Delicate Negotiations

On Easter Monday the Fleet awoke under a new command, that of the Delegates, or “General Assembly”: that was exciting, but if any boisterous or seditious spirits hoped that this would make any change in their lives, they were quickly disillusioned. Except for the cheers at eight o’clock and at sunset, the normal routine, dull and harassing, went rigidly on, under the usual officers, to whom the greatest respect was shown. No violence, not even rudeness, was hinted to any, though some were politely told that boats would be waiting for them at a certain time to take them and their belongings ashore. They went, but the others were not allowed out of their ships, except on official business. Discipline was to be maintained; and to show that they meant this, the leaders caused yard-ropes to be rove at every fore-yard arm, grim symbols of capital punishment, not to put fear into the hearts of the officers, but to state plainly to the men that they meant to be obeyed, and that this business was in no way a revolution. This point of view was rammed home by the declaration that if the French issued from Brest, the Channel Fleet would instantly out and at them. During the next few days the few delinquents learnt the lesson: a man on the Pompee, for instance, who brought a pint of spirits on board, was tied up to the gangway and duly flogged with the “cat” to the tune of twelve lashes; for lesser offenders, the sailors devised the more amusing punishment of ducking overboard, a discipline the regulations were innocent of, but which proved effective. Full honours were shown the Delegates whenever they came on board, and on returning to their own ships they were treated with all the solemnity reserved for captains. The side-boys, dressed in white, rigged the side-ropes to the gangway, the men fell in on the quarter-deck, the marine sentry stiffened himself to attention, the Boatswain “piped the side” in a tremendous blast on his whistle, and all the men uncovered. The only thing lacking to the ceremony was the dignified row of officers and Midshipmen lined up* on the quarter-deck.

The new authority was absolute, not only of the Delegates within each ship, but of Headquarters, the Queen Charlotte, over the rest of the Fleet. The crew of the Royal William (the Port-Admiral’s ship, which sent no Delegates), who omitted to join in the ritual cheering, were warned that any further carelessness in this matter would mean their being fired into: any ship which seemed recalcitrant was brought to anchor between two staunch ones, and threatened with instant sinking if it misbehaved. And not only was the Assembly all-powerful in the matter of discipline, it directed naval policy as well. It decided that only the large ships should bear the weight of the seamen’s interests; frigates and sloops were forbidden to interfere in the business, they had other jobs to carry out, and it was seen that they did carry them out. Thus when on the 17th the Romney and the Venus, detailed for convoy duty to Newfoundland, refused to unmoor, the crews wanting to stay to join the fun and see the game played out, they quickly received, if not peremptory orders, a “desire and earnest wish” from the Queen Charlotte not to play the fool, but to sail as told, which, on the 20th, they did. The Delegates were unanimous that trade must not suffer; they were not fighting the country, but the Admiralty; they knew that they must get and keep the sympathy of the country, of the great trading middle-classes, without which no attempt at redress of grievances has ever been possible in England; it was for this reason that they published their petition to Parliament on the 18th. To have realised the importance of the trading class was an illumination in the Delegates amounting almost to genius, an illumination not shared by their successors at the Nore. It is not surprising that the men had confidence in their leaders, and awaited developments with cheerfulness, under bright blue skies flecked with white.

Sir Charles Pole, hurrying as fast as he could, arrived in London at midnight on the 16th. He at once roused up Nepean, and stayed closeted with him and Spencer till half-past two in the morning. The Earl at last saw that he could not exorcise the evil by doing nothing, and proceeded to act with energy. He was still under forty, and, if the crowds that flocked to admire his tall dark person cutting figures on the ice of the Serpentine are any indication, physically active. Calm, gentle, dignified, distinguished by his grace, his learning, and his humanity, he was of the best type of grand seigneur, who added to his other obligations that of being a trustee of the British Museum. Member of the inner circle of the Whig aristocracy, he looked upon himself as born to serve the State; and if he was merely a representative Englishman of the governing class, with plenty of sound sense and a kindly nature, he made up for any lack of genius by the activity and enthusiasm with which he pursued his duties; he never left unanswered a letter from the meanest individual, and manifested his virtues by a rigorous punctuality. At this crisis everything urged him to activity. As soon as possible he hastened off to see Pitt, on whom everything depended; then Dundas (afterwards Lord Melville), Secretary of War and—rather negligently—Treasurer of the Navy. The results of his cogitations and his interviews startled the outer world. Since, as he phrased it in his note to the King, the comic imps seeming to guide his pen, “representations …, on the very delicate subject of an increase in pay [had been] brought forward and enforced in an unpleasant manner,” he would himself go down to Portsmouth and grapple with the mutineers. So at five o’clock that evening, Spencer and Lord Arden, accompanied by Rear-Admiral Young and the second Secretary, Marsden (noted for his Oriental scholarship), bundled into carriages or coaches, and set off with a great cracking of whips down the turnpike road.

They arrived at Portsmouth at noon on the 18th, and travel-stained and travel-shaken, without pausing for a moment, settled down at the Fountain Inn to bring order into the Navy. They summoned Bridport and other officers to a Board, so as to hear what was going on, and then issued a project to the men, to be sent through Bridport, for they would not meet the men themselves. In this document, unfortunately, they ignored both the real situation and the desires of the sailors. It was a mean, chaffering project, which they entrusted to the three Admirals, Gardner, Colpoys and Pole, to take to the Assembly on the Queen Charlotte, where the Delegates told them that an answer would be returned at ten o’clock the next morning. But the next morning the Lords Commissioners waited in vain, filled with anxiety, till eleven, till twelve, till one, when a note came from Gardner to say that the answer would not be ready till four.

All that morning, and all that afternoon, as during the evening before till far into the night, irritated men sitting in Howe’s state cabin debated in every accent known to the three kingdoms the piffling proposal made them. It seemed to brush aside the petition they had sent through Bridport, signed, since they no longer feared to be made examples of at the yard-arm, a petition extremely moderate in sentiment, respectful in language, and perfectly clear. They had stated, as before, that their wages were too low, and all that Spencer offered them was four, three, and two shillings a month extra for A.B.’s, ordinary seamen, and “landsmen,” respectively! “Landsman,” moreover, was a hitherto unheard-of rating, and had, in fact, been proposed by the Board in the hope of splitting the ranks of the formidably united petitioners. It was a move that seemed worth trying. The men had asked that their provisions should be up to weight and of better quality: this was ignored. They had asked that when in port they might have vegetables, and fresh meat instead of flour: this was ignored. They had prayed that the sick on board should be better looked after, and that the necessaries meant for them should not be embezzled: no notice was taken. They had pleaded that “we may in some wise have grant and opportunity to taste the sweets of liberty on shore”: not a word was mentioned about this. They had asked that the wounded should continue to receive pay, and this was granted with the addition that disabled men should either be pensioned or housed at Greenwich. They had also suggested, fruitlessly, that grievances of individual ships (complaints about officers) should be listened to, and, if possible, redressed; and they had concluded:

It is also unanimously agreed by the fleet, that from this day no grievances shall be received, in order to convince the nation at large, that we know when to cease to ask, as well as to begin; and that we ask nothing but what is moderate, and may be granted without detriment to the nation, or injury to the service.

All they had got in reply to this very reasonable document was a “project” that convinced them they were being trifled with. Very well, so their tempers crystallised after many weary hours of discussion, the authorities would see. The fact that the First Lord had come down might be a symptom of goodwill, but it might also be one of fear: for their part, they had the power of the Fleet behind them, including the marines: even the sick at Haslar had tied handkerchiefs together to make flags, which they hung out as a signal of encouragement. They would stick to their point, publish their appeal to Parliament, and while being still perfectly respectful, would stand by their guns. They would make Spencer understand that they were determined.

There was probably so little that Spencer did understand, least of all the tenacity of temper born of the depth of grievance, which lay behind the so moderately worded requests. And after all, unless he knew, what could he really understand of the plea that a pound on board ship should weigh sixteen ounces? and that the food should be better? For what the sailor was given to eat was more fit for animal than for human needs, and indeed the oatmeal gruel—burgoo or skillagolee—usually went to the pigs if there were any on board. The meat, two pound of salt beef, when not salt horse, and one pound of salt pork on two days of the week each, was sometimes years old, shrunk hard as wood (carved into boxes it took a very pleasant polish), and was largely bone and gristle, or inedible fat; the biscuits, often weevily, were sometimes so old that they “presented a mixture of rottenness and acari [mites]”: the hard centre usually went overboard; the foul cheese was lively with long red worms, the butter was rancid, and mostly used for greasing. A meal almost invariably meant indigestion, and such was the rarity of vegetables that scurvy, loathsome and dreaded, was common. Nobody ever drank the water undisguised if he could possibly help it. Drawn from rivers, it was stored in wooden casks, which had sometimes contained oil, and by the time it was issued to the men it was slimy, and full of green grassy stuff. The men drank swipes till it went sour, and after that a poor kind of wine, sometimes literally vinegar, and—rum. Rum was the one generous ration: half a pint a day (diluted), served in two portions, was the only light in life to gladden the sailor’s heart. He could collect it, or swap other things for it, and for a short time dream himself out of hell. But the punishment for drunkenness was the “cat,” and it seems “curiously hard that men so eager to get drunk should have been so carefully encouraged to drink, and so brutally punished for drinking the drink allowed to them.”

Even the nasty, indigestible and unhealthy fare was given in short measure, apart from the fact that the shrunken meat yielded so small a proportion of edible stuff. For when the purser issued a pound of food, he weighed out only fourteen ounces, because he was allowed money on what were callously called “savings”; in fact, the whole system encouraged him to cheat. Indeed, many pursers derived their chief income from illegal pickings, and it is not astonishing that they were often “rapacious sharks,” embezzlers, diluters of wine, and thieves of money from living and dead. Fourteen ounces to the pound had become so much a matter of usage, that when the sailors protested against it, they were not crying out against a fancied evil, but against a recognised practice. The same might also be said as to the sick men’s necessaries, so partial were the doctors to chicken. What must have seemed the most heartless of all the Board’s shortcomings was the silent passing over of the plea for leave. It was true that once men got ashore they seldom returned, but that was because they knew that once back they would not step on land again for a very long time. They were, virtually, prisoners m their ships; some of them had not seen their homes for years—anything from two to twelve. The Delegates asked only for leave when convenient, and even suggested that limits should be drawn round the ports beyond which it should be a punishable offence to go. After the question of pay, which affected their families, the humane granting of a little leave was the thing the sailors most ardently desired.

Thus it is not surprising that the answer the Board ultimately did get at half-past four on the 19th, when they were sitting at dinner, was not that meek subjection they seemed to think they had a right to expect. The Delegates first objected to the distinction between seamen and landsmen, and then stated what their demands for pay actually were: a shilling a day for A.B.’s, “and that of petty officers and the ordinary in the usual porportions,” and that the marines should also have their pay advanced while serving on board: they asked for the Greenwich pensions to be raised from £7 to £10, repeated their remarks on the food question, and added that “until the grievances before stated are redressed, and an act of indemnity passed, we are determined not to lift an anchor; and the grievances of particular ships must be redressed.”

The Board had waited a long time, and they were gentlemen not used to be kept waiting: they had dined, and the meal will not have been barren of fortifying wine. The new petition stiffened their spirits; no more weak conciliation: they decided to resist. The rascally fellows should accept what had been offered, and all would be pardoned: other wise the’ dreadful terrors promised by the Articles of War would be visited upon them. Punctuality at the office, administrative habits, a knowledge of the natives of Sumatra, and service experience, all came to the afterdinner conclusion, always a comfortable one, that the Fleet was really sound, but just for the moment suffering from the presence of a few agitators; the rest were poor simple men misguided by rogues scheming for some ulterior purpose. They had not, we have not yet, learnt that, as Burke said, agitators are symptoms, not causes. *,The Board conceived a bold, dashing plan of slipping the cables and taking the ships to St. Helens, leaving only a few of the worst behind. They summoned the chief officers of the Fleet, Bridport, three Admirals, and sixteen Captains to meet them the next morning, the 20th. They were full of fight: they would show strength. But, alas, their spirits were damped by what the officers told them in the cold light of day. Any attempt to move a single ship without the permission of the Delegates would be futile. It was not a question of a few agitators, but of every man jack of the Fleet. Far from resisting the demands they had better all be granted. The Board’s stiff knees bent before this advice. Reluctantly—for Spencer still trembled at the idea of supplementary estimates, though Pitt was to write to him that midnight, “The amount of the expense is comparatively of no consequence”— the First Lord and his colleagues decided to raise the pay of A.B.’s and ordinary seamen to what was demanded, to grant marines the same pay on sea as on land, and to restore the pound to sixteen ounces—or, if short, to give an allowance. But face must be saved; a chance could still be clung to: there should be landsmen, and they should get a shilling a month less advance than ordinary seamen. They were determined to make a point of that; but they said nothing about food, or leave, or Greenwich pensions, or the redress of particular grievances: those subjects were wrapped in discreet silence. Finally, all were to return to duty at once, and be forgiven, or else everybody concerned would lose smart-money, be disqualified for pensions, and be excluded from Greenwich for ever. There! they decided comfortably; all would be well now. They had conceded the most that could be expected of officials in their position, who must never give all they are asked for in case they should be thought weak. They would send a letter to each captain to read to his men, and then go home to London with the feeling of work well done as saviours of their country.

Early on the 21st the men were assembled on their various ships to hear the letter from the Board, and listen to their Captains’ persuasive comments. They seemed satisfied. On the Duke, Captain Holloway even got so far with his men as almost to persuade them to return to duty; but, unfortunately for him, a cautious sailor at the back shouted, “Wait and see what the Queen Charlotte does I“—a call to order which cancelled Holloway’s efforts.

The same feeling was expressed on every ship: the men seemed pleased, but they would wait until their council had pronounced upon the message; the Delegates were even then collecting at their headquarters, those from the Royal Sovereign promising Gardner to send him immediate word of the result. With that the commanders had to be content. Gardner waited; it seemed to him that he waited a very long time, and he grew fretful, then anxious. He thought he would go across to harangue the Delegates and bring them to reason. He liked haranguing, and had done his best in this way when he had got the critical order to sail on the 16th: he had not been successful then: in fact, his “admonition and friendly advice” — in the strongest terms, in which the words “disgrace” and “mischief” occurred rather often—had been rejected in a manner which hurt his feelings exceedingly”: but he might be luckier this time. It was all infernal nonsense, of course, the result of the Sunday schools giving people an education above their place in life, and the trouble was largely due to men like that fellow Spray on his own ship, who had been a chorister at Cambridge—and, one need hardly say, the newspapers. But he knew how to talk to them. So, taking Pole and Colpoys with him, he rowed over to the Queen Charlotte and started talking, his argument soon being reinforced by a note Holloway brought from Spencer to say that refusal would be met by “condign punishment,” and “utmost vengeance of the law,” acceptance with “the forgiveness for which the Board of the Admiralty have solemly and publickly pledged their faith to them.” All went swimmingly, Gardner talked the gathering over in fine hortatory style, and settled down to write a submissive letter to the Admiralty, which all the men would sign.

Then, suddenly, four Delegates who had been absent on shore burst into the proceedings. They were Joyce and Morrice from the Royal George, Glynn and Huddlestone of the Queen Charlotte. They had not had the benefit of Gardner’s honeyed and manly words, but Spencer’s message filled them with profound mistrust. Why this insistence on forgiveness? Who could trust the Admiralty’s faith? Who could say that they would not be treated like the recent mutineers on the Culloden, who had been promised pardon and then strung up at the yard-arm?

The only pardon they would accept as safe was that of the King himself; they would do nothing until this was in their hands. They held forth in this strain to the crew below and to the Delegates, who agreed with their view.

No return to duty until they had the King’s pardon!

Gardner, once more exceedingly hurt, was furious; all his eloquence was wasted. He changed his tune; the sucking dove became a lion, and he started slanging the Delegates. They were “a damned mutinous blackguard set,” he shouted; they were “skulking fellows,” he roared, working himself into ever-increasing rage, “who knew the French were ready for sea, but were afraid of meeting them.” Then, beside himself with fury, he seized one of the Delegates by the shoulder, shook him violently, and declared that he would hang him and every fifth man in the Fleet. Howe’s cabin immediately became a scene of riot and tumult; the men hissed and shouted; Delegates and crew surged threateningly round the gallant Admiral and his companions: spotted shirts and striped jerseys, canary yellow and scarlet kerseymere waistcoats, overwhelmed the blue-and-gold of the Admirals, who were hustled off the ship in a highly undignified manner.

The Delegates, eager to take the news to their expectant men, dropped hastily into their waiting boats, which radiated out to the other ships, soon, however, to cluster together again about the black and yellow sides of the Royal George. Things had been happening there. Joyce and Morrice had decided to call another meeting in their ship, and had hoisted the signal, a red flag. The officers were appalled. Not knowing tins was the concerted sign, they let their imaginations run riot: the bloody flag was normally flown when going into action, now it could only mean revolution. They did their utmost to prevent the abhorrent signal from going up, clutching at the ropes, arguing and wrestling with the men; but finding they were powerless, Captain Domett, in a last disgusted effort to salve his pride, hauled down the flag which represented Bridport, who in turn swore that he would never hoist his flag on the ship again, to expose it to such insult and disgrace. Gathered together once more, the Assembly, rattled by Gardner’s outburst, showed its teeth; it ordered the guns to be mounted, and the Fleet prepared for action.

The officers were kept in closer, but still respectful confinement (a few of the more hated ones were sent on shore), and a watch set as though the ships were at sea in presence of the enemy.

Then, to make sure that nothing would go amiss among themselves, they circulated


The settlement of a business of such vast importance as the present is the most critical and ought to be attended to with the greatest wisdom, as ourselves and characters depends on our present conduct, therefore the following considerations are absolutely necessary as a security and bulwark against the fair speeches of designing men, who will use all their eloquence to defeat our laudable intentions.

First.—Indispensibly requisite that the prayers of our petition be fully answered.

Second.—That no verbal answer be attended to on our part.

Third.—That an Act of Parliament be passed for the augmentation of our pay and other articles in our petition.

Fourth—That after the petition is fully satisfied, a petition be presented to His Majesty, and the pardon for the liberty we have now taken be received in due form, through the whole Fleet.

Such a manifesto would prevent the men from slipping guilelessly back to duty.

Meanwhile Gardner and Pole had gone off to tell their news to Spencer, whom they disturbed after his dinner, at the house of Sir Charles Saxton. Gardner then, apparently , made out the draft of a letter to the Fleet insisting on the validity of the Board’s promises of forgiveness:

but Spencer was dubious as to whether this was enough; the King’s pardon seemed to be the only thing that would do, and surely, when so near success, it would be absurd to allow an idle suspicion—a suspicion of his own honour —to spoil all. He must get the King’s pardon. So, without a moment’s waste of time, he got into his carriage at midnight, and set off for London as fast as his horses would take him.