The tension existing between the mutineers and the forces mobilised against them had now reached such a stage that it must have seemed that something was bound to happen. The knot had to be untied or cut, and that soon. In a sense, then, the events of the next two or three days are the most momentous in the history of the mutiny at the Nore.
On 6th June, Lord Northesk, Captain of the Monmouth, a post which he had enjoyed for a year, received a note couched somewhat in the terms of the following rough draft:
To the Rt. Hon. the Earl of Northesk.
I am commanded by the Delegates of the Fleet to inform your Lordship that you are requested to repair on board the Sandwich to receive your instructions. A barge will attend your Lordship, and every mark of respect paid your Lordship could wish for.
We are etc:
Northesk was a man not quite forty years old, robust, with “a manly open countenance,” and very popular with his men, whom he had always treated lightly—indeed, according to Cunningham’s martinet mind, a great deal too lightly, avoiding the use of the lash. He was known to have devoted hours together to the patient investigation of a charge before he would order punishment to be inflicted. Yet his solicitude for his men did not prevent him from being a good sailor, at least in Nelson’s view, for he was third in command at Trafalgar, flying his flag on the Britannia: and, since he was to some extent in sympathy with the men. he raised no objection to their request. He was ushered on board the barge by the Delegates of his own ship, and as he approached the Sandwich, the band mustered on deck played “God Save the King.”
When he went into the state cabin, accompanied by one officer, he was confronted by some sixty Delegates, with Parker sitting at the head of the table drafting a letter; but as soon as Parker saw he had arrived, he stopped writing, and gave the order for “God Save the King” to be played again. The moment that muscles relaxed after this ceremony, some Delegate, too eager for the minute points of the law, fractiously demanded who the officer was that had come in with Northesk. It seemed as though there might be some check at the very outset. Northesk answered that lie had brought the officer with him as secretary, since he had thought one would probably be needed. That seemed to cover the departure from the strict letter of the invitation, but the forms had to be complied with, and the authority of the committee vindicated. “Who knows him? ” Parker asked: say, Delegates of the Monmouth, what kind of man is he? “ On the Delegates answering that he was a very good man, it was unanimously voted that he might remain.
The object of the invitation to Northesk was to ask him to take a petition to the King. The Delegates were particularly eager to proclaim their loyalty; nothing wounded them more deeply than to have their love for the Crown impugned. The word “rebel” applied to them cut them to the quick, and they had heard that they were being denounced as rebels, though no doubt the Royal Proclamation declaring them such, issued on that day, had hot yet reached them. They read their petition over to Northesk, who told them that though he would be glad to present it for them, he could not give them any hope of its helping them at all; and that, since their demands were far too high, it could not possibly do them any good. Nevertheless the Delegates held fast by their petition, and supplied Northesk with a pass, respectfully, even courteously worded, though it could not be disguised that it was addressed by a superior authority to a lesser one. The postscript is pathetic in its eagerness to have the slur of treachery washed out.
Sandwich at the Nore,
6 June 1797
To the Right Honble The Earl of Northesk.
You are hereby required and directed to proceed to London with such papers as you are entrusted with and lay the same before our most gracious Sovereign King George the Third and to represent to our most gracious Sovereign that the seamen at the Nore have been grossly misrepresented to His Majesty, at the same time if our most gracious Sovereign does not order us to be redressed in fifty four hours after eight o’clock in the morning of June 7th 1797, such steps by the Fleet will be taken as will astonish their dear countrymen, and your Lordship is further requested to send us an account in the specified time by your pursur who is allowed to attend your Lordship.
I am, my Lord,
Your Lordship’s humble servant,
By Order of the Committee of Delegates of the Whole Fleet,
I am further to acquaint your Lordship that an oath has been taken by the Delegates of the Fleet that they never had any communication with Jacobins or Traitors.
June 6, 3 p.m.
To Captain Lord Nortkesk.
You are hereby authorised and ordered to wait upon the king, wherever he may be, with the resolutions of the committee of delegates, and are directed to return back, with an answer to the same, within fifty-four hours from the date hereof.
It was all done with the best of intentions, and when Morthesk set off with the message, the whole Fleet manned ship to cheer him, and grog was served on the Sandwich. No doubt it was a mistake to make the letter also an ultimatum and a threat, but one can understand a certain irritation against the “dear countrymen.”
The petition which Northesk bore to London with him was an appeal to the King over the heads of his ministers, and the only revolutionary thing about it is the implied contempt of democratic forms: the views as to the ministers, were only such as were every day expressed in Parliament,, and far more violently, by members of the Opposition.
To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty.
May it please Your Majesty,
We your Majesty’s faithful and loyal subjects serving on Board Your Majesty’s Ships and Vessels at the Nore, with the greatest humility beg leave to lay our Petition before you, and hope as you have always avowed yourself to be the Father of your People, that our Petitions will be attended to. We have already laid a state of our Giievance before Your Majesty’s Board of Admiralty, which Grievances we have reasons to imagine, were never properly stated to you, as we are sorry to have reason to remark the conduct of your present Ministers seems to be directed to the ruin and overthrow of your Kingdoms, and as their Duty to its good and advantage, a particular instance of which is the Council they have given Your Majesty with regard to us in proclaiming us Rebels, traitors and Outlaws. This Council if we had not been men particularly attached to Your Majesty’s sacred person and Government, moderate but firm in our demands, and resolved with our lives to oppose your enemies by land and sea, would before now have driven us to some acts of Outrage and Revenge that might have shaken the very foundations of this Kingdom. We here give you a list of our Grievances, which List is accompanied by a simple but true Statement of the reasons we have of demanding them, and after thus making our Wants known to Your Majesty, we cannot longer ascribe a non-compliance with those Wants to Ministry, with you it now rests to determine whether you will or will not get a Redress of our Suffering. Your majesty may depend that in Your Kingdom there is no more loyal and faithful Subject than we are, but at the same time we must assure Your Majesty till all those disgraceful Proclamations, which proscribe Outlaws are contradicted, till we have all our Grievances redress’d and till we have the same supply from and communications as usual with the shore, we shall consider ourselves masters of Nore Shipping. We have already determined how to act, and should be extremely sorry we should be forced to repose in another country, which must evidently be the case if we are denounced as Outlaws in our own.
Your Majesty’s Ministers seem to build their hopes on starving us into a compliance, but this is a wrong Idea. We have as much Provisions and Stores as will last Six Months. We were aware of their Intentions, and provided against them, but were it the reverse, and that we had but two days Provisions, we would sooner die in that state than give Up the least article of our Demands.
We shall trust to Your Majesty’s prudence in chuseing such Councillors and Advisors in the present and other affairs as will have the goods of their Country in view, and not like the present Ministers its Destruction. And with respect to our own Grievances, vve shall allow 54 hours from 8 o’clock on Wednesday June the 7th 1 to know Your Majesty’s final Answer. We shall likewise make known to our fellow-subjects on shore the particulars of the Address and Your Majesty’s answer, so as to justify to them any Measure we may take in consequence of a Refusal.
With loyalty we remain.
Your Majesty’s dutiful
Subjects, Seamen at the Nore.
Northesk faithfully did his best for the seamen. He took the petition, which was perhaps not too tactfully worded, to Spencer, who carried him to Court, where the King was presented with the document. He was, naturally, unmoved by it; and even if his heart had been touched, he could have done nothing. His Government was committed to a definite course of action, and he could not be expected to throw over his ministers on the demand of a few thousand sailors. It is likely that Northesk pleaded hard for the seamen, since he had undertaken to be their emissary, however clearly he may have seen the futility of his journey. He did not go back to them; he had not been expected to, but it was Captain Knight of the Montague, returning from his parole, and not Northesk’s purser, who took back a blank refusal from the throne, arriving at the Nore on the 7th.
There is evidence to make it fairly clear that the grievances referred to in the petition were those presented to Buckner in the earlier days of the mutiny. What is chiefly significant about it, beyond the expressions of loyalty, and the appeal to the King as the father of his people, is the ominous suggestion that if the demands were not complied with, the seamen would “be forced to repose in another country.” This was a counsel of despair, for, in spite of the brave statement about supplies in the petition, the Fleet was running short; otherwise there would have been no need for the sheep-raiding expeditions, or the seizure of store-ships, one of which, luckily for them, was a hoy containing three hundred sacks of flour, More revealing still, is the request the Director sent to the Montague:
We would be exceedingly obliged to you to spare us the small quantity of 5 Ton of Water for our present use, as we are greatly in want of this useful Article.
Cmmee.of the Director
and it is likely that the Director was not the only ship short of sustenance.
If, then, the sailors could get no help from shore, if accommodation with the authorities seemed unlikely – the answer to the petition would settle that one way or the other—the leaders would have somehow to wriggle out of the cleft fork in which they found themselves caught. It was either surrender, which at this stage would mean the death penalty, or escape. It was not so much a question of taking the Fleet over to the enemy, as of finding refuge somewhere. The how and the where seem to have been furiously debated; Parker himself, apparently, was against any such project, though the committee had captured, and retained under their hand on the Sandwich, more than twenty masters of vessels whom they meant to use as pilots. On the Swan, one of the most fiercely determined ships, Rearden, the president of the committee, asked a pilot whether he would take them over to France or Ireland, and, further, if he could estimate the price the sloop would fetch if sold. George Shave, of the Leopard, informed his crew that if the petition was not answered, and that within the time limit, the Fleet would make for a foreign port, and anyone who objected would be “made an example of to the ship’s company.” A proposal to make for Bantry Bay was shown some favour, but a strong resistance was offered to any suggestion of taking the ship over to the French: better the West Indies, where there were “wood, wine, and water.” On the Champion there was much discussion of a scheme of going to the Humber to take prizes and then sailing away for France: other ships were to repair to Cromarty Bay and the Shannon; others, again, were to go to some mysterious haven known as the “New Colony,” but it is not clear where these Fortunate Isles are supposed to have spread their inviting shores. This place of dreams might even have been the island in which Bligh’s mutineers had made for themselves so happy a paradise.
One of the most energetic of the Delegates in promoting schemes of escape, and of urging their necessity, was William Gregory, a man of thirty-one, who had joined at Montrose, and was rated as a member of the carpenter’s crew of the Sandwich. It was he who had taken the stillborn manifesto to the American pilot, and he seems to have been prominent at every juncture, a man of authority among the seamen, who had elected him President of the Committee of Internal Regulations. This indefatigable leader once more boarded an American ship to find out from the pilot if it would be possible to sail for America, that enticing land of freedom. He proposed that such seamen as did not want to go could be left behind in the Sandwich, which was not seaworthy. At the same time, he did not fail to point out forcibly what would happen to those seamen when they fell into the hands of a cruel and vindictive Government. He dashed everywhere trying to whip up fervour through fear, and to purge the Fleet of weaker elements. In the Brilliant he called the men together, gave them the gist of the King’s pardon, and then said, “This can be altered in the course of a few hours. Should you go on shore, you are liable to be hung or shot. And any of you that has a mind to go on shore, to your tyrannical country—you shall go on shore with a flag of truce.” Perhaps he really believed that the Government intended to play the sailors false, for a member of the Opposition had flung out the taunt in Parliament, and the accusation had been widely reported in the newspapers which the sailors somehow got hold of. It is doubtful whether the men of any ship would have consented to sail away from England; only the firebrand extremists such as Gregory seemed to wish it; but the notion of a movement was sufficiently discussed and popular enough to alarm Parker, who saw fit to issue an ukase and take care that it was obeyed:
Order, Sandwich. 1 June.
That no ship shall move from its place at the Nore till the expiration of 54 hours allowed Lord Northesk to bring an answer to their demands and that a boat from each ship shall keep a guard during the night to prevent such a separation.
though it may be that the order was meant as well to prevent a break-away to Sheerness. In the meantime, steps were taken to keep up the spirits of the sailors, to the alarm of the local inhabitants. On that day watchers on land were sent into spasms of horror at seeing two figures hanging from the yard-arms of some of the distant ships, which figures were being fired at by the brutal mutineers, in an excess, apparently, of cruel rage. The news of a massacre of officers flared from house to house across the shocked town, while Brenton and other officers, peering from their cabins, were sure that their last hour had come. But the figures were only stuffed effigies of the execrated “Billy Pitt” and Dundas, which some ingenious and happy mind had suggested might be used as pot-shots to keep the idle sailors entertained.
Whether or not the seamen seriously intended to bolt to other shores, the authorities took the petition’s threat to do so very seriously. The ships must at all costs be prevented from moving, either out to sea or up-river. To make sure of the former, Trinity House arranged to have the buoys and beacon lights of the outward passage removed. As early as the 4th, the Trinity Yacht had begun work on the buoys of the South Channel, but since the matter now seemed urgent, a meeting of the Board on the 8th instructed Captain Bromfield, one of the Elder Brethren, to hire boats at Harwich to help in the destruction of the marks in the North Channel. The task was likely to be a tricky and dangerous one if the mutineers got wind of it, but somehow, whether by rapid work in the daytime, or under cover of darkness, Bromfield succeeded in doing away with all buoys and lights by the 9th. Since the work of lifting the buoys and their moorings with hand appliances would have taken far too long, the buoys were scuttled where they lay, and the beacons smashed. The Nore lightship, however, escaped. It was argued at Trinity House that its existence might help repentant ships to get out, and that on the other hand it would not be of much use to the Fleet if it wished to make for the open sea. Perhaps the fact that she was moored under the guns of the Sandwich lent conviction to the argument. Whether through inattention, or because they were outwitted, the mutineers made no efforts to prevent these operations being carried out; and to make sure that they took no counter-measures, such as sinking small vessels on the sands, the Ariadne and two gunboats were sent to cruise about the neighbourhood of the Swin to scare them away. It was now impossible to move either in or out of the river, the former point being as important as the latter; indeed the Admiralty had hoped that they would have been in time to prevent the ships still remaining at Yarmouth from joining up at the Nore, but for this they were just too late: they sailed safely in on the 6th. Notice was duly given to the world:
Trinity House, London,
June 8, 1797.
His Majesty having thought fit, by his order in council, to direct the buoys m the several channels to be removed, and the beacons to be cut down:
Notice is hereby given that the several buoys in the North, Nab, and Queen’s Channels are removed, and the beacons cut down accordingly, and further notice will be given as soon as it is judged proper to replace the same.
The order to replace them was not given until the 21st, and up to that time the estuary remained unnavigable.
Hockless, Quarter Master in the Sandwich, one of the most violent of the Delegates, was furious at the destruction of the buoys, and swore that he would sail the Fleet out, marks or no marks: indeed the mutineers were so enraged against Trinity House that they promised to hang the first Elder Brother they could catch. This was somewhat unfortunate for Captain Calvert, one of that Brotherhood, for just at that time he was coming up the river from Broadstairs, returning from a little pleasure trip in his yacht, enjoying the summer season. With a disconcerting reversal of prospects, he was brought on board the Sandwich, and instantly taken to the ward-room to be tried for his life. The Delegates, however, so bloodthirsty in word, were charmed by “the openness and manliness of his conversation and manner,” and let him go on condition that he told them what the state of the public mind was. Calvert did tell them, unflinchingly. The whole country was against them, he said, and they would certainly be brought to “condign punishment.” He was immediately ordered off the ship, but on the quarter-deck the kidnapped masters who were to pilot the Fleet out clutched him by the sleeve to ask advice. What should they do? They were threatened with hanging if they did not obey orders, and there were no marks. “If you do carry them out,” Calvert said bluntly, “you will certainly be hanged,” upon which the mutineers hustled the worthy Elder Brother down the gangway with a marked lack of politeness.
To Pitt’s fretted mind the removal of the sailing marks made an attack upon London almost certain. It was true that a force had been organised to meet a raid by the mutineers, but it was somewhat distressing to find that there were some five thousand men who ought to have been available, good seamen employed in easy jobs on shore—in the offices of the Revenue, Ordnance, East India Company, Waterman’s Company, Press-gangs and Tenders, Victuallers and Bargemen to the Public Office and other is—who, though liable to be impressed, refused to volunteer. They were not fighting men, they said, and had families to provide for. In some consternation Pitt wrote to Spencer, on the evening of the 7th:
In thinking over the circumstances respecting the ships at the Nore, I cannot help thinking it very probable that if the buoys being taken up prevent them going away, their next idea may be to force their passage up the river … probably if any attempt is made by the mutineers it will be on the first occasion that the tide serves after the term of fiftv-four hours from this morning is expired.
The vision of London cowering under the ravages of a horde of barbarians led by bloodthirsty Jacobins induced the Admiralty to order Sir Erasmus Gower, in his 84-gun ship, the Neptune, to prepare to attack the recalcitrant Fleet, supported by the volunteers eager for a tussle, who, valiant defenders of the City, were keyed up to a desperate fight against an invasion which was a figment of their fears.
On the morning of the 8th, Captain Knight went on board the Montague, and then to the other ships, carrying with him a bundle of bills and proclamations. The yards of all the ships were manned, cheers were given, and he was received with every dignity. On the Sandwich grog was again served as a mark of delighted respect. He had returned the answer to the petition the night before; but now he brought news of the action the Government had taken, and copies of the King’s proclamation of the 6th declaring the mutinous sailors to be rebels. The worsened position obviously called for some action on The part of the Delegates, who resolved that Parker should make a special tour of the Fleet in all pomp, to explain, to exhort and, possibly, to engineer some feasible plan. The future rested with themselves, since now they could look for no help from outside. The Government and the people were massed against them; Calvert had destroyed their last hope of public support; proclamations, perhaps spurious, had been sent them from the sailors at Spithead and Plymouth, expressing sadness at their behaviour, and adjuring them to return to duty; while at Sheerness itself a demonstration against them had been staged. The loyal sailors of the Espion, Clyde and Niger, with those of the Firm floating gun-battery, which had escaped from the Fleet two or three days earlier, gathered together, about six hundred and fifty in all, and marched to Queenborough, while the band of the Norfolk Militia blared at then head. Further, they bore aloft their colours, and upon that of the Niger was blazoned in letters of gold beneath a crown, “Success, to a Good Cause.” Salvation it was only too plain, could only come from within.
What could Parker do? He must himself have felt that his journey round the Fleet was a queer mixture of the loyal and the rebellious, with the Delegates using all their demagogic arts to exhort to stubborn resistance, while the bands incessantly blared out “God Save the King” and “Britons Strike Home”! The tirades and harangues on each ship seem to have been directed to explaining, or rather, ingeniously explaining away, the sense of the proclamation, which was now in everybody’s hands, or, if it were not, could no longer be kept from common knowledge. When Appleyard, Quarter Gunner of the Sandwich, found Captain Wood of the Hound sloop reading out the proclamation to his men, he snatched the paper out of his hand, told the men that it was a mass of flummery, and, pointing to the clause excepting the ringleaders from pardon, declared that it would hang them all. Finding his audience the reverse of enthusiastic, this fiery Yorkshireman of twenty-two told them they were a packed of damned rascals who were led by the nose by their captain. His speech was not well received; and as he went off the ship, swearing he would have the Sandwich sink the sloop, one of the men shoved or struck him off a gun.
Parker, nervous and volatile, was not the man for this tempestuous atmosphere. Even a stolid iron-nerved man would have found the position difficult. His attempts to arrive at any satisfactory end had failed dismally, and even if he privately believed that it would be better to submit, he was all the time forced from one irremediable step to another by his masters, the more extreme spirits who spread their fury from the Inflexible. Just as, apparently, the others did, when he read out the proclamation he glozed over the parts relating to pardon, and pointedly stressed those which declared the seamen traitors and rebels. On the Ardent, indeed, one of the officers broke in upon his reading to accuse him of selecting only such parts as suited him best, whereupon the men shouted out to the officer to read them the whole. Parker had to allow it, remarking sourly “that the officers had too much to say,” an observation which could not have added to the sailors’ faith in their leaders.
In his extremity Parker was driven to adopt a ranting type of appeal; one catches the tone of a man who is not a born demagogue desperately striving to stir mob feelings. On the Repulse he declaimed:
I am obliged to you for your conduct. We have grievances which we wish to have redressed; we applied for the Lords of the Admiralty to come to the Nore, they only came to Sheemess, and we were not admitted to see them. Lord Spencer and his Aide de Camp only spoke to us through Admiral Buckner, which was no better than a speaking trumpet. We had sent Captain Knight to get our grievances redressed, but he returned without anything satisfactory. He brought news that we were all declared rebels to our country.
Is there a rebel among you?
and when the men roared back No! ” he returned, “Then if we are not rebels to our country, our country are rebels to us.”
Sometimes he was even driven to try the effect of a personal appeal, little suited to a man of his wavering stamp, who, besides, had not been known to the men long enough to inspire their confidence. “Brothers,” he said, to the men of the Monmouth:
I have told you the contents of the King’s proclamation which ought to excite our indignation. It calls us rebels—are, we so? (a cry from all sides, No! no!) Why, then, our countrymen are rebels to us in calling us so: [this part of the address must have been agreed upon beforehand] I say we are all honest men; I and my brother delegates are all united, and acting m the cause of humanity; and while life animates the heart of Dick Parker, he will be true to the cause.
Gregory supported him in commenting severely upon this aspect of the proclamation, and here perhaps the Delegates were on firm ground, for they, in common with all the men, were passionately eager not to be looked upon as rebels. They always declared that they would go to fight the enemy without a moment’s hesitation; whatever their quarrel with authority, they were not traitors to their country. But the personal appeal was a mistake. Parker was no Duncan adored by his men, no Joyce who had earned their respect as an able leader. Besides, as a mere upstart, he had assumed a position which Joyce had never even hinted at, had usurped the position of Admiral of the Fleet, whether willingly or not, and this would naturally gall the sailors, filled with a strong sense of an ordained hierarchy. On the Ardent he even met with some personal sneers. Hotly rebutting a taunt that he had lined his own purse with the money collected for general purposes, he cried, “That is false; the fact is I owe my washerwoman eighteen pence, and have not even money to pay her”; upon which a jeering shout came from the crowd of men, “ Why, then, you’re a precious admiral indeed!” There were enough ominous indications that any drastic concerted action would be difficult.
Nevertheless it was tried, for it seems to have been arranged that the Fleet, in spite of the removal of the buoys, should weigh anchor and set sail for the Texel, without, however, any precise object being set before the sailors. Moreover, though they might have faith in their leaders for the emergency of a strike, to follow them blindly as navigators was an altogether different adventure. The men of the Ardent, indeed, stated their firm resolve not to go to sea unless they had their captain on board. Yet, in spite of such considerations, on the morning of Friday, 9th, Parker made the signal for sailing; the foretop sail of the Sandwich was loosed, and a gun was fired. A favourable wind was blowing fresh from the south-east; all the ships answered the signal, but strain his eyes as he might, Parker could see no sign of movement, no attempt made to unfurl sail, or even to clear hawse. If this is a clear proof that the seamen’s only object was the redress of abuses, and not to injure their country, it was at the moment a conclusive sign that the confederacy was breaking up, that authority was challenged at the head, that, in short, the mutiny at the Nore had failed.