The Pot Boils

Towards the end of March, at the time when the urgent feelings of the men in the Channel Fleet were working up and crystallising out to produce “the breeze at Spithead”, a village schoolmaster named Richard Parker was bundled out of a debtors’ prison in Scotland, and deposited at the Leith rendezvous for naval recruits, a quota-man for the county of Perth.

The commander of the tender which was to take this obvious unfortunate to Sheerness was immediately struck by the polish of his manner, and more still by the look of the man. Thirty years of age, of medium height and well built, swarthy, with vaguely aquiline features marked by large dark eyes expressive below his black hair, which he wore long, there was something about the arch of the brow, the set of the nervous lips and chin, and the indrawn cheeks, which, added to a general delicacy marked him out as very different from the usual seamy scum which oozed from a debtors’ prison. He was desperately poor, he explained unnecessarily, a married man pursued by ill-luck, trying to make a living by forcing elementary knowledge into the skulls of snivelling infants; and being caught in usurious toils, had accepted a quota of twenty guineas to gain his freedom. Yes, he had been to sea before; he had even, indeed, been a midshipman in the Mediator in 1783, and had earned some prize-money. That was all he told Lieutenant Watson of the Leith tender: there was a good deal more to tell, but Parker was all on edge, his nerves were frayed, and he was so depressed by the prospect that lay before him, so tortured, perhaps, by the consciousness of his failure in the past, his vision of himself as a pawn of misfortune, that on the journey to Sheerness he sought an end to his troubles by throwing himself overboard.

Life might well have seemed to him a hopeless game, though it had begun invitingly enough. Son of a well-to-do baker of Exeter, he had, when only half-way through his education, insisted on going to sea, where he had at first done passably well. Then illness had struck across his plans, and perhaps a neurotic temperament. He had transferred from the Royal Navy to the merchant service, gone to Africa, to India, where he had engaged in trade; returned, married, and then, as though the sea must have him, had re-entered the Royal Navy, once more as a midshipman. Unluckily, in 1793, he had been goaded into a very trifling act of insubordination by a superior officer, and, though God knows the provocation had been bitter enough, his reaction of the mildest, he had been court martialled and disrated. Even so he might have done tolerably well, for he was applied for by the captain of another ship, who saw in him a likely petty officer; but illness had once more interfered with his hopeful views, and he had finally been discharged on the ground that he was incurably rheumatic, though there is a suggestion that the trouble was mental. His efforts to make good in Scotland had landed him only in jail, so that—clearly the sea must have him—he was forced to sell himself into a life of which he too well knew the hopelessness and the horror.

But even his wildest forebodings, dark enough to make him momentarily prefer death, could not have rivalled the actuality which met him on board the Sandwich, where he was unloaded with his fellow quota- or pressed-men when the tender arrived at Sheerness, and upon which he was rated as supernumerary A.B. The Sandwich was an old corpse of a ship, built in 1759, and though once a splendid vessel, proud bearer of Rodney’s flag in the West Indies, she now stank with decay. Her full complement in war was about 750 men; but at this period, to her harbour flag and depot-ship complement of 400, she added some 1,100 to 1,200 supernumeraries, recruits of various kinds, and men paid off from other ships, waiting for transfer, all crammed into a vessel rather smaller than the Victory. One has a vision of writhing humanity, like worms crawling over one another in the foetid pot of a boy-fisherman; but no lurid imagining of what this ship was can outdo the report the ship’s doctor made to her commander, Captain Mosse, himself perturbed at the loathsomeness of it all:

22 March 1797.

Sir, The infection which has existed for some time in His Majesty’s Ship Sandwich under your command having of late become more virulent, and resisied the methods that have been taken to check it, which is solely owing to the ship being so crowded, I beg leave to acquaint you that it is absolutely necessary to reduce the numbers of men already on board. Those men that are at first seized with the contagious fever, which has so alarmingly shown itself, are in general very dirty, almost naked, and in general without beds (having lost them either by their own indolence, or the villany of their companions) …

I feel myself peculiarly called upon to point out the little avail of prescribing medecines to unhappy sufferers, who are so bare of common necessaries and compelled to mix with the throng by laying on the decks. The number of sores, scalds, and other unavoidable accidents, which the awkward landsmen are liable to, often degenerate into bad ulcers, which cannot be readily cured on board, owing sometimes to their own bad habits, but oftener to the foul air they breathe between decks; .besides being frequently trod upon in the night from their crowded state.

Sir, it is my professional opinion, that there is no effective remedy, but by considerably reducing the number that have been usually kept for months in the Sandwich, for sickness and contagion cannot be prevented by any physical means where fifteen or sixteen hundred men are confined in the small compass of a ship, many of whom are vitiated in their habits (as) well as filthy in their dispositions. The circumambient air is so inpregnated with human effluvia that contagious fevers must inevitably be the consequence.

Untoward fortune has often placed me m situations where I could not practice my profession agreeable to its principles or the feelings of my conscience, but I never was in a situation more replete with anxiety, than the present as Surgeon of the Sandwich. I have only to add that the whole of the evil herein stated originated from the ship being crowded with supernumeraries, and those men permitted to remain such a length of time on board to the very great detriment (both physically and morally) of His Majesty’s Service.

I am. Sir,

Your most obedient and humble servant, John Snipe.

This was no hysterical outburst from an overtired worried doctor, haunted by the horror of being unable to cope with the impossible, but a sober statement designed and fit for the eye of officialdom: or so at any rate Captain Mosse thought, for he forwarded it to the Admiral Commanding at the Nore, adding in his covering letter, “The surgeon’s statement is, I am sorry to say, a true picture of our situation.”

To the decent men in the service such a pestiferous ship must have appeared as physically abominable as any prison —we know what prison conditions were in those days—and morally many of the men were actually prison rabble, who had either come out of durance, or richly, deserved to be put there. For “it was then a common practice with the London police when they got hold of a confirmed rogue, but lacked sufficient evidence to convict him, to send him on board any ship known to be in want of men, in order effectually to dispose of him.”3 It was degrading for selfrespecting sea-men with good records to be herded body to body with such filth, and they were, moreover, exasperated by knowing that many captains on other ships had applied for experienced men whom they knew, and on whom they had their eye to make petty officers of, only to be refused. This alone was cause enough for a gruelling sense of wrong —to know that you might be enjoying better conditions and better pay, and yet be condemned to horrible companionship, to foulness and disease. And if the riff-raff might not find it altogether amiss to live in this way (apart from the ulcers and the fevers, and the being trampled on at night), some of them might well see in such conditions a heaven-sent opportunity for exercising their talents as blood-warming demagogues. But probably the most powerful influence in causing disaffection was the presence of a large number of quota-men, who, better educated, resented being treated worse than animals, being styed and fed like swine, and often treated like swine by superiors, who, sometimes irresponsible, acted under the protection of a ferocious code known as the Articles of War, which, incidentally, had also been read out on board the Sandwich on 2nd May. They also, discontented for themselves, would help to foment discontent among the seamen. The wonder is not that there was a mutiny, but that the patriotism of any man should have survived conditions one might think made on purpose to damp it down to extinction.

If the Sandwich was the worst instance of squalor that could be found, the men in the other ships at the Nore, and in the North Sea Fleet generally, shared the discontent made plain to the nation by their brethren at Spithead; all were victims of the same system. Since they were ripe for revolt, whether conscious of it or not, the events stirring in the Channel Fleet naturally caused the intensest excitement, and roused hopes which glowed so bright that they became extravagant. That the seamen as a whole sympathised with the first mutiny had been made plain enough at the time by the behaviour of the sailors on Duncan’s flagship; but the men in the North Sea area remained quiet, waiting restrained on the event, until the renewed and fiercer outbreak at St. Helens.

It was, in any case, difficult to organise a mutiny at the Nore. The ships stationed there did not form a unified fleet, designed to go into action as a unit. When the mutiny began, there were only three line-of-battle ships at the Great and Little Nore, the depot-ship, the Sandwich, and two others under orders to join the North Sea Fleet: the remaining eight ships, one of which was merely a floating battery, were of the frigate class, scattered at the Great and Little Nore, and in and about Sheerness. These ships were continually changing, being detailed for convoy or escort 130 duty; there was no possibility of careful preparation, or ensuring cohesion, as there had been at Spithead. Yet the men at the Nore felt they must do something, if only to show that the whole service was at one in feeling with the Channel Fleet. And by hidden means, before the affair at St. Helens was over, they had got together some kind of organisation, arrived at some sort of agreement on how they would act, in spite of the temporary and shifting nature of the squadron, in spite of the sailors of the different ships not knowing one another, and ai having to venture largely in the dark. Perhaps they received a message from Spithead, as the men at Plymouth had done, which would argue that someone at Spithead could be certain of at least one correspondent at the Nore; but it is more likely that the outbreak was due to a spontaneous impulse. Their grievances were the same, and they were burning enough; they knew the matter was in suspense; they, too, had it in their minds that the Admiralty was not above playing fast and loose: a demonstration from them might clinch the business. The fact that they were not led, were not acting on any carefully conceived plan, and had, as will be seen, no clear objective or clear views of what to do, in itself attests the strength of their emotions, their bitter sense of being wronged.

That these emotions existed was, on 12th May, made plain enough to their officers, who had expected nothing, ‘some muttering on the Inflexible a few days earlier having been suppressed. On that day, a court martial, which had begun on the 3rd, was continuing to sit on the Inflexible to judge the case of Captain Savage, who had lost his ship; and it was not until it had duly assembled, many ‘Officers being thus out of the way, that the men made any movement. At half-past nine, however, when the crew of the Sandwich were given orders to clear hawse preparatory to unmooring, they climbed into the rigging and gave three cheers, a demonstration which could mean only •one thing: the pot had boiled over. Their admiral, Buckner, and Captain Mosse, were at the court martial; no steps could be taken with respect to them, but the mutineers ordered their first lieutenant, named Justice, to quit the ship. This done, they sent a boat to the man-of-war lying next them, and asked them to discharge their most obnoxious officers, an invitation which was promptly carried out. The success of this move being seen, the mutiny soon became general. Boats rowed hurriedly from ship to ship to summon Delegates on board the Sandwich, 6 where before very long a committee was set up which declared itself to be in charge of the Fleet, and soon took steps to make this claim actual.

The moment he was expelled his ship. Justice took the news to the court martial, which at once broke up. Admiral Buckner gave the Sandwich a wide berth and went straight to Sheerness, but Mosse returned and boldly faced the music. The men, he found, were quiet: they could afford to be, for they were in complete command. They had assumed possession of the keys of the magazine, storerooms and so on, and had posted sentries with cutlasses on the decks and gangways. On reaching the quarter-deck, Mosse told the boatswain to call the men aft to retail their grievances, but cries of “ No, no! ” answered the call. Mosse then went forward to the fore-hatchway, where he found those whom he supposed to be the leaders; and going down among them he asked them why they were behaving in this “irregular” way, and told them that if they had any grievances he would redress them as far as he could. They answered that if he went back to the quarter-deck, ten or a dozen of them would form a deputation to him; but they thought better of this, and shortly sent him a message to say that he must wait for the return of the Delegates, who had gone to visit other ships. He could do nothing. The acting captain appeared to be the Master, who played the go-between betwixt him and the crew, and when the men demanded the arms, he could not prevent them from seizing them and storing them below well out of reach of the marines. He noticed that all the time they seemed to be strict in their discipline, coping, apparently, the behaviour of their comrades at Portsmouth; but here the Delegates did not yet presume so far as to instal themselves in glory in the state cabin.

By the end of that day the seamen were solidly in possession of the whole fleet, with the uncertain exception of the San Fiorenzo, a frigate which had arrived that afternoon from Spithead. Since she came from the stormcentre where such heartening things were happening, she was cheered by each ship as she passed on her way to Sheerness; but the cheers were a trifle premature, for her crew, pacified by what had occurred on the Portsmouth station, obe\ed their captain’s order not to return the cheers. This was chilling, but all was put right the next day. In the morning, seeing that she was the only ship not in a state of mutiny, the powers thought that it would be convenient to continue within her decks the adjourned court martial on Captain Savage; but soon after the court had assembled, a posse of armed boats arrived from the other ships, vehemently demanding two men from her as delegates, and making it plain that the Inflexible would expect to be cheered as she passed out later in the day on her way to the Nore. The captain of the frigate hastened to the place where the court was assembled, so as to report this alarming news to the President; he was closely followed by the Delegates, who then declared that one of the objects of their visit was to take charge of Savage, by whom they placed themselves; but when they were firmly told that they had no business there, they meekly withdrew. This futile gesture proved a certain indecision in the men from the very beginning, both as to their ends and as to their means; it betrayed a lack of confidence, especially as the Delegates rowed away without doing anything further. But meanwhile the Inflexible, with all her sixty-four guns, was coming magnificently out, under the command of her captain of the foretop, the officers having been politely deposed or disrated, the captain himself, half humorously, perhaps, having been granted the rank of midshipman by way of keeping the ship duly officered. As she drew near, it was seen that the tompions were out of her larboard guns, and that the men were at their quarters; but still the San Fiorenzo gave no sign of complying with the mutineers’ injunctions. When, however, the great ship was abreast of the frigate, she fired a shot which cut away the foot-rope of the latter’s jib-boom, upon which the crew of the San Fiorenzo, seeing that their fellows meant business, gave the cheers of adherence, and the Inflexible, content with her somewhat forcible conversion, passed on without firing another round.

That day, the 13th, the mutineers spent in organising their affairs, which by the 16th were in thoroughgoing order. They drew up a code not unlike the one which had ruled at Spithead, a code which began by stating “Unanimity the only means of gaining the end in view,” and went on to say that strict discipline was to be maintained, no “private liquor” was to be allowed, that respect was to be shown to officers, and that duty was to be carried on as before. Again, although all “unsuitable” officers were to be despatched ashore, no master or pilot was to be allowed to leave his ship. The circular declared with undue optimism that an early communication with all the Delegates would tend to bring about a speedy remedy, and concluded rather oddly, but, after all, democratically, by suggesting that each ship might add any clause which should seem to it proper to procure the preservation, of good order. Besides supporting the central committee, each ship in due course appointed its own junta of twelve to govern it, one of whom was elected to act as captain; and over and above these bodies there was brought into being, by election, a “General Committee of Internal Regulations,” with a secretary and a clerk, which met on board the Director each morning, and apparently saw to the victualling of the_ ships. This was a matter of some 134 urgency—indeed it was later to become a vital question —since most of the pursers, an unpopular race, had been sent to consider their sins on land. Discipline was rigorously maintained, for not only were red flags hoisted, but yardropes were rove as a signal that there was to be no laxity; and, indeed, all the while the Fleet was as well ordered in respect of routine work as at normal times. The junta on each ship acted as a court martial to deal with offenders, and carried out this duty without hesitation. One man, for instance, had his skin broken by twelve strokes of the cat for drinking too much, a negro, known as “Black Jack Campbell,” and another man on the Sandwich were flogged “for getting beastly drunk with small beer”;  the Repulse recorded (but this was later) that “ James Day stands charged with violating two of the most sacred laws enacted for the preservation and unanimity of the ship’s company, viz.: drunkenness in the greatest extream, and neglect of duty.” A petty officer was accused of the crime of inciting men to petition for leave to go ashore; a Midshipman Smith was charged with abusing a “brother” by kicking him, this malevolence being arraigned by a sailor who styled himself, “Counsel for the Crown.” Luckily Smith’s good character, and the evidence of the chief witness, procured a light punishment for him; he was confined to his cabin for twenty-four hours, and compelled to “ast Mr. William Johnson’s pardon.” Only in one instance did the sailors show any vindictiveness, this against the boatswain of the Prosperine, whom for some crime or other they sentenced to death simply to frighten him, reserving him for a different punishment:

He was disfigured with a large swab tied upon each shoulder, a rope round his neck, and his hands tied behind him: m this state he was placed in a boat, and rowed round the Fleet, with a drummer by his side, occasionally beating the “Rogue’s March,” the usual accompaniment of flogging through the fleet; he was then landed at Sheerness and marched through the Dock Yard and Garrison, guarded by a party of Mutineers; and when they considered him sufficiently punished and degraded, they let him loose, and left him without further molestation.

But with all this, no attempt was made to compel authority to move; no demands were voiced, no manifesto issued or petition presented. It seemed to be a mutiny in the air, with no objective. There was, indeed, a good deal of pomp and circumstance about it, both under and on the level of public view. Within the ships the Delegates were busy, for knowing that a majority of stalwarts was not enough, but that an apparent unanimity at least was necessary, they offered the sailors what they knew would be the firmest shackle—an oath. They would visit a ship, and have the men brought one by one to the cabin, and there they would swiftly and in solemn secrecy read over to them a terrific avowal of faith, which was carefully prepared, and had been ready since the 6th: 13

I, A.B. do voluntarily make oath and swear that I will be true in the cause we are embarked in, and I will to the laying down of my life be true to the Delegates at present assembled, whilst they continue to support the present cause …

the man going on to swear that he would discover and report any activity subversive “of our present plan,” or likely to fray the texture of “our present system.” When a sufficient number had sworn, so that their weight would be preponderant, and secrecy hopeless, the rest were dealt with in batches. But what “our present plan,” or cause, or system, might be, was left judiciously vague. It was all very stirring, but it seemed to lack direction: there is no doubt that the men felt deeply, some of them violently, and wanted something done, but nobody seemed prepared to tell them what that something was. The Delegates rowed about, sometimes processionally, in boats weighed down with blaring bands which wearied hearers with the repetition of loyal tunes such as “Rule Britannia,” “God Save the King,” and the now forgotten, though better musically and poetically, “Britons Strike Home”: they marched up and down the streets of Sheerness tremendously armed with cutlasses and pistols, waving red flags, and they held meetings in the public-houses, The Chequers (now no more) being their favourite. Sometimes the meetings developed into gatherings which were more festive, and there may have been carousals on the Sandwich; but that was, for the moment, all. Even the topical poets had some difficulty in arriving at the essence, and would sing:

Old Neptune made haste, to the Nore he did come,

To waken his sons who had slept far too long.

His thundering loud voice made us start with surprise.

To hear his sweet words, and he bid us arise…,


Then at the Nore the lions boldly roused.

Their brethren’s cause at Spithead they espoused.

Each swore alike to King he would be true, But one and all the tyrants would subdue.

Their gallant hearts the chains of bondage broke, Not to revolt, but to evade the yoke… .

or rhymes about impressment, leaving it to be implied what they meant to do. But whatever may be dark, it is perfectly clear that the men felt they were existing under an intolerable burden of unfairness, stupidity and cruelty.

The fact seems to be that the mutineers of the Nore regarded themselves at this stage merely as auxiliaries to their comrades at Spithead. There the decisions would be made, from there the plan of action would be declared, and there, if anywhere, the sailors’ battle would be won. Therefore on the 14th they sent four representatives to the Channel Fleet, who, travelling through London, and narrowly escaping impressment, arrived at Portsmouth, as we have seen, just in time to partake in the festivities which so joyously concluded the Spithead trouble. They returned from the gay reconciliation on the 19th, or rather two of them did, to be chilled by a bleaker atmosphere. They brought with them the relevant papers pressed upon them by Lord Howe, and the news that all was over. What, then, were the mutineers at the Nore to do? Were they humbly to return to duty and crave the King’s pardon? They had to make up their minds, from motives one can only conjecture, and with results which became too horribly apparent to the people of Great Britain. For this mutiny was far worse, more threatening, more violent, and longer maintained, than that at Spithead. If that had been a breeze, this was a full gale. From the beginning the conferences of the Delegates had taken place on the Sandwich, and before many days Richard Parker took the stage as leading Delegate on that ship. It was the Sandwich’s boat which led the processions which rowed so noisily musical through the Fleet, and in it, occupying the place of honour, sat the smouldering, swarthy person of Richard Parker; it was his lithe figure which led the bands about the streets of Sheerness, to the admiration of the then friendly inhabitants; and when at last the Delegates sent out their ultimatum to duly constituted authority, it was signed “Richard Parker, President.”