The Bolt From The Blue

England at the beginning of 1797 was weighed down by war-weariness. The spirits of men sagged, and everything that happened was either shot with stridency or muffled in a blanket of depression. At the beginning of the war, in 1793, France had been ringed round by the Allies – England, Spain, Holland and the Empire – and even some of the French had been on the English side; but the war had brought disillusion, alarms of defeat and universal republicanism, with the usual result of rasped nerves. The French had rallied to drive the English first from Toulon, and then out of the Mediterranean; Spain and Holland had knuckled under, and, worse still, had turned their coats and become allies of the French! As for the Empire, its outer province, Belgium, was now in the enemy’s hands, and, in spite of the wealth poured into Vienna from the pockets of the English taxpayers, Austria was tottering. It was shaken from the West, and rattled at from the South by a brilliant young general, Napoleon Bonaparte, who in the first flush of his powers had overrun Italy, subdued the Papacy, conquered the kingdoms of Sardinia and Naples, and crumpled up several smaller states. There seemed, moreover, little point in going on with the war. Burke had alarmed everybody with his scare about the French Jacobin menace, “spreading the terror” he had called it; but seeing that the Jacobin regime in France had faded out, it would be better, surely, to treat with the Directorate, a reasonable set of people, rather than waste blood and treasure in opposing a menace which public opinion had been mobilised to fight, but which no longer existed. The General Election in the autumn of 1796 had expressed this view very clearly, and shown that the temper was general; whereupon Pitt, who had never loved the war, had hurried Lord Malmesbury over to Paris to sketch out the preliminaries of a peace. Unluckily the negotiations had failed because the French bluntly refused to restore Belgium to its rightful owner, so the pall descended still more heavily over a country now being continually frightened by well-authenticated invasion scares.

The mass of the people, then, felt disheartened at the prospect of the ruinous and threatening war going on, with its crushing taxation, its fantastically high military expenditure, its attrition of foreign trade, not to mention its fears and sorrows. The French obviously meant mischief, and England had no ally left that she could rely on, no great army, and no general “but some old woman in a red riband,” as a member of the Cabinet bitterly complained.

True, there was the Navy, but it had not done much to rejoice at. Mediterranean affairs had been sadly bungled; and if Lord Howe had beaten the French on 1st June 1794, that was long ago, and the victory, feebly pressed, had in the end proved not very decisive; it was, in fact, what Nelson was to call contemptuously “a Howe victory.”

The Navy, it was felt, was not doing its job; it was neither keeping the French Fleet shut up, nor protecting the British shores from invasion. In December 1796, even, while Malmesbury was fruitlessly palavering in Paris, a large fleet with troops on board, enthusiastically directed by Hoche and that seditious Irish devil Wolfe Tone, had issued impudently out of Brest; and owing to a series of accidents, which might be called muddle, Lord Bridport, commanding the Channel Fleet, had not budged from Portsmouth in time to hustle it home. Most of it had reached Bantry Bay, where it was the winds of heaven, not the British Fleet, that had scattered it ingloriously. In February another small force of avowed banditti, bent on burning Liverpool or Bristol to cinders, had actually landed near Fishguard. Once more it was not the Navy that had dealt with them, but the local Fencibles, who had captured them easily, reinforced, it was derisively said, by a posse of women in red cloaks whom the bandits had mistaken for soldiers. It seemed that anything disagreeable in the way of invasion might happen, especially as the French evidently meant it to happen. All the time there were ominous rumours which kept the nerves jangling.

And what would the result be? Nobody could hopefully imagine a happy one. The most nervous people of all were the Governors and Council of the Bank of England, to whom things looked very black. The National Debt was huge (though the sum seems trifling to us now). Pitt, Chancellor of the Exchequer, owed them any amount of Treasury Bills, and though the Bank had clamoured for years to have them repaid, Pitt, in spite of promises, showed no signs of reducing them to any great extent; and now he was demanding another million and a half for Ireland, which was seething with rebellion, besides a huge subsidy to the Emperor. To cautious people there seemed only one thing to do—to hoard one’s wealth; and such numbers of anxious rich old gentlemen hurried to the banks to carry off their money in bags that towards the end of February the distressed directors in Threadneedle Street came groaning to Pitt for succour: the drain on cash throughout the country was becoming disastrous, they moaned; they might have to close their doors! Pitt rose unhesitatingly to the occasion, and, suborning Council and King, suspended cash payments in specie, and placed the whole resources of the nation at the Bank’s disposal. The City, after a momentary shock, reacted with its usual sense in knowing on which side its bread is buttered, and declared that it was ready to use Government-backed paper instead of gold to any amount. So confidence once more rode smiling, not now upon the Bank’s solvency, but upon the broad shoulders of the nation’s credit.

But there was still a good deal of uneasiness. The Bill for making these proceedings legal and for indemnifying the Bank was passed by Parliament, but not without opposition deep-toned with lugubrious prophesyings. Some members predicted disaster: English notes would go the way of French assignats and become waste paper; Sir William Pulteney declared that the Bank had forfeited its charter by refusing specie payments, and that at any rate its monopoly should be abrogated. The City found the suggestion scandalously unpatriotic. Fox and Sheridan declaimed thunderously in the Commons, Lansdowne cast a gloom over the House of Lords, where the Duke of Bedford rode his usual hurricane of invective. And if the Bank looked rosily at now being able to charge nearly 7 per cent, for lending the nation its own credit, more and more money being wanted, the holders of 3 per cents, were horrified to find their stock, as a consequence, steadily sinking.

The price of food, of bread especially, was disturbingly high, and going higher—rises agreeable to profiteers, but bringing distress and even starvation to the masses, with an undercurrent of murmuring and disorder. Cries for peace became louder and more frequent than ever, and to the alarm of timorous Conservatives the radical Corresponding Society was swelling its ranks, and holding more open-air oratorical displays than ever; while, on the other hand, the suspension of Habeas Corpus brought sharply home to lovers of liberty that the forces of reaction were ready to pounce. It was a bleak, grey period, threatened with winds of adversity.

Only one gleam warmed that whole chilly winter, a dim ray which peeped out in the nick of time, a few days after the suspension of cash payments. Hearts beat more firmly at hearing that on 14th February Sir John Jervis’ gallantry, twisted to usefulness by a lightning tactical stroke of Nelson’s, had defeated the Spanish Navy off Cape St. Vincent. Some of the ships were captured, the rest allowed to stagger ignobly into port. It might have been a more dazzling victory; but such as it was, Pitt, desperate for something to show, snatched at the happy opportunity, and made the utmost of it. Jervis was created Earl St. Vincent and generously pensioned, while the great towns showered freedoms and gold boxes upon him; Nelson, recently promoted Admiral, was endowed with the riband of the Bath. All, it was given to suppose, would yet be well. What if the indefatigable Hoche was preparing another invasion at Brest? The British Navy was invincible:

Britannia actually did rule the waves: the gallant British tars were the bulwark of the country. Everything else might be on the verge of collapse, but the Navy was strong, it was sound, it was brilliantly admiralled. The nation might wake or snore in comfort.

Then, without warning, the foundations of all security seemed to crash. The nation suddenly learnt that when, on 16th April, Lord Bridport had ordered the Channel Fleet to put to sea, the sailors had refused point-blank. It was like the crack of doom. The Navy in open mutiny! The Navy disloyal! With its right arm paralysed, the country was lost, its doors flapping open to its triumphant enemies! “The situation,” Lord Arden, a Civil Lord of the Admiralty, wrote as soberly as he could to the First Lord, Earl Spencer, forms the most awful crisis that these kingdoms ever saw,” and the consternation was not confined to official circles. Patriots were in despair, merchants frenzied, the populace stunned. To everybody on land, in every class and every occupation, to every colour of opinion except the plain red, the event was “so seemingly unnatural, and even supposed to be so remote from possibility, that it is difficult to say whether surprise, grief or terror was the predominant feeling which it excited.” Any dreadful thing might happen now: the country was at war, and its chief, its only, safeguard had melted away overnight.

But if the nation had every right to be surprised, there was no excuse for the Admiralty. As early as 1795, Admiral Philip Patton had presented a report to Spencer—who showed it to some of the other ministers—stating that a general mutiny was possible, and showing why desertions were so common as to threaten the very existence of the sea force. This, from a responsible officer, should have awakened some premonition of trouble; but the august rulers of the state would not allow themselves to be made uneasy. There had, as everyone knew, actually been mutinies: the dreadful one on the Bounty in 1789, out of which Captain Bligh had emerged so heroically; one, duly suppressed, on the Culloden in Lord Howe’s fleet in 1794; and that on the Windsor Castle in the same year in the Mediterranean, which had ended in the removal of certain officers complained against. But these, surely, must be isolated instances, of no significance: there were scoundrels on every ship, and sometimes they might predominate. It was true that ships’ crews sometimes addressed petitions to the Admiralty, but complaints are merely paper, they harm no one: the right to complain was only meant to serve as a healthy outlet for high-spirited men, and nobody dreamt of acting on them. And if the complaints voiced protests against the brutality of the officers, no doubt men did not like being flogged, but then what could officers do but flog when faced with the insubordinate prison-scum of which the crews were to some extent composed? Nevertheless the constant if thin stream of piteous letters which trickled in to the Admiralty should have warned the mandarins that something was getting the sailors on the raw. For instance, in 1793, two sets of prayers arose from the Winchelsea at Spithead:

Draft us on board any of His Majesty’s ships. As we don’t wish to go to sea in the Winchelsea … our usage was more like Turks than of British seamen…

We are nockt about so that we do not no what to do. Every man in her would sooner be sot at like a taregaite by muskettree than remain any longer in her.

On 28th My the hard-bit men of the Amphitrite declared that flogging was their portion, and that “when we complain we are threatened to be flogged or beat round the quarter-deck”; those of the Weazle sloop wrote, on 16th August 1795, that their lieutenant, who frequently came on board drunk, amused himself “by making us strip and ceasing [seizing] us up to the riggin and beating us with the end o rope till we almost expire,” and added that they had “put up with his cruel usage a long time without having an opportunity of informing your Lordships.” The unfortunate sailors placed unjustified and childlike confidence in the imagination of the Lords of the Admiralty, who, if civilian, probably had no conception of the horrors of life on a man-of-war, and, if naval, took it all as part of the order of nature. At any rate they one and all turned a stolid ear to such cries of distress, even to the one uttered on 19th August 1795 by the ship’s company of the Nassau, which began: “the ill-usage we have on board this ship forced us to fly to your Lordships the same as a child to its father. It is almost impossible for us to put it down in [sic] paper as cruel as it really is with flogging and abusing above humanity,” and went on to point out that such treatment hardly encouraged them to “Face the Enemy with a cheerful Heart.”

Heartrending documents, written by illiterate men who had not the education to state their case lucidly or even well, certainly not the literary skill to give even a shadowy picture of what they had to endure (it was impossible for them to put it down as cruel as it really was), sporadically loaded the Admiralty post-bag, as that from the Shannon, Sheerness, 16th June 1796. The poor devils of that ship complained of

the ill-treatment which we have and do receve from the tiriant of a Captain [whom they referred to as “Captain Fraizere”] from time to time, which is more than the spirits and harts of true English Man can cleaverly bear, for we are born free but now we are slaves… . We hope your Lordships will be so kind to us and grant us a new commander or a new ship for the Captin is one of the most barbarous and one of the most unhuman officers that ever a sect of unfortunate men eaver had the disagreeable misfortune of being with, which ‘treatment and bad usages is anufe to make the sparites of Englishmen to rise and steer the ship into and enimies port.

That was strong enough, and other letters appeared, in numbers sufficient to show that the protest was general and that a storm was brewing, as from the Blanche, from the Reunion, with reports about captains or lieutenants who would mercilessly belabour their men, throw their clothes overboard, cut their one comfort—their grog—or, last ignominy, shear off the queues or love-locks, which the sailors cherished as part of their self-respect. The Lords of the Admiralty, however, oblivious of being the only protection injured seamen had against the tyranny of the captains, and others, who strutted the decks, irascible, unjust, and bolt-laden godlets, ignored these poignant appeals. They were unmoved by the fact that the sailors literally did turn to them “the same as a child to its father”. Why need they bother? For even if the men complained, they nearly always protested their loyalty at the same time. After all, life in the Navy had always been harsh; discipline must be kept; the King’s business must be carried on, especially in war-time. No doubt complaints would crop up now and then, but so long as the sailors went on fighting, that was all that really mattered.

At the end of 1796, however, warnings of a different kind shadowed the horizon. It began to appear that besides being driven out of themselves by the brutality of some of the officers on certain ships, the men throughout the service felt that they were being unfairly treated in the matter of pay and victuals. They addressed several petitions to the Lords of the Admiralty, who quashed them, not even showing them to Spencer. Yet he did have an inkling of what was going on, and a respectful admonition sent him by Captain Pakenham, on 11th December, was, we might think, one which would rouse any intelligent and humane man, as Spencer undoubtedly was. Pakenham, after speaking about the memorial being addressed to the Admiralty by the captains for an increase in their own pay, went on to say that there was a strong feeling among some of the officers that the people whose pay really ought to be increased were the men. That of lieutenants had lately been added to, now the captains were putting forward similar demands, and the men, who knew they were undervalued, who realised that they would be four times better off on shore, would suppose that every rank had “their own immediate advantage for its object, and to have lost sight in that pursuit of every attention to the underpaid condition of the thoroughbred seaman.” Since the pay of soldiers had been raised some two years earlier, Pakenham continued boldly, no doubt the seamen also would apply for a rise unless something was done for them: “and that is the consequence I would take the liberty of warning your Lordship of. It seems to me too probable to give foundation for any doubt.” This admirable and honourable letter shows that the men’s feeling was known and sympathised with by many of the officers; but what it also shows is that the sentiments of the men were strong, even angry, and, to the minds of some of their commanders, justifiably so.

But Spencer, punctilious gentleman and conscientious civil servant though he was, evidently did not realise that it must have been some very uncommon motive, or unusual pressure of thought, that prompted Pakenham to write a letter raising such a point, single-handed, with his highest superior. And though, as the sequel showed, he could be imaginative and active enough when he saw the occasion demanded these virtues, at this moment he allowed his humane self to be overlaid by his political self. Besides, he had not at this time the remotest idea of how the sailors lived. The Sea Lords, who had not shown him the complaints, “kept him in a state of repressive ignorance.”

So he did not think of the seamen, but of what the Chancellor of the Exchequer would say if he suggested that expenditure should be increased, how Parliament would rage and fume, and the country cry out. It was unthinkable that he should do anything about it. What honourable First Lord could hold up his face after such a betrayal of his estimates? How could he persuade all these people that more pay was not only fair but expedient, not to say necessary? Perhaps it is the difficulty of ever persuading anybody to do anything that accounts for what seems to the layman the infuriating dilatoriness, the everlasting shilly-shally of politicians, for the “too late” accusation so often hurled at them, usually with justice. No doubt on this occasion Spencer, seeing appalling Parliamentary troubles ahead of him if he tried to alter things, took what must have seemed the easiest line—to lie low. So much at least one gathers from his prompt answer to Pakenham, an answer which seems all the more astonishing seeing that he prefaced it by thanking Pakenham for giving him information of which he “should have been very sorry not to have been possessed on a subject of so much importance.“ And then, instead of making use of this important information, Spencer poured out a resistless spate of politicians’ phrases: ”… utter impossibility … expense … in some points of view … at a more suitable season … public discussion infallibly productive of much mischief … absolute impracticability… . ”:

… Though undoubtedly [this subject is] one which we cannot but wish for a proper opportunity of giving some relief upon, it is, however, so very dangerous to be stirred that I trust everyone will see the propriety of not allowing it to be agitated on any account whatever.

In fact, if the snake could not be killed it must be scotched. But there are times when to temporise, to wait and see, to expect the opportunity, is extremely perilous, and costs more in the end than immediate action or concession. In the light of later events there is much in the letter which is ironic—such phrases as “productive of much mischief,” and “absolute impracticability,” when the mischief actually produced from doing nothing was far greater than ever entered Spencer’s mind, and the “absolute impracticability” resolved itself into the simplest thing in the world. If the question was dangerous to be stirred, it was far more dangerous to let it lie, as Spencer was soon to find out.