ships at the Nore, and by using inflammatory language endeavoured to spirit on the sailors to a continuance of the mutiny without however daring to offer anything like a plan for the disposal of the fleet or to do more than insinuate that they were belonging to clubs or societies whose members wished well to the cause, but from which societies Mr. Graham and Mr. Williams are persuaded that no such persons were ever regularly deputed. Neither do they believe that any club or society in the kingdom or any of those persons who may have found means of introducing themselves to the delegates have in the smallest degree been able to influence the proceedings of the mutineers, whose conduct from the beginning seems to have been of a wild and extravagant nature not reducible to any sort of form or order and therefore capable of no other mischief than was to be apprehended from a want of the fleet to serve against the enemy. In this state however they were unfortunately suffered to go on without interruption until they began to think themselves justifiable in what they were doing, and by stopping up the mouth of the Thames they were suspected of designs for which Mr. Graham and Mr. Williams can by no means give them credit. The want of beer and fresh beef prompted them to revenge, and that and nothing else induced them to interrupt the trade of the river. It was done on the spur of the occasion, and with a view to obtaining a supply of fresh provisions. Another thing, namely the systematic appearance with which the delegates and the sub-committees on board the different ships conducted the business of the mutiny may be supposed a good ground of suspecting that belter informed men than sailors in general must have been employed m regulating it for them. This Mr. Graham and Mr. Williams at first were inclined to believe too; but in the course of their examinations of people belonging to the fleet they were perfectly convinced that without such a combination and with the assistance of the newspapers only (independent of the many cheap publications to be had upon the subjects relating to clubs and societies of all descriptions) and the advantage of so many good writers as must have been found among the quota-men, they were capable of conducting it themselves.

Finally, it may be pointed out that the mutineers at the Nore at one time had London at their mercy. They were “in possession of thirty of the King’s ships, and had effectually stopped the navigation of the river Thames and Medway, and might have starved the Capital, at all times ill-stored and supplied with food and fuel”; yet they had done no more than rifle a few ships to fill their own stomachs. Had their policy been bom of revolutionary ideas, they would certainly not have let slip such a decisive opportunity.

2. Lessons

There are two double lessons to be learnt from the affairs at Spithead and the Nore: how to conduct a mutiny, and how not to: how to deal with a mutiny, and how to exacerbate the sore.

One is compelled to admire the leaders at Spithead, however much one may deplore their action; and even if one does deplore it, one has to admit it was forced on them. They had made every effort to get their bitter wrongs redressed by the ordinary constitutional means, but their attempts had been ignored. When it came to deeds the Delegates proved themselves first-rate trade union leaders, better perhaps than have ever appeared since. First of all, their organisation was magnificent, worked up under conditions which made it exceedingly difficult to build it up at all. Secondly, they had thought out their demands, realising which were really soundly enough based to be supported by public opinion; further, though they were prepared to weaken on one or two minor points, they were never tempted by preliminary success to take the false step of improving on them: they knew when to cease to ask, as well as to begin. They were careful not to introduce any unnecessary irritation; they allowed no arrogant displays, and no wanton acts of ill-feeling; they took pains to show that they were concerned for the country’s trade. Above all, they were careful to be sure of unanimity before they took the first step, and they never put anybody forward as being at their head. These men throughout have one’s sympathy, and increasingly gain one’s respect; their names deserve to be regarded with honour in the history of the betterment of the Englishman’s lot.

It is difficult to feel in the same way about the people at the Nore. One’s sympathy they have, but less of one’s admiration and respect. It was, from the beginning, a muddle-headed affair. One can see no error in their action so long as it constituted a sympathetic strike in favour of their brethren at Spithead; but their behaviour after they knew that the mutiny there was settled, and very favourably, not only for the men concerned, but for themselves also, partakes of the wild and foolish. One may, indeed one does, feel very much for them: there were still many wrongs which they suffered, and which ought to have been redressed—the bullying of the officers (they had got rid of none of theirs), the maldistribution of prize-money, and so on. One may even grant there was just cause for another mutiny; their conduct of it is what provokes criticism. To begin with, there was hardly any preliminary organisation; it was enough, possibly, for a lightning sympathetic strike, but not for an independent one. Most of the leaders were not leaders at all, but pounced upon ad hoc, as Parker was. not so much to carry out a definite scheme as to represent a vague if strong emotional state. Leaders chosen in that way, without showing any ambition for the post (one of them even got drunk on purpose to be degraded) can never have enough authority, or the will to direct. Nor did the instigators make sure of having a majority in their favour, far less that the feeling was unanimous: they tried to impose unanimity by administering an oath, often under virtual compulsion. Nor did they know what they wanted. For some days they had on their hands a mutiny that had no definite purpose; they were forced, more or less, to invenf an objective. They alienated what support they might have had from outside  by displays of pomp, by electing a president, by tending to violence. Their most fatal error was the blockade, which terrified the whole country, and antagonised the middle classes, without whom nothing in this country has been done for centuries. And finally, towards the end, they began to show vindictiveness. Had Parker really been in command, he might have brought things to a better issue. But he was not in any true sense a leader; he was certainly an extremely brave man, but he was only an intelligent tool, asked in the end to do work for which he was in no way designed.

The Spithead affair, again, provides an object-lesson in the way a mutiny should be met, though, of course, the conditions which engendered it should never have existed. Nor, once Howe had handed over the petitions, should it have been allowed to occur. “I think Lord Howe’s sending back the first petition was wrong,” Nelson wrote. But once it had started, the method of dealing with it was right. It was proper that the Board should go down to Portsmouth to probe into the matter in their own persons, and it would have been .better still if Spencer and his colleagues had met the men face to face and had not attempted to haggle. But even so, thanks largely to the statesmanlike conduct of the Delegates, the negotiations went smoothly enough, while the idea of sending Howe to settle up the whole thing was one approaching genius, so rare is it to find common sense raised to that power. The Admiralty, it is true, made some remarkably tactless blunders, but that final promise to forget, to avoid retaliation, was both sensible and generous.

The way the Nore outbreak was treated offers a very different picture. Granted it was felt that enough had already been conceded to the sailors, granted that the authorities ought to have shown no softness, there is no reason why they should not have attempted to display a certain degree of understanding. The system, if it can be so called, of ill-considered, brutal punishment had not been cleared up at Spithead, and the grievance as to prize-money was a just one. If the admission of a seaman to a place at every court martial smacked of the revolutionary, that would no doubt have been let slide if the Admiralty had shown a little easiness on the point of the desertions. But everything the Government did made matters worse. The blatant sending of troops to Sheerness was a crude act of provocation; the cutting off of supplies could only drive the men to illegal reprisals: the authorities seemed determined to incite the mutineers to extremes. The journey of the Board to Sheerness, with their minds hermetically sealed, was a cruel mockery. If only Spencer had consented to see the men, or at least hear what they had to say; if he had, in short, treated them as human beings, a peaceful settlement might easily have been arrived at. It was Howe in person, they should have realised, in body and voice, as representing the King, who had settled the earlier affair; but at the Nore there was no warmth, no humanity, to alleviate the hardness of official stone, the chill of an abstract system.

Even to-day the principle that personal contact is of the first importance is not universally acted upon, and in The Times of Ist August 1934, in the report of a debate, we read:

The situation at Invergordon in 1 had many features in common with the naval mutiny of 1797, but in 1 the Board of Admiralty faced the situation for which they were responsible. …

In these days of quick transport it would have been quite possible for the First Sea Lord, or other members of the Board or senior officers whom the Admiralty might delegate to represent them, to have flown to Invergordon and to have been there within a few hours. The Admiralty were entirely responsible for the situation which had arisen, and they alone had the power to investigate the men’s grievance. He (Admiral Sir Roger Keyes), submitted that on the morning of the 16th Admiral Tomkinson had every right to expect the support and intervention of the Board of Admiralty. The action he had taken up to date made that intervention quite possible, and if the Board had taken bold and proper steps on the spot, this Service would be a happier service than it was to-day.

The fact that the mutiny at tlie Nore was not settled, as that at Spithead had been, but crushed and savagely punished, was almost certainly the reason why mutinies continued to break out sporadically for two or three years over the whole Fleet—at the Cape, in the East Indies, the West Indies, in the Channel Fleet itself, and especially at Cadiz: though sometimes, indeed, the men were goaded into it, as in the shocking case of the Hermione to which reference was made earlier in this book.

3. Results

For although the mutiny at Spithead had at once bettered the sailors’ lot with respect to pay and rations, the officers had not learnt the lesson that their men ought to be treated more like human beings and less like Turks, as the crew of the Winchelsea had it. The better officers, of course, had always known .this—Admirals like Howe, Duncan, Nelson, and Collingwood; captains like Northesk and Knight; lieutenants like Beaver and Bover. But there were others more choleric, such as Admiral Gardner, Captain Cunningham, and especially Bligh, lieutenants such as Brenton, not to mention such madmen as Pigot and Dixon. They had not learnt that you cannot for long, or with good results for anybody, command men by terrorism: your swashbuckling martinet, your “On the knee!”  type of officer, is more of a liability to the service than an asset. Even as late as 1806 a Lieutenant Stephens, when at Bombay, ordered three men to be flogged—without the authority of a court martial—and

the punishment was inflicted with such horrible severity that they all three died in less than twenty-four hours after it was over. … It appeared that it was not uncommon for officers, of their own authority, and without any court-martial, to inflict very severe punishments; and that they supposed this to be legal.

The ministers of that day, engaged in compiling a new edition of the “Regulations,” were quite aware that these things went on; but knowing that they were already illegal, saw no point in framing a further Act of Parliament on the subject. They did not know what to do, for they felt that instructions sent to the Admiralty would fall into neglect, and the abuse would revive. Grey, afterwards Earl Grey of Liberal fame, at that time First Lord of the Admiralty, was a little uncomfortable about this question, but with the sensibility to criticism of a man in office agreed that to “draw public attention to the subject was very objectionable! ” Did he not remember that less than ten years before it had been considered most objectionable to draw public attention to the seamen’s pay—with disastrous results’?

Whatever the faults of British democracy may be, it is certain that once the people are aroused to the knowledge that some cruelty or injustice is being perpetrated, they will not rest until the matter has been put right. Eternal vigilance over its governors is one of the vital necessities of democracy. The events of 1 aroused the public. “There is perhaps no event in the annals of our history,” Marryat wrote in 1830, “which excited more alarm at the time of its occurrence, or has since been the subject of more general interest, than the mutiny at the Nore in the year 1797.” The people of England, terrified by the event, began to ask themselves why it was that the Nay, of which they were so proud, and which was their main safeguard, had mutinied in time of war, had laid them open to the attacks of their enemies, and even itself threatened them. Arden had not been wrong in referring to the situation as “the most awful crisis that these kingdoms ever saw.” The enquiries the public made gave them a horrid glimpse of the life at sea, and roused opinion in the men’s favour. It came to be seen that for nearly a hundred and fifty years the conditions in the Navy had not materially altered, although they had improved in every other walk of life – except perhaps where the factories were beginning to take their grisly toll. Nothing, in fact, had been done for the men who fought the country’s battles and manned its fleets. It was not until the mutiny at Spithead wrung a few concessions from the Government that the eyes of the public were unsealed to what the seamen had to endure in the service of the nation.

Thus, it is universally agreed, the year 1797 opens a new era in the organisation of the Royal Navy, or at least marks a turning-point in its history. From that time, little by little, the sailor was to receive consideration and more humane treatment. Here it is possible to sketch only very briefly some of the reforms that took place in the succeeding seventy years or so. In 1806, A.B.’s received an increase of a shilling a week in their wages, and Ordinary Seamen, 6d., making the pay from 1st January 1 up to the sum of £1 13s. 6d. and £1 5s. 6d. a month respectively; but it was not until 1 that an Act was passed ensuring prompter payment. At this time certain monthly allowances were also granted. One can cite the establishment of sick-berth ratings in 1833; and in 1835 an Act which ruled that no person should be detained in the naval service against his will for more than five years. In the same year we find the establishment of a register of seamen, which seems to mark the fading out of the old system of impressment, which was never actually abolished by Act of Parliament. A year earlier, in 1834, an Order in Council laid down a more equitable distribution of prize-money, upon which even Brenton commented, “If it be just to do it now, it would have been equally so to have done it earlier.” In 1836 libraries were provided in sea-going ships, and in 1853 the Continuous Service Act offered increased rates of pay and other advantages to men entering the service for ten years.

Corporal punishment came up for revision in due course. Flogging round the Fleet had died a natural death before the end of the eighteenth century, but ferocious punishments were still inflicted. By 1828 there was a marked improvement in this matter, once more due to outside pressure rather than to official initiative (to “draw public attention to the subject was very objectionable”), as was observed by a man who became Chief Clerk of the Admiralty:

Much credit is unquestionably due to the able articles which have, from time to time, appeared upon this painful subject in the columns of The Times and other leading journals of the day.

But it was not until 1860 that the Naval Discipline Act repealed the Articles of War, and with the Act of 1866 limited the number of lashes a man might receive to forty-eight. These were followed by the Admiralty Circular of 1871, which restricted the infliction of corporal punishment in peace-time; and, finally, 1879 saw the practical abolition of flogging. One may note, as a sign of the growing solicitude for seamen, that in 1857 there was founded a Savings Bank for Seamen and Marines.

That sailors on attesting now take the Oath of Allegiance is largely due to the impression made on the authorities by the awed seriousness with which the sailors in the mutinies regarded the swearing of an oath. The Government of the day passed an Act prohibiting the taking of illegal oaths, but it was left to others to suggest that a better way would be to offer the sailors one that was unimpeachable.

I would also propose [Lord Keith wrote to Dundas] that every seaman who shall voluntarily enter for His Majesty’s Service and receive Bounty, should sign an Attestation something similar to that used in the Army, and that all Seamen in the course of Pay should be obliged to take and sign the Oath of Allegiance before they receive either Pay or Prize Money.

This I recommend upon the suggestion that many of the mutineers seem to feel the Impression of the illegal Oath they had taken to be true to those Mutineers’ cause, but none had ever been tendered to them on the part of the King or His Majesty’s Government, and this class of men are m general too ill informed to understand that all subjects owe Allegiance from their birth, but imagine that the serious circumstances of an Oath warrants a strict adherence to the object, altho’ repugnant to every honest and justifiable consideration unless counteracted by equivalent obligations.

The same notion had occurred to the examining magistrates sent down to Sheerness:

Mr. Graham and Mr. Williams had various opportunities of remarking that the sailors m general had a very serious sense of the obligation imposed upon them by an oath (even when administered as in the case of the mutiny) and are therefore of opinion that the attesting of seamen as well as soldiers might be attended with beneficial effects,

they wrote in their report; and the sensible suggestion was ultimately acted upon.

It cannot be said, then, that Parker and his fellows suffered in vain, although at the moment their efforts seemed to have brought nothing but defeat and death. The mutiny at Spithead, though it had brought immediate benefit to the seamen, had not aroused much alarm in the public breast: the Government had settled it all for a trifling sum of money. But the fierceness of the outbreak at the Nore, to which the Yarmouth squadron had adhered; the length of time it lasted; the horror of the numerous executions; above all, the threat to London, had forced on everyone’s notice that there was something atrociously wrong with the way the sailors were treated. There is no smoke without fire. Men who live under decent, or only fairly decent, conditions do not revolt; and the fact that a revolt had taken place stirred up the men of good will among the public—and there are always many of them – to lend a willing ear to the tales told of the sailor’s life. It was public feeling that gradually forced the politicians’ hands: no amount of petitions from sailors, or even representations from Admirals like Howe and Duncan, captains such as Nelson and Pakenham, ever had the least effect on them.

Though the mutinies occurred nearly a hundred and forty years ago, the memory of them is not yet dead on the lower deck. The men are aware that the conditions before 1797 were abominably tyrannous and unjust, and they put this down to the “ cynical apathy” of the Admiralty and Cabinet: the mutiny, in their view, “shook the complacency of authority”. They feel that those responsible “shamefully betrayed” the lower deck, and the events of those days have left them profoundly hostile to the politician.

For over a hundred and thirty years this deep vein of distrust and suspicion has existed [a seaman wrote lately]. It has a far-reaching effect, inasmuch as the landsman has never been able to probe into the complex make-up of the British tar. There has always been a wide gulf, a strain of disguised hostility, which is but an expression of sturdy independence enjoyed by the seamen preserving their individuality. Respect and loyalty to the constitution has never wavered… .

I add, with due deliberation, that precisely the same spirit prevailed in 1914 as in the year 1797. Further, the rumblings of discontent heard about the years 1916-37 were largely due to bureaucracy taking the line it followed during the latter years preceding 1797.

To add further those on the lower deck regarded officers as ‘pigs’ because of the way most officers treated them in utter contempt even seaman officers who would command the ship regarded officers such as engineer officers as lower than them, this lasted until quite recently this attitude rubbed off on how those on the lower decks treated those of lower rank and caused problems, even mutinies, it looks like this attitude has changed?

Perhaps, after all, it is true that “History teaches that history teaches mankind nothing.”