Their Immovable Lordships

The red flag was a call to action, or was taken as such by the more turbulent spirits at the Nore; besides, whatever denial Buckner might make—and how unplausible the denial was—the sudden irruption into Sheerness of two militia regiments under General Fox smelt of challenge, even of direct provocation. Combined with the stultifying Admiralty reply, which seemed to bang the door on any possibility of negotiation, such a gesture invited the sailors to proceed to deeds. How far the Delegates led them, or to what extent the leaders were jockeyed into leading, it is impossible to say. “It is well known,” Parker was to write, “what authority the seamen had over their Delegates, and in what a ferocious manner the Delegates were frequently treated for not according with every wild scheme which the sailors proposed to carry into practice.” Not from him, he was to say at his trial, had come the idea of hoisting the red flag; the extremists of the Inflexible had dictated the act. Petty officers as some of the Delegates were, they had many of them been kicked upstairs into their dizzier posts; they had lost in authority rather than gained, and had none of the hold over the men that distinguished Joyce and his assistants. They were, in fact, largely pawns, forced to be responsible figureheads behind which the real instigators sheltered. Parker, it is true, too volatile to be constant himself, sometimes entered into the spirit of his “perilous situation,” and showed a certain brittle bravado; but it was against his better judgment.

Thus, whether the Delegates prompted the rapid further developments, or whether they “acted pursuant to, and obeyed the injunctions of, their constituents, 95 remains doubtful; but the events, from which they could not dissociate themselves, do not. Boats with strong armed parties rowed out from each ship simultaneously, and, forming an organised flotilla, bore down on the harbour of Sheerness, with what purpose could only be guessed. It was soon seen that they had no designs upon the town; they swarmed over and seized the eight gunboats lying in the harbour, and with great speed brought them away. The display of force, the use of force, showed that the men were going to put their cause to the hazard of fighting it out, and they emphasised their intention; for as each boat came out to take up its moorings by the island of Sheppey, it fired a round at the fort as a symbol. The die was cast, if not for armed rebellion, at least for physical resistance.

To bring matters, and perhaps their ideas, to a focus as it were, the seamen at about this time consolidated their forces, and carried out a manoeuvre similar to the one which had concentrated the Spithead Fleet at St. Helens. They gathered together the ships scattered about Sheerness and at the Little Nore, and joined them with the ships at the Great Nore, their formation being a double crescent with the captured gunboats at the flanks. Only one ship offered any resistance, the Clyde (thirty-eight guns), the crew of which was still obedient to their captain; but they were warned that if they did not unmoor, the Inflexible (sixty-four guns) would be brought alongside to compel them. The frigate submitted, but her captain and the pilot with great cunning had her moored on the outside of the formation, a place from which she might easily escape if opportunity arose: nevertheless, by the end of the day she was outwardly, at least, part of the mutineers force; every man on her quarter-deck had a red ribbon in his hat, and every woman on board a similar decoration in her cap. The only reply Buckner made to all this was to address another dulcet letter to the Fleet, pursuant to a fresh direction sent him that afternoon, which was merely a restatement of what had already been so barrenly said: the letter promised pardon, stated coldly that the Lords Commissioners saw neither “the propriety or expediency” of travelling to Sheerness, since they had not the slightest intention of “encouraging a repetition of demands by any further concession”; and it exhorted the men to be noble, to return to duty, and to chase the enemy.37 Since this letter was as pompously worded as the former one, it proved equally futile. It was, however, politely acknowledged:

25 May.

To Captain Mosse.

I am commanded by the Committee to inform you that they have received through your communication the letter transmitted from Admiral Buckner to you, from the Lords of the Admiralty. I am further to inform you that no accommodation can take place until the appearance of the Lords of the Admiralty at the Nore.

By Order of the Delegates of the Whole Fleet.

Richard Parker.

The visit of the Lords seemed at the moment to be the crucial point. It is evident that the sailors set enormous store by it.

Till this should be determined—for in spite of the haughty words the men still considered it was not determined—they were prepared to set stubbornness against stubbornness—and, since there was nothing to be done, to wait. So nothing was done, except that the mutineers made the most of their freedom, especially since the news from Plymouth, somewhat tactlessly insisted upon by a message the Admiralty sent by their semaphore telegraph, showed that there also the happiest of reconciliations with authority had taken place. Such news, far from weakening the men, merely stiffened them. Yet they did nothing very dreadful; they behaved, rather, like happy men let out on a holiday; but they began to alarm the inhabitants of Sheerness, and to make the rest of the country uneasy. They would crowd into boats in the morning, their headgear bedecked with large bunches of blue and white ribbons, the Delegates of each ship sitting in the stern-sheets without any mark of distinction, though the men who manned the barges wore round their hats, besides the gay ribbons, a broad band of blue paper with “Success to the Delegates of the Fleet” inscribed on it in gold. Red flags constantly flew from the tops of most of the barges. When all the Delegates were gathered on shore, they would hold conferences at some chosen inn, after which, with Parker at their head, they would march up and down the streets and along the ramparts, appearing to the inhabitants somewhat flown with’ insolence: for with music playing they flooded the streets in arms, red flags flying, “in all the pomp of parade.” Some men, it seems, went up to London to take legal advice, and flaunt their freedom in a wider sphere. On the 22nd John Blake of the Inflexible wrote to the Champion explaining how necessary it was to start a fund for the purpose of employing a “ Law Agent” to help them in forwarding their scheme; 40 and on the 26th a man went into a London alehouse for a pot of beer, and there explained that he and another had come from the Sandwich to see Mr. Fitzgerald, an attorney who did business for the Fleet: a press-gang which had caught them had let them go on seeing their authority. Fie, certainly, did exhibit a mild sense of glory, if not insolence, saying that the Admiral and his officers “were thought nothing of [and that] he (putting himself into an attitude of selfconsequence) was more thought of than the Admiral.” A pardonable piece of childishness. What most alarmed the officials, however, was the way the seamen fraternised with the soldiers, sweeping over the parade ground when they were at their exercises, “and in the very teeth of them along the ranks, shaking hands with their relations and friends amongst the militia.” Their reception seemed ominous.

It was most uncomfortable for the officers on shore; though cut adrift from their commands, they were still responsible, and felt they must do their best to put things right. But how could they? They had no power, even of persuasion. True, there had been little or no animosity expressed towards them, even if some of them had had to leave their ships with undignified speed: or so one would gather from the piteous appeal of a purser separated from his gear:

Mr. Ellery, Purser of the Proserpine, will be much obliged to Mrs. Burbidge if she will desire Charles Nichols to let his boy put his pantaloons, two waistcoats and his coat into his dirty deaths bag and give it to Mr§. Burbidge to bring on shore, he having no deaths but what he has on:

but then pursers were pursers, and other officers seem to have been treated with more respect, as, indeed, were all who remained on their ships. Those on shore continually met to confer, and again confer—there was little else they could do—and lost no opportunity of arguing with the men, offering them the King’s pardon, and telling them how wicked they were. “As though that would have the least effect!

A curious incident which occurred on the 23rd should have made them see the futility of this kind of exhortation. Two marines, part of a Delegate’s boat escort, had come on shore, got dead drunk, and had been arrested by the civil power and reported to the Port-Admiral as usual. When the committee heard of this, they hastily rowed ashore, demanded to see Buckner, and would take no refusal. An interview being granted at the house of the Commissioner, Captain Hartwell, where Buckner was colloguing with his senior officers, Parker, Davis (the “captain” of the Sandwich), and some others, were ushered into the presence. Parker demanded the custody of the prisoners (who would be punished by the seamen) on the ground that they belonged to the Fleet, to which Buckner replied that it was precisely on that ground he was detaining them: whereupon Parker, not too gently, told the Admiral that he had no authority since his flag was not flying. “Parker,” the Admiral is reported to have said, making an odd, old-maidish appeal, “my flag is struck; consider my feelings. “ To which Parker answered, “I have feelings, Admiral Buckner, and I do consider yours: I am sorry to see it, but it is not in my power to prevent it . But whatever may have been said, the interchange so incensed the worthy Captain Cunningham of the Clyde, that he very nearly ran the usurping president through. In the upshot, the deposed authorities, fearful of precipitating an appeal to arms on such a small point, especially as the outcome was doubtful, surrendered the marines, with the pious hope that they might be confined.

The mutineers, in fact, did not give a fig for Buckner, who somewhat ruefully wrote to the Admiralty that nothing he could say seemed to have any effect: the men did not even take his messages seriously.

All are clamorous to have the pardon notified them in a more solemn manner than they conceive the notification of it by me would impress it with (at least I am inclined to think that is their idea), 

he confessed to Nepean. They even treated him as a kind of subordinate, and when the store ship Serapis came in from Lisbon, they virtually seized it, ordered the commander to moor his vessel under the guns of the Sandwich, and to send Delegates on board, after which they were to despatch a message to the Admiral instructing him to send out tenders to remove the sick and the prisoners.

Buckner had orders from the Admiralty to use force if he found it necessary; but, luckily perhaps for himself, he never saw the necessity. It is doubtful if the militia would have been staunch at this date. As for help from the upper reaches of the Thames, any illusion he may have had that it would be forthcoming was soon dispelled. A 156 cutter from the Sandwich sailed up to Long Reach, near Dartford, to be imitated on the 26th by armed boats from the Iris and Brilliant. Men from these boats landed at Gravesend, and though by this time popular feeling had so far turned against the seamen that they were captured by some of the townspeople, they were allowed to go again. Their object was to induce the ships lying in Long Reach to join them, and, in spite of firing from Tilbury Fort, they persuaded the Lancaster to make one of their number. The Naiad, however, refused. The next day they made another expedition, baffled by the guns from Tilbury, and again on the 28th, when two of their number were captured by the press-gang and sent to be imprisoned at Chatham.

Such sorties, and the noise of the guns, began to arouse the fears of the populace: the state of things on shore was one of preparation, terror and excitement.” Comfortable folk on land began to behave as though invasion were imminent, and were encouraged to believe it was by seeing marines, infantry and artillery crowding into Gravesend and Tilbury, at which places the batteries were manned, and the furnaces kept stoked to supply large quantities of red-hot balls to discharge at invaders. It is true that Parker, or his insurgents, did toy with the idea of sending ships up the river to support those that wished to join the mutiny (such as the Lancaster, which had been unable to come down), and to free the river for all those who might wish to swell the throng at the Nore; but nothing of this was ever apparent to the outside world, and any steps he might have contemplated were stopped by the action of the Admiralty.

For on the evening of the 27th there was a Cabinet meeting to discuss what was to be done about the mutiny, for it was now clear that it would not crumble away of its own accord, and the Government was more than uneasy. Also an unforeseen difficulty had raised its head: the pardon they had offered the new mutineers was not valid! In the morning of the 26th, Lord Loughborough, the Lord Chancellor, had written to Spencer to say that the Spithead pardon did not apply, as it only covered acts committed prior to its promulgation. It turned out that the seamen had been right not to accept Buckner’s blandishments. “I conceive,” Loughborough wrote,

that a new and more extensive pardon must be issued upon this case, and I should hope that some part at least of the difficulty arises from a distrust of Admiral Buckner’s authority to give them a sufficient pardon; 

and it is within the bounds of possibility that the lawyer, Fitzgerald, had made the men quite aware of the flaw. The Cabinet therefore decided that a new pardon should be obtained and presented, and that, however deeply the Admiralty’s honour was rooted in not going down to Sheerness, go down it should.

To Spencer the idea was intensely repugnant. His vaguely legal mind found it all wrong. Facts were facts, and rules were rules: why could not people respect the law? Once more the civil servant overlaid the humane man: be had learnt nothing from Howe, who on that very day wrote to the Duke of Portland:

The extravagances of the seamen are not attended to, I think, in the manner they ought to be. We seem here to think that the legal authorities, with which we are vested, are sufficient to secure as well as to claim respect; and that the same impression we have formed on them cannot fail of operating with equal effect on our subordinates;

and was to write a few days later:

As to the neglect you describe of the seamen’s complaints, I can only impute it to the mcompetency of the persons who have the immediate superintendence in the department.

while in his opinion the sense of the officers in the ships with regard to the disorders was little less erroneous than that of the men. 51 But Spencer’s mind was completely closed to that approach: his pride made him shudder at the humiliation of having to go down to Sheerness, as he declared in the almost tearful letter he wrote to the King asking him to sign the new pardon and declaration (which was immediately printed). Nothing would have prevailed upon him to go, “but the extreme and urgent necessity of the case, and its being accompanied by an express determination not to add to the concessions already given”; sentiments with which the King unreservedly concurred.

So, late that night, Spencer, Lord Arden, Admiral Young, and the faithful secretary, Marsden, once more found themselves stepping into coaches, this time with the futile object, ‘it would seem, of further irritating men whose tempers they had played no mean part in rousing. They slept at Rochester on the way, and arrived in the morning of the 28th at Sheerness, where they made Commissioner Hartwell’s house their headquarters. Their presence was at once known on the ships, to the delight of the men, who felt they had scored an important point; but the Board made no motion towards the mutineers, settling down at once, in a good warm office manner, to discover from Buckner and the captains exactly what the state of affairs was. What they heard cheered them, for they gathered that the Fleet was by no means unanimous; that the San Fiorenzo, the Clyde, and five other small ships, all of which had hoisted the Admiralty flag on their arrival, were ready to dissociate themselves from their fellows. This determined the Board to persist in their wooden resolution, although the small ships had been soon overawed by their more hefty companions into striking the Admiralty flag.

That evening a crowd of Delegates surged round the door of the Commissioner’s house; they were quiet, for they felt that the Board’s visit was a sign of weakness, and if “every man’s hat was decorated with red or pink ribbands … there was no huzzaing or music or any other sort of parade or noise.” Expectant they certainly were, for they hoped at last to get contact, to be able to speak as men to men, to explain, to be treated as fellow-humans who, after all, were serving these high gods. But Spencer, “bent upon refusing every demand they had made with the haggling spirit of a slave merchant,” would not hear of seeing them, or of letting himself be seen. He would be majestic and aloof, the mysterious invisible power, as he had been at Spithead, with results that it had taken Howe a hard day’s work to undo, though that aspect seems to have escaped him. He sent a message by Hartwell ‘that he would see them only if they came to receive the King’s pardon; otherwise he would communicate through Buckner, who, accordingly went to the door, and asked what they had to say. The familiar figure of their old, and perhaps too-little-honoured Admiral, was not what the men had come to see, and when he asked, “What did they want to see the Board for? ” Parker, over-excited by the position he was in, knowing that the ranks behind him were not solid, and that it was now or never, said to the exalted messenger, “You are a man of sense, and know what is due to us: you know what we want.” The men urgently demanded to see the Board, and it took some argument on Buckner’s part to persuade them that this was quite impossible. Backwards and forwards the messenger went, till at last the men formulated their plea. They wanted the Spithead terms ratified for them, and a promise that the other points would be considered. Spencer, firmly astride upon his high horse, refused everything: nothing would make him budge: the only thing he could present to his mind as tolerable was the total submission of the men, and their humble approach to receive the Royal Pardon from his forgiving hands. The men trooped off, but that Parker really did say in retort to an admonition from Buckner, “You may all be! ” is not very probable, especially as when Buckner told Parker that should 160 the gunboat which threatened the loyal Niger open^fire, every man on the gunboat would be excluded from the pardon, Parker had merely made a low bow. To round off the evening, the Board sent Mosse to sleep on the Sandwich, carrying with him a message to say that their Lordships expected to hear next morning that the Fleet had “accepted His Majesty’s gracious pardon,” and had returned to duty. They even named the hour of noon, though they did not propose to be pernickety about the actual time.”

Whether the Admiralty message got round all the ships the next morning is doubtful: it seems likely that it was from this time the Committee began to edit the news and messages sent them from shore. Some at least received it, and dissension was rife as to whether or not they should go on. On several of the smaller ships—the Iris, Brilliant, Grampus, Espion, and Niger, all of which Spencer had heard were well-affected—there was a struggle between the red flag and the white, now one, now the other, fluttering at the masthead, till at last the red prevailed; some more captains, too, were compelled to go on shore. On the San Fiorenzo and Clyde, indeed, the men cheered and ran up white colours when the captains read out the message, but here also the mutineers were triumphant, though not without help from outside; for the Inflexible got a spring upon her cable so as to veer round into position to fire a broadside into the Clyde, whereupon the captain, Cunningham, to avoid bloodshed gave up the unequal struggle, and the white flag rattled down. Mutinous as they were, however, the men wanted to make it quite plain that their quarrel was with the Admiralty only, not with the Crown, and since it was Restoration Day, they fired the usual salute; and though the red flag flew at the main, the Royal Standard stood out bravely at the fore. “Such,” the disgusted Marsden exclaimed, “is their insolence.”

Owing to the stormy weather the Fleet had not been able to communicate with the shore during the morning, but by two o’clock the wind had fallen, and a couple of Delegates showed themselves at Hartwell’s house, merely to enquire, it seems, what terms had been granted their “brothers at Portsmouth. They were given copies of the relevant documents, for which they are said to have expressed gratitude, though in what words, or whether what they said was more than common politeness, is not stated. Later, a whole band of Delegates arrived, briskly declaring that they would accept nothing short of their whole demands, to make plain that two could play at “Fm the King of the Castle.” These were presented with a note, which they took away to one of their public-house rendezvous, and discussed about and about for an hour, at the end of which one of them brought a paper addressed to Spencer, telling him that the question had been put to the vote, and that a majority were in favour of going on with the mutiny. Upon which the meeting dissolved.

As the day was drawing to a close, the solitary figure of a dark medium-sized lithe man walked up the road to the Commissioner’s house, and knocking at the door asked for an answer to the Delegates’ last letter. It was Parker, inspired perhaps by some desperate hope that it was still not too late, that something might after all be done to batter through this horrible invisible wall which separated man from man, that some human touch might at the eleventh hour bridge the gap between the representatives, of power and its humblest servants. Already he appears as a lonely figure: he could not be of the men; he was not among the rulers. On being told there was no answer he said nothing; he made a low bow and walked away, back to where the men who had elected him leader were gathering. And when the Delegates returned to the shore in a body to get back into their boats, it was noticed that they carried a red flag before them, a thing they had not done from the time the Admiralty bunting had invited their allegiance, flying above the roof of the Commissioner’s house.