Interval At Spithead

To people endowed with lively imaginations, the mutiny seemed monstrous and sinister, not at all the simple protest of men who felt aggrieved. Captain Willet Payne of the Impetueux, for example, being ill at the George Inn allowed full play to his rollicking fancy, which, as a fire eating sailor and an accomplished rake, he found irksome in the tedious atmosphere of a sick-room. Scribbling down his mental adventures for Spencer’s benefit, he decided that there were “secret Jacobin springs” behind the whole affair; the only thing to do was to try to create disunion among the mutineers, and it was he, it seems, who hit on the illusory idea of splitting opinion by inventing “landsmen.” He also suggested making the shore batteries bristle with every gun and mortar available—Spencer fell in with this too—and inserting articles in the Star, which he said was the seamen’s favourite newspaper, to express the nation’s horror at the heinous event. Young Lord Camelford, even less governed in character and imagination, rose to greater heights of the lurid. Just promoted lieutenant after a career of insubordination and super-romantic fantasy such as you might expect from the most harum-scarum of the eccentric Pitts, he warned Spencer that there was a horrid plot to kidnap the Board if it should venture on any ship.  The Times, as a Government organ incapable of believing that anything could really be amiss with the sailors’ lot, was to put it all blandly down to our old friends the agitators, especially Joyce and the slippery Evans. Lady Spencer, reflecting her Lord’s anxiety, was alarmed at the amazing order that prevailed among the subversive spirits:

Alas! my dear Sir [she wrote to Windham on the 20th], we none of us know the end of this most awful affair. Lord S. writes m very low spirits… . Dundas, whom I have just seen, seems full as serious on the business as I am, and truly there is food for thought in the present prospect of things. The quietness of the men, tho’ comfortable in some respects, yet in others is most alarming—it proves a steadiness in them to accomplish their object which overpowers me, whatever it may do other people… . That a mutiny of this extent should have been brewing for 3 months, and not one word of it to have transpired, is most wonderful. Surely, surely, it implies a great want of knowledge amongst the officers,

an observation which was both shrewd ‘and fair, coming from someone who had not seen Pakenham’s letter.

To Lieutenant Philip Beaver, on board the Monarch in Portsmouth Harbour, who watched these things with an intelligent eye, and pondered them with the experienced mind of a man of thirty-two, the affair did not seem fantastic. Though well within the trouble (his ship being in harbour was not involved, however, till the 19th), he was not toppled off his balance. While being sorry that the mutiny should take place in war-time, he could not help admiring the “moderation [of the men] in so daring an exercise of illegal power,” and their patriotism in declaring that if the French came out they would haul up the anchors and go for them. As the negotiations went on, he became more and more astonished at their “prudence and decency”: they had been driven to do what they were doing by the folly of Lord Howe and the Ministry. He thought that the Board, instead of haggling, would have done much better to grant handsomely what would be forced from them in the end; and he wisely feared that “Lord Spencer and the other Lords of the Admiralty trifle too much and may make matters worse.” The next day, the 20th, his opinion grew firmer; he believed that the Delegates had

been obliged to make use of some strong expressions towards Lord Spencer to convince him of the danger, which he did not seem to comprehend, and of the absurdity of that board since it has sat here, which had only made things worse… . The seamen still continue to conduct themselves incredibly well, performing the usual duties with alacrity, and behaving towards their officers with the greatest respect. I had always great respect for an English seaman; I like the character now better than ever.

So much from a level-headed man to his sister, a man who really knew what it was all about. He at any rate saw no reason to assume Jacobins at work.

The country on the whole, after the first shock, was inclined to take the matter calmly; it regarded it gravely enough, but refused to be rattled into hysteria by anyone. After all, the sailors were extremely well behaved; they were ready to fight the French; they saw to the carrying on of trade; and when you looked at the demands they made, these were really very reasonable. In fact, in the main, public opinion was with them. The people of Portsmouth were so far curious rather than alarmed: it was great fun to walk about in your spare time and see what could be seen of the goings on, and gossip about it all. The affair, indeed, added to the gaiety of life by the presence of the Board, which treated them to a little extra pageantry. For when, on Wednesday, 19th, the Prince of Wűrttemberg —who was about to marry the Princess Royal—came to Portsmouth to receive its freedom. Lords Spencer and Bridport, with Sir William Pitt, Governor, took him round the Fleet in all the gay panoply of the commissioner’s barge. Who but Englishmen would have made a tour of state to show a foreign visitor their Fleet in full mutiny? or who but English sailors in mutiny would have turned out to salute the cruising dignitaries? One hopes that his Serene Highness found his host’s character a little more comprehensible after the display.

The newspapers varied, but were, on the whole, fair, when not gibing at’ the authorities for treating with a “convention of delegates,” or a “representative government” established on board a British fleet. For example, the London Chronicle printed on the 19th:

It is but common justice to say that the seamen have conducted themselves throughout the whole business with a sobriety, steadiness, unanimity and determination, that would do honour to a better cause,

the last phrase, perhaps, demanding too much selflessness in human beings. Another paper remarked that:

… a decent seasonable attention to the remonstrances of the sailors might have saved England from a calamity which no man could contemplate without dismay.

It is true that in the Sun, which was the paper the sailors took in (and not the Star), there did appear on the 18th an odd squib, dated from “The Buoy of the Royal George, Spithead, Sunday, April 16th, 1797,” and signed, “The Spirit of Kempenfeldt,” which clanged all the tocsins of alarm; but it failed to make the burghers of England tremble. The authorship was never disclosed, but—well, was it not the very thing that the exuberant and ingenious Captain Payne had suggested to Spencer should be done? Is it beyond the bounds of likelihood that he should have anticipated his suggestion, given the example before laying down the precept? and that it should really have been dated from the George Inn, rather than from the Royal George? Whether by the gallant captain or not, the writer had much to learn in care of words and dignity of phrase from the men he upbraided. The alarmist appeal began, with a faint reminiscence of Mark Antony:

“Friends, Countrymen, and Fellow Subjects,” to sum up after a deal of high-sounding trumpery:

My Brave Fellows! Be not deceived—calm reflection will soon await you—Then will you start aside from the unhappy path of disobedience designing men have surprised you into… .[Does not that sound very like Payne?] Make known your wishes and wants in an official and respectful manner and be assured the love your King and Country bear you will dispose them to give you every comfort and reward a grateful country can bestow, consistent with its existence as a Nation.

The Delegates had no difficulty whatever in effectually demolishing the spirit; brave Kempenfeldt was gone, they could take liberties, and they headed their reply of the 20th, which also appeared in the Sun, with a quotation which, if not quite accurate, at any rate showed that they, too, knew their Shakespeare.


Art thou a spirit of earth or goblin damn’d?

Sir,—In the Sun, of the 18th instant, we have seen your address, and which greatly surprised us, wherein we are accused of those crimes, which disgrace the name of a British seaman, and which may prejudice the minds of our countrymen against us; as vve are called upon to make known our wants and wishes in an official and respectful manner.

Therefore, we. His Majesty’s most loyal and dutiful subjects, wish to make known to the world that we have done so.

We, as subjects of a loyal country, presented our petitions to that honourable Earl, who wore the laurels of the glorious 1st of June, and who was in the hearts of British seamen represented as their friend; but sorry are we to say that we found to the contrary, iu his not representing our petitions to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty.

But to convince our country at large, that there is not in anywise the least spark of republican spirit, we have caused to be inserted the most private of our concerns: sorry also we are to remark the words, “French agents,” as our country may think, by that assertion, we now take into our arms the people that a British seaman detests the name of. But to the contrary, we have our country’s good as much at heart as any other description of men whatever, and that our request is nowise injurious to our country.

We ask for that comfortable subsistence which our country can easily bestow, and that those barbarities which are practised by some (sorry, indeed, we should be to say the whole, as there are among us men of every description, both good and evil) be erased out of this well-instituted service.

We, the subjects of your address, coolly as the representatives of that body which has so long lam under the well-known Buoy, wish you to come forward in a fair and manly way, in your real and corporeal state, and try for one week if the scanty * The editor was threatened that those responsible would be made to dance to a tune other than “God Save the King” if any burlesque whatever appeared.

allowance on which we are obliged to subsist, will keep you m the spinted state which men of our description require, but are at this moment without the assistance of at least twothirds of their pay; and our wives and families languishing in want, whilst this country, that abounds with plenty, ought to be ashamed at the word Want!

To the brave Admiral Kempenfeldfs GHOST,

Buoy of the Royal George, Spithead.

P.S,—If the clamours of justice daily echoing from the mouths of the loyal tars should again awake the SPIRIT OF KEMPENFELDT, let not his ethereal, but his corporeal part, make itself known, and we will convince him, that those who have made Britannia rule the main, know also their duty to their Sovereign.

Spithead, April 20, 1797. 71

Could anything be neater, more completely crushing? It would be a tame, poor-hearted reader of the Sun, who would not be turned by this to sympathise with the sailors. You cannot talk in that controlled strain without being pretty sure that justice is with you; and besides, the Spirit of Kempenfeldt had been made to look ridiculous; so laughter was on the seamen’s side.

This interchange, of course, was before the tumult that had ended Gardner’s untimely exhortation, which had made the sailors, already suspecting they were being tricked, think that the Admiral, with all his threats of hanging, had something up his sleeve. For the moment their nerves had got the better of them, and hustled them to arms; but they soon regained the steadiness which so, disturbed Lady Spencer. The events of the 21st may have given encouragement to some wild spirits among the men. United Irishmen perhaps, who panted for a general flareup, but if so they were effectively damped down. So on the 22nd the ‘Delegates wrote three letters, all of them of great restraint and dignity. The first of two to Bridport was a personal one, regretting the flag-striking incident of the day before, asking him to take up his command again, and referring to him as “the father of the Fleet”: there was no officer in the whole Navy whom they would more willingly serve under, they said, disclaiming any idea of meaning to offer him personal insult. In the second letter, which was official, they explained that Gardner’s speech of appeal to “loyal” individuals had looked to them very like an attempt “to sow division and mistrust in the Fleet” (there was nothing they resented more than insinuations against their patriotism). “But for the unfortunate cause above mentioned,” they went on,

there is every reason to believe that before this time every tittle of the business would have been settled; but at present it is the resolution of all not to lift anchor till every article is rendered into an Act of Parliament and the King’s pardon to all concerned.

The behaviour of the Board, in fact, following upon the early Admiralty message, pompous and inane, which Bridport had been forced to broadcast, had made them suspect the integrity of their lords and masters in the service. These august people, they felt, would fool them if they could. It was obviously necessary to make it perfectly clear to their Lordships that they would not on any account be fooled. So the third document of that day, while it thanked the Board for their generosity, for the satisfaction they had given to “every loyal and welldisposed seaman and marine,” ended significantly:

But we beg leave to remind your lordships, that it is a firm resolution that, until the flour in port be removed, the vegetables and pensions augmented, the grievances of private ships redressed, an act passed, and his Majesty’s gracious pardon for the fleet now lying at Spithead be granted, that the fleet will not lift an anchor; and this is the total and final answer.

That was unmistakable in its plainness.

“The grievances of private ships! ” The seamen were probably as determined about those as they had been about the pay, and it was the point least likely to be listened to by the Admiralty, for it meant that the latter would have to admit tacitly that many of the officers were the “most appalling bullies, who often resorted to outrageous tyranny to cover up their slackness and incompetence. They knew only too well that the charges made by the men were true. Admiral Collingwood, best of disciplinarians, who himself hated the lash, more than once told the Admiralty that some of the younger captains (although admitting there were several honourable exceptions) endeavoured to conceal, by great severity, their own unskilfulness and want of attention, [and] beat the men into a state of insubordination.” Yet luckily for their peace of mind none of the petitions sent in by the men even faintly represented the horror of life on board, for, as the seamen of the Nassau had said, it was impossible for them to put it down on paper. They did say, however, that their captain was a tyrant, and that

the next executor of this cruelty is our second Lieutenant, Mr. Pyewell, who in the night of his watch will make any one strip under his shirt and let him get two or three dozen either with a ropes end or else with the boatswain’s mate’s ratan. We might rather wish ourselves into prison or to be killed at once.

A rattan being no mean weapon; but even such an emotional statement could not possibly convey much to civilians without experience of the physical reality behind it. On 19th April the whole crew of the Nymphe, two hundred of them, did rather better, declaring above their signatures:

We are kept more like convicts than free-born Britons… .Flogging is carried on to extremes, one man received three dozen for what was termed silent contempt, which was nothing more than this. After being beat by a Boatswain’s mate, the man smiled, this was the unpardonable crime. Another was flogged for not going up the rigging quick enough, and another for not sending him down as was supposed smart enough. In short the number that has been flogged for trifling offences would be too tedious to mention at present… . When engaged with the enemy off Brest, March 9th, 1797, they even beat us at our quarters tho’ on the verge of eternity and said I’ll beat you until I make you jump overboard, damn you, you rascal, etc. lump overboard or be God Damd I will not send a boat after you. … Is this the way to encourage the service?

And they reported that another sailor on the same ship “received two dozen for not having the number sewn on his hammock.” Whatever the Board may have thought about the best way of encouraging the service, or however much they may have discounted these complaints, many of the officers were certainly monsters of the worst kind. “Captains there are,” James recorded, “who seemingly delight in such work [flogging]; and who, were the cruise long enough, would not leave a sailor belonging to the ship with an unscarred back.” Of one at least it is told that he would stand gloatingly by while the delinquent writhed in agony, and say, “By God, I’ll show them who’s captain. I’ll see the man’s backbone, by God! The punishment was so drastic that men had been known to throw themselves off the yards into the sea rather than face the skinning they were promised as a reward for being down last—which they probably were if they were up first. For there was no limit to what the captain could do to make men’s lives unbearable, nothing sometimes he did not do; and Marryat was not far out when he told of the captain who ordered five or six dozen for spitting on the quarter-deck—a filthy habit, no doubt, but one which might have been subdued by gentler methods. The most ghastly of all the cases of tryanny, which really argues that an obsessed man was in command, is that of Captain Pigot of the Hermione, who, in the West Indies in September 1797, threatened to flog the last man down from the yards. Two topmen, in their terrified anxiety to avoid the ordeal, fell from the mast and broke their limbs; whereupon Pigot ordered, “Throw those lubbers overboard! ” That night the maddened sailors rose, and murdered their captain with nearly all the other officers.

To be flogged was to be tortured. The first stroke laid on by a brawny boatswain’s mate, as hard as he could at the full length of his arm, would always jerk an involuntary “Ugh!” out of even the most hardened unfortunate “seized up to” the grating at the gangway; six blows tore the flesh horribly, while after a dozen the back looked like “so much putrefied liver.” After a time the bones showed through, blood burst from the bitten tongue and lips of the victim, and, expelled from his lungs, dribbled through his nostrils and ears. To make sure that the standard of hitting was maintained, the wielder of the cat would be changed after every two or three dozen, and the blood was wiped off the thongs between each stroke to prevent them sticking together. To be flogged through the Fleet to the tune of the “Rogues March” meant almost certain death, if not on the spot, a few days later; and on being sentenced to this fiendish punishment, an offender was usually offered the choice of being hanged. A severe flogging smashed a man; he was ill for weeks after it, and rarely recovered his self respect if he originally had any good in him. The Regulations did certainly lay down that a dozen strokes on the bare back was to be the maximum, but nobody took any notice of the rule; two or three dozen were usual a hundred common, while the infliction of three hundred was by no means rare.

Yet throughout the mutinies the men never raised their voices against flogging as an institution though it was infamous, and futile as an instrument of discipline, they even carried it out themselves, though not outrageously. What they did object to was its abuse; and, as the men of the Pompée wrote to How:

My Lord, we do not wish you to understand that we have the least intention of encroaching on the punishments necessary for the preservation of good order and discipline necessary to be preserved in H.M. Navy, but to crush the spirit of tyranny and oppression so much practised and delighted in, contrary to the spirit or intent of any laws of our the spirit or intent of any laws of our country.

They went in constant fear of a horrible ordeal for some trifling offence, for ceremonial flogging, carried out in the forms with the reading of the Article of War against which the man was supposed to have offended, and the raising of everybody’s hat out of respect for the King’s ordinance, was not the only doom that could overtake a man without warning. Any officer, even a midshipman, could unmercifully beat, or have beaten, about the head, arms, and back, any wretch with whom he momentarily lost his temper, a pastime known as “starting,” which was carried out with a knotted rope until its wielder was weary. Had this state of things been rare, so much need not have been said here, and would not have been said by the men; but, in fact, the humane officer was the exception, to whom the men were touchingly grateful; usually he was little better than a sadistic devil.

If the piteous testimony of the men may not be convincing, there is that of an officer, James Anthony Gardner, said to be a calm, good-natured man, not given to either over-excitement or squeamishness, and always ready to say what good he might about his brother officers. Commissioned to the Salisbury in December 1782, he described her as “an old devil of a ship, properly called the Hell Afloat,” recording of her that

this was the most hateful and disagreeable ship I ever had my foot on board of. Mast-heading upon every trifling occasion. The senior midshipmen (with the exception of a few) were tyrants.

Transferred after two years to the Orestes, he found that her lieutenant, Thomas Jeynes,

was without exception the most cold-blooded bad fellow I have ever met with. I have seen him thrash the men with the end of a rope until he was tired, making use of the most abusive language.

Nor was his next ship, the flagship Edgar, any pleasanter, for there the Admiral “used to play hell, and turn up Jack, and would spare nobody.” Similarly in the Queen, the first lieutenant, Constable, was “a devil of a tyrant.” Once, when Gardner was “starting” the crew of the jolly-boat for slackness in getting it out, Constable shouted at him, Damn my eyes, sir! That’s not the way; you should take a handspike and knock their brains out.” And even if the advice was not meant to be carried out literally, it shows the sort of atmosphere in which the men lived. Nearly everywhere, then, there was the same system of terrorism, and apart from the flogging and starting there were minor forms of tyranny and bullying, such as mast-heading, gagging with an iron block, making a man ride a gun with his feet tied underneath, and giving him harassing or disgusting duties to perform endlessly. A man’s life could be made a perfect misery, and was, we are told, on seven ships out of nine. It was far better to serve under a martinet, a “smart” captain, than under a slack one, for in the former case there was less unrestrained brutality; punishment might be severe, but it was regulated and had some show of justice. It was no good the captain being kind-hearted unless he kept his subordinate officers in order, for otherwise the seaman’s life might still be a continued agony of apprehension, as in the Glory, which sent in a petition on 17th April 1797:

It is our unanimous desire that Lieut. Fitzpatrick and Lieut. Hicks be dismissed out of H.M.S. Glory, as the former has in every means behaved tyranically to the people with ordering them to be beat in a most cruel manner … beating, blacking, tarring, and putting the people’s heads in bags to the mortification of the whole ship’s company, also striving to affect and discontinue the genteel kind behaviour of our well wished for Captain. These are faults which in all probability through their proceedings for the time to come is the ready way to the rum of the British nation.

Grammar may have been weak in the Glory, but the sense was sound, and indignation gave the words strength. The Ramillies, again, objected against petty tyranny, their lieutenant, Trench, keeping them for long hours on unnecessary work (after cutting their grog, too), such as raising and lowering the boats twelve and fourteen times, having kept them at work from four in the morning till ten at night: and after all that, perhaps, making the men carry their hammocks on their backs for hours together. Trench was helped in his amiable pursuit by Lieutenant Simmonds. In the same way, it was not to denounce their captain, but their lieutenant, William Compton, that the crew of the Minotaur petitioned: he beat them, they said, most unmercifully. “It is impossible to insert in this sheet the many acts of cruelty and the many men that has run [deserted] from this ship through his ill-usage.” One need not continue the list: complaints were all but universal; but we may add the pertinent one of the Duke, whose company stated that they had been cruelly maltreated, and begged that certain of their superiors might be “replaced by officers possessed of more humanity.”

Mercifully it was not all so unrelievedly grim and hopeless; some of the officers were decent men, who understood that discipline must be based on affection and trust, and not on fear. These officers were duly loved by their crews, who wished to follow them from one command to another. One round-robin, for example — a round-robin was signed in a circle, each man writing towards the centre to avoid priority—runs as follows:

We the company of His Majesty’s ship Vestal having heard that Captain MacDougall late of His Majesty’s said ship being appointed to the command of the Asia, would be very happy to sail along with him which is the petition of your honours most obedient very humble servants.

Sometimes when a good captain left his ship, the sailors , would scrape together what small mites they could from their pay, and subscribe to buy a small piece of presentation plate; and, as we shall see, Admiral Duncan was so loved by his men that they declared themselves ready to do anything for him, down to the shedding of the last drops of their blood. Many of the officers knew about their men, regarded them as fellow-creatures—Pakenham, for instance, and Beaver—but there can be no possible doubt that the general conditions at sea were abominable, tending to the utter degradation of both body and spirit.

It is small wonder, then, that the men insisted upon the redress of grievances on particular ships. The question of punishments had not been put forward in the decorous negotiations between the Delegates and the Board, for obviously discipline in itself could not be argued about; and besides, the men did not object to discipline as such, only to its shocking abuse; the complaints were against individuals. Besides, the Admiralty had been so long and so fruitlessly bombarded with petitions on the subject of brutality, that it was clearly no use to appeal in this way. Bridport, as a supremely sensible man, asked for complaints; at least the Minotaur, in sending some in on 24th April, said they were “informed by the Delegates of the Fleet that your Lordship will receive any grievances from any of the ships under your command.” Their objections sound well justified, and in one part reveal a further piece of maladministration. In this they arraigned their surgeon, Bell,

for inattention and ill-treatment of the sick and wounded and not being qualified, as we can judge by several accidents happening in the ship… . And for not visiting the sick for two or three months together, and when visiting has often been observed in liquor, and not serving to the sick such nourishments as is allowed by Government, and for the want of which many men has died in this ship. There as been men went down to him for relief when sick, and he as told them that a flogging would do them most good.

Some of the doctors, of course, did their work well, and were regarded by the men as their best friends; but many of them were of the kind typified by Bell—sodden, rough and incompetent.

So with a growing consciousness of power, power made plain by the whole trend of events, the men, while waiting for the effect of their “total and final” answer, which had followed the Board to London, harboured their resentment, and nursed their determination to get the “special grievances” redressed. While happier folk on land carolled that Britons never, never should be slaves, the very men who ruled the seas were being treated, as they said, like Turks, cowed with curses and blows, fretted by ignominy and contempt, the bitterness of their lives only occasionally tempered with a shred of kindness. They would obey orders with alacrity, they would treat their officers with respect, but they would not forget. Outwardly restrained, they were simmering underneath. Yet in this period of uneasy waiting the leaders kept absolute control, for they possessed faculties which very seldom go together—the capacity to work the feelings of men up to a state of revolt, combined with the power to direct the course of events after the first explosion. They seem to have judged with almost perfect precision how far they could go; but the old life, they swore, would never come back: they had had enough.