Since no submission was forthcoming, the Board left Sheerness at half-past eight in the evening, to sleep at Rochester. But they did not feel that nothing had been accomplished. Spencer, indeed, felt more than a little pleased with the turn events were taking. Not only had dignity been preserved, but he had gathered that besides the ships already named, the Serapis and the Pylades were by no means staunch to the oath of fidelity, and that the Director, a ship of the line, was ready to desert. Marsden, writing after supper, as he said, as though to warn Nepean that he might be viewing the matter through wine-coloured glasses, was of the opinion that Parker’s “assumed consequence began to give considerable umbrage” to the seamen, who might soon be expected to hang him by one of his own yard-ropes.
But there was something more solid than hopeful opinions to buoy up the spirits of the Board. They had been accompanied on their outward journey by General Sir Charles Grey, “a fine spirited fellow and eager that the temporising system should be at an end,” who had been left behind in command of the troops with full powers to take any step he might think useful. There was no doubt that he was full of fight, his mind bursting with heroic measures to resist an invasion. Under his vigorous eye every precaution was taken to protect the dockyard and garrison from attack; some of the gun-boats, driven in from the Nore by stress of weather to seek shelter in Sheerness harbour, were to be seized; and though he was confident of the morale of his troops, one regiment was to be sent away to be replaced by two others. No armed vessels, it went without saying, were to be permitted to pass the batteries. Spencer was delighted, as he was by the fact that the two volunteer companies at Gravesend were regularly turning out on duty. Further, he had taken steps to stop any ships up-river from dropping down to join those at the Nore; he was doing what he could to prevent the mutineers from getting into touch with sailors in other ports, and even thought of impounding all letters. In short, though the mutineers were behaving very well, offering no violence, and showing respect to all the officers that remained on board, he was inclined to treat them as full-blown rebels.
Besides, as we know, he had written to Admiral Duncan, with a view to using one part of the Navy against the other. But here was the fly in the ointment. Duncan had said in reply to the delicate suggestion that though it might be feasible, and that if ordered to do so he would try to bring his ships against the mutineers’, the result was not at all certain. On the evening of the 26th, however, Spencer had sent Captain Bligh of the Director (who had plenty of time on his hands, having been expelled his ship) to consult with Duncan at Yarmouth, to tell him exactly what was happening, and to concert possible countermoves. But in the meanwhile the news he had received from Duncan was, if not decisive, at any rate “very unpleasant”; still, though they were not what he had hoped for, he “rather feared” that the attempt to use one part of the Navy to subdue the other would have to be tried. “ We must come,” he decided, “to that issue at last.”
Well, he had done his best, and was even now doing all he could by cutting the mutineers off from their means of life. He had arranged that with Hartwell at Sheerness, and to make all sure, he caused Marsden to write to the Commissioner and Agent Victualler at Chatham:
30 May 1797.
The mutinous conduct of some crews of H.M. ships at the Nore having rendered it necessary that no further supplies should for the present be furnished them, I am commanded by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to signify their direction to you that no more stores of any kind should be sent off to the ships and vessels at that anchorage unless the demands for them should be approved by Admiral Buckner.
This was the most far-reaching action that had so far been taken by either side.
Sir Charles Grey, however, was by no means so complacent as the Board: the service he was engaged in was naturally unpleasant, but then the mutiny was infamous – those are his own adjectives—and evil must cast out evil. But apart from this unavoidable aspect, “everything bore the most unpleasant and alarming appearance, proceeding from the indulgences (on what ground or idea I am at a loss to account) given to the mutineers,” namely, their licence to make what noisy demonstrations they pleased, and to hob-nob with the soldiers on parade. He at once put a stop to all this, prevented the “miscreants” from coming into barracks, and in a day or two, indeed as soon as the Board had gone, forbade them not only the dockyard, but any part of the shore.
Worse still, the fort at Sheerness was hopelessly placed for the defence of the Arsenal. Why, “if you please,” he protested (though being a good soldier he did not murmur a word till it was all over), ships of force could be brought within fifty yards of it, and the place was “in so wretched and ruinous a state” that it could not possibly hold out for many hours. The merlons were of brick, “and in such a tottering state that the firing on the King’s birthday shivered them all to pieces,” so that if the guns there had fired in defence, both men and guns would have been completely uncovered without the attackers firing a single shot. Given a favourable wind and tide, ships could have passed the batteries of the fort in no time: and as to the outlying strong points which it would be essential to arm and hold, such as the Isle of Grain, there was no ordnance or artillery available. 61 Apart from the mutiny, such a state of affairs was a disgrace: it was true that it was a hundred and thirty years since the Dutch had captured Sheerness and sailed up the Medway, but England was again at war with the Dutch, and someone should have been hanged for criminal negligence.
But it is doubtful if Parker and his band were such desperadoes as all this suggests. Apart from the fact that the men were loyal, it is most unlikely that anyone seriously contemplated a coup de main on land: and if certain fiery spirits did clamour for it, Parker himself would have done his best to quash such a wild scheme. At all events on the night of the 29th he had enough to occupy him in domestic troubles, so to speak, to prevent any idea of organising an invasion from forming in his mind. Affairs were critical, since, for all the noise the mutiny had made, with its bands and its red flags, its flouting of authority, its ejection of officers, and its severe internal discipline, it had accomplished nothing at all. Even the visit of the Board, which had seemed such a crucial point, was only a Pyrrhic victory, worse indeed than another rebuff despatched from London would have been: it was no gesture of refusal made from afar, but a slap in the face. So much, too, had been promised from it. Far from its being material to make capital out of, the only thing to do was to minimise its effects as much as possible. But however much Parker might wish to do this, one glaring fact stood out: the mutineers would not be allowed to go ashore again, so even the pomp and glory, so heartening to people who have nothing else, would have to be abandoned.
Besides, the behaviour of the frigates on receipt of the Admiralty message had been disturbing in the extreme, especially that of the San Fiorenzo and the Clyde: it revealed a sinister lack of solidarity. He did not at all like the look of things; the men on those two vessels were too attached to their captains and there had been mysterious comings and goings between them. Here was he, a man of sense and judgment, sacrificing all, or at least risking all, to help men whose state had wrung his heart, who had appealed to him, and even made him their leader; and yet they were so unstable, so undecided as to what they wanted, that he did not know where he stood. Even the Delegates themselves had not rejected the Admiralty offer without 166’ contentions which had lasted an hour. But the gauntlet was flung; he had burnt his boats. He who had prayed the men to be moderate must now rouse and inflame them, bind them together by any and every means, cunning or demagogic, in his power. No, he could not trust those frigates; and he ordered a patrol of boats to row round them all night, and keep alert for anything untoward taking place.
He would have been still more apprehensive if he had known what had happened that day, and what action was brewing. On the 28th, the Board being advised of the feeling in those two frigates, decided to order them to Harwich to take on board the Duke of Wurttemberg and his bride; for the duke, having arrived in the middle of one mutiny, was about to take his departure in the middle of another. By some means the men of the Director had come to hear of this, and two of them had gone to Cunningham on the Clyde to tell him that their ship would join the frigates the next morning if she might take the lead. Cunningham had discussed this with Sir Harry Neale of the San Fiorenzo, and they had decided that the news was so important that they ought to delay their sailing, which they did, informing the Admiralty of their reasons. After seeing what a struggle there had been on board many ships, including the Director, as to whether the red flag or the white should prevail, the Board, with hopes of a considerable defection, ordered the Clyde and San Fiorenzo to slip away as soon as they could, and make for Sheerness if they were not able to get right away. The captains therefore agreed to cut their cables at the same time, and arranged for a pilot to take them out.
Half an hour or so after midnight in the early morning of the 30th, Neale, snatching an opportunity between the rounds of Parker’s watch-boats, rowed across to see Cunningham; but hardly had he reached his fellow adventurer’s ship than a message came from his own asking that the Clyde should cut her cable so as to give the San Fiorenzo room to swing, the former, we remember, having been able to take station at the extreme end of the crescent of ships. The cable was cut even before the messenger boat had got away, so promptly on the request, that another boat which had followed close on the heels of the first, and which contained the pilot rowing over to say that they were too late on the flood-tide to be able to make Sheerness, found the Clyde already a-weigh: more, her long-boat had been sent off to fetch Bardo, the mate of the Commissioner’s yacht lying off Garrison Point, for him to take the frigate into harbour. The pilot, a tough Scot called M’Cullum, pluckily went back to the San Fiorenzo, braving what might happen to him should the Delegates find him there, as, now that the game was afoot, they probably would.
For a time, however, the Clyde was allowed to drift with the flood-tide. Nobody disturbed her; her Delegates were on board the Sandwich and so could raise no alarm; no attempt was made to set sail, which even on a dark night would have been noticed or heard, and the crew kept profoundly quiet. After a while a fore-sail was bent, and the wind coming round to the north-east, she was able to tack towards Garrison Point. Before very long, shouts of alarm, and a bustle on other ships, told them that the movement was discovered; the crash of guns overwhelmed the sound of wind and waves, but these were only signals, for the mutinous ships, riding the flood with their sterns towards the escaping frigate, had no time to tauten springs on their cables, and so could not bring their guns to bear on her. The gunboats along the shore were able only to echo the signal-shots, and hoist lights. The Clyde made westward little by little, and by the time the ebb-tide began was close to the Point, where Bardo came aboard in the jolly-boat, though his services were no longer needed. The noise of the empty cannonade had aroused the inhabitants of Sheerness, who, when the ship came off the Point at sunrise, greeted her with loud shouts of delight, the civilians being joined by hundreds of troops, shouting in such a manner as to leave no doubt either in Parker’s or anybody else’s mind as to where their sympathies now lay. But the men of the Clyde were so alarmed at what might happen to them if they were caught by the crew of the Inflexible, that it was all Cunningham could do to stop them in Salt Pan Reach instead of going on to Chatham. The ship was regularly cleared for action, and all hands were at their quarters throughout that night.
Cunningham had decided to send Bardo off to the San Fiorenzo, but this, of course, could not be done openly: the mutineers would have to be outwitted. He sent his lieutenant, Hughes, to the Dock Yard to beg for four riggers to go with him in a boat to the Clyde’s old berth on pretence of seeking for the bearings of her anchors. Four men volunteered. Since the boat came from the Dock Yard on what was obviously routine business, the innocent mutineers were not half watchful enough, and, seizing a happy moment, Hughes smuggled Bardo on board the San Fiorenzo; upon which the riggers, panic-stricken at their temerity, pulled their boat lustily to the nearest point of the shore, two miles below their destination, where they deserted her, and ran to the Dock Yard as hard as they could in terror of a vengeful pursuit.
The San Fiorenzo made her escape about noon, choosing a time when the Delegates were away and most of the men throughout the Fleet piped down to their midday meal. Bardo, however, bungled the affair. A spring was duly run down the frigate’s cable to veer her round in the right direction, but Bardo cut the cable too soon—or perhaps, it was the fault of the men taking action the moment they heard the bos’n’s whistle for dinner, which was to be the signal: at all events her head was in the wrong direction when the cable parted, and so, with the wind now blowing fresh west-north-west, the frigate could not hope to make Sheerness, and was forced to run for the open through the whole Fleet. She was raked by the fire of all the guns that could be brought to bear on her, and it was with rigging considerably damaged, and her main and fore chains a good deal knocked about, though with nobody hurt, that she got away with flags flying. Among the flags she flew, however, was the red, which was just as well, for, as it turned out, the crescent at the Nore was not the only danger spot for her. Bardo took her as far as he knew the channels, and then with a great deal of luck they fell in with a ship that had a pilot who could take her round the Goodwin Sands; whence she made her way to Portsmouth, capturing a French privateer as she went. On the way out of the Thames she met several ships coming into the mouth, many of which bore the red flag. The crew of the San Fiorenzo, taking no chances, cheered them as she passed.
These desertions were a blow to dismay the leaders of the disaffected. Already the Espion and Niger at Sheerness had published their defection, and were being used in defence of the harbour; and to them were added those gun-boats driven in by the weather. Grey had got to work with energy. All the batteries in and about the fort which faced the sea were completely manned night and day, with soldiers always ready at the guns. To prevent any ships being taken out of the harbour, all the pier heads and projections from the Dock Yard were planted with guns, and sailors from the two docile frigates were detailed to man them and the gun-boats. No one from the ships was allowed to land, and two Delegates who had actually gone ashore were held there in durance. It is true that “these things did not matter much to the leaders, since they had not the faintest notion of attacking; and indeed the chief result of these warlike measures was to scare away the inhabitants of Sheerness: it was nothing to the sailors that the women and children had been evacuated from the town, and that the men had fled to safety unless business which could not be evaded kept them there. Still, all this indicated that the Government was determined, and that the soldiers who showed fight, together with the civilians whose town was unpeopled, no longer sympathised with them.
Yes, the Government was determined, which was more than could be said for the sailors, who, as the struggles over the flags had shown, were disunited. Even on the Sandwich, when, the day before, the question had been put as to whether the mutiny should go on, there had been cries of “Give it up! Give it up!” And no help was forthcoming. On the 24th a deputation of seventeen had been sent off to Yarmouth, in succession to four previous Delegates, to get the assistance of the Fleet there (both sides seemed to feel that the North Sea Fleet might be of decisive weight); but although they had seized the Cygnet cutter and sailed merrily away in her, nothing had been heard from them since. Thus there was internal weakening, and no support coming from outside. They were being deserted by their fellows. Not thus had they responded to appeals from Spithead! Would no help come? The Leith tender sailed in that afternoon: they would see what encouragement they might get from there. They seized hold of Lieutenant Watson, dragged him like a culprit, as he said, before their “infernal tribunal, and roughly told him to keep his mouth shut when he tried to persuade some of the seamen to return to their duty. Yet, and this was the worst of it, a few of the Delegates seemed inclined to take his advice, “declaring in the strongest terms their regret at the situation to which they had reduced themselves.” It seemed many of the sailors, and even Delegates, would have gone over to the Admiralty side had they not been held back by terror. In another way, too, the situation seemed unstable. On some ships the electors ruled the elected; on others the elected governed the men; and on some of these, as was evident from what had happened with the Clyde and San Fiorenzo, the Delegates simply did not know what their men felt: they had been fooled by them, left gaping astounded when their ships made good their escape. It seemed that the mutiny would have to be abandoned, however humiliating this would be.
But then, providentially, almost immediately after the second frigate had got away, three line-of-battle ships were seen bearing up-river towards the crescent of dubious ships. As they came nearer it could be made out that they were all flying the red flag: they must be, they were, ships from Duncan’s squadron come to help them. The situation was saved, the mutiny could go on, it had every prospect of joyful success. Who could stand out against the seamen now?