Untimely Effects of Procrastination

While the Fleet, in controlled excitement, was waiting out its time at Spithead, Lord Spencer was tirelessly busy. Arriving in London at nine o’clock on the morning of the’ 22nd, he saw Pitt, insisted upon a Cabinet council being called at once, with the whole Admiralty Board in attendance, and at five o’clock, with Pitt and Lord Chancellor Loughborough, drove off to see the King at Windsor, where a council was called at nine. There and then they made out the proclamation of pardon, which George III signed and sealed. The Admiralty messenger rushed up to London with it, had a hundred copies printed before midnight, and carried them off damp from the press to deliver to Sir Peter Parker at a quarter to seven on the morning of St. George’s Day, 23rd April.

Parker promptly sent for the Admirals, who consulted with him till eleven, when they returned to their ships, and copies of the proclamation were fetched from the flagship by the various captains, to be made known to the men. Bridport himself read the one on the Royal George, and made a speech in which he promised a general redress of grievances; whereupon the crew cheered lustily, and pulled down the sinister ropes from the yards; then, before very long, the Admiral’s insulted flag appeared once more on the top-gallant masthead.

But the red bunting still flew jauntily on the Queen Charlotte and on the other ships, for in these the men were not quite so sure. Suspicion had entered so deeply into many of their minds that they cynically imagined that the supposed pardon might be a fake. What had happened to the Culloden’s men was vivid in their memories. They decided to wait until they knew what the Assembly would have to say about it, and the Delegates were soon summoned to the Queen Charlotte, where the applause had been somewhat muted after Admiral Pole’s reading of the proclamation. Decision was again delayed by the absence of Patrick Glynn, and of Valentine Joyce, whose family lived in Portsmouth, and who had not, presumably, been present at the happy scene of reconciliation on his own ship, the Royal George; but after a little time they were conducted on board with all the pomp and pride of ceremony. While the tension grew among the officers and men alert for news throughout the Fleet, the debating Delegates came slowly to the conclusion that it would be safer to see the original draft of the pardon; it was not until this had been fetched from the flagship, and they had seen the King’s own seal upon it, that they agreed to be satisfied. As a sign that everyone was appeased, the crew of the Charlotte manned the yards in their best blue and white, and roared communicative huzzas to the other ships; and at last, at about six, the only yard-ropes which yet remained were removed from the Mats, which, with the Marlborough, had shown some reluctance to come in.

The crowds gathered on the beach and quays could see to some extent what was going on; but it was not till the ever-busy Captain Holloway of the Duke came on shore at about seven, “to announce the happy tidings to the anxious spectators waiting the result on the platform,” that they were altogether released from dread. “All the boats from the other ships followed, and the seamen in each on landing declared the business most happily settled… . The intelligence was received with the most excessive joy by the people on shore,” 86 who no doubt celebrated far into a noisy night this convivial conclusion to St. George’s Day. The next morning a portion of the Fleet dropped the few miles down to St. Helens, and four days later most of the rest joined them to wait for a fair wind to put to sea. The Ramillies, Marlborough, Minotaur, and Nymphe, still refractory on account of the detestation in which they held some of their officers, stayed behind at Spithead, under Colpoys in the London, and were detailed to take station near the Lizard when the battlefleet went to harry the French. The mutiny was virtually over.

In the opinion of the country it should have been over long before, and would have been if the authorities had acted with common sense. Scornfully referring to the council at Windsor, the opposition papers remarked that:

It would have been wise and dignified that this council had been held on the first explosion, instead of attempting to chaffer and bargain with the fieet. The moment of negotiation was when they had first made their representation to Lord Howe… . It was hoped that the whole affair would be an awful warning to ministers, how they presumed to trifle with the petitions of an aggrieved people.

They went on to say that “there is an insult in indifference, which is more painful to a spirited man than injury,” but did not fail to point out that injury was there too in the undischarged warrants for pay “lying in vast masses” in various dusty pigeon-holes in London. But mercifully all was now settled, and the country could once more rest its head comfortably on its pillow.

At least so everyone supposed; and all would have been so but for the dilatoriness of the Government, and the contrary winds which prevented Bridport from getting out his ships. The Admiralty itself lost no time: it sent a memorial to the Privy Council on the 22nd, telling them of the promised increases of pay and provisions; but the Council, apparently not realising that they were sitting on a tub of gunpowder in the middle of a crisis, and that swiftness was of crying importance, spoilt it all by setting in motion the slow-grinding wheels of the normal Circumlocution Office methods of legislature. They appointed a committee to consider the proposals, as though they could not have got straight to business by sending a proclamation to be ratified by Parliament at once. “Was this a period for petty formalities and official procrastination? ”Fox was later to ask the House indignantly: “Was it necessary to suspend a business of such importance that the ministers’ clerks might have leisure to form their estimates according to rule? ” As though everyone had not known what the result would be; as though the active part of the Council had not themselves framed, and been agreed upon, the proposals l 87 But even so, the committee considered, no doubt very wisely and importantly, and then they considered again, with the result that they did not report until 3rd May, already a fortnight after the pardon and the promises. The next day the estimates were ready, and Pitt said that he would bring them before the House on Friday, 5th: an unlucky date to choose seeing that the House was not to meet until the 8th! So there was another week gone, and nothing done. Meanwhile elsewhere things were happening, and the place was St. Helens.

The sailors, wind-bound in harbour, had plenty of time to think, and as they thought, suspicion ate further and further, ever more convincingly, into their minds. Why was there ail this delay? It must be that some hanky panky was going on. They had no notion that constitutional law making was a cumbersome business, likely at the end to be long-winded also, and not a simple, easy matter, such as writing out a trade bill. Moreover, it seemed plainer to them every day that the reply to their “total and final answer,” issued on the 24th, had not been very encouraging. Its tone, for one thing, suggested that the sailors were a lot of ungrateful dogs for whom quite enough had been done in raising their pay. In satisfaction of their request for fresh meat instead of flour when in port, they were told shortly that it “cannot at this time be complied with”: as for vegetables, “instead of asking for more, they ought to be most thankful for that with which, at a great expense to the country, they are now supplied.” There was to be no addition to pensions on account of the new great burdens to the public in the way of increases in wages; in the matter of complaints they were graciously informed that these might be made to the commander-in-chief, who would duly appoint courts martial; and to this the Commissioners added sublimely that “their Lordships are inclined to hope that all animosities have ceased, and that the complaints which were brought forward in a moment of ill-humour may now be suffered to drop.” It is doubtful if the phrase “a moment of illhumour” appealed to the sailors’ comic sense as it may at this distance to ours; at all events the answer was damnable in tone and silly in substance. The seamen therefore muttered as they pondered; but if they became sullen, they did nothing to disturb the equanimity of the high and mighty deciding their fates in London.

All the same, a decided note of warning sounded from Plymouth. On the 26th, the crews there in the squadron under Sir Roger Curtis mutinied in sympathy with, and apparently in accordance with instructions from, their comrades at Spithead; at any rate they did it neatly, picturesquely, and without a hitch. The next day Captain Squire, of the Atlas, wrote to Sir John Orde, the officer commanding at Plymouth, to say that his crew were ready enough in returning to their routine duty, but would not be patient for more than three or four days, in which time, they had no doubt, the expected Act of Parliament would be passed. Orde forwarded the letter to the Admiralty, and while telling them that Squire guaranteed the loyalty of his men for this short time, expressed a strong hope, which should have spurred the authorities on, that the Bill would have gone through by then. But even this hint, if they ever saw it, did not hasten the majestic pace of the “ministers’ clerks.” Meanwhile, on the 28th, the men at Plymouth, growing restive at hearing nothing, decided that they must get into close personal touch with their friends at Portsmouth, and that the best way to do this was to send them a deputation. But how? There was the problem, for they would have to ask for an Admiralty boat, and it might be refused them. What then? The leaders at Plymouth addressed a letter to the crews of the ships in the Sound:

28th April 1797.

Brothers of the Squadron,

We are one and all unanimously agreed if out request is not complied with immediately for a cutter to go round with the Delegates to Spithead to know the issue of this affair, we are determined to get the ships under weigh immediately to proceed there.

It was a bold threat, and the Delegates apparently knew it, since they did not give the captains a chance of calling their bluff.

For they were not granted a cutter, and they did not sail the squadron up-Channel to Spithead. What they did do was rather tamely to hire one of the Portsmouth cutters, and man her with two Delegates from each of the rebellious ships, the Atlas, Saturn, Majestic, and Edgar. Yet their send-off was inspiriting enough. About five o’clock on the evening of Friday, 28th, the deputation left Hamoaze. When abreast of the Saturn and the Atlas (their “Parliament Ship”) the crews tumbled up from below, crowded the gangways and forecastles, and saluted the adventurers with terrific cheers, which were returned; after which the cutter went spanking up the Channel under a crowd of canvas. The men they left behind behaved extremely well, with great sobriety and scrupulous respect for their officers, “in short, [with] that kind of regularity that is altogether unusual, at and after the payment of wages”; for their Delegates promised to be back on the Monday evening. When these representatives got to Portsmouth, six of them went to interview Sir Peter Parker, from whom they demanded and got assurance that the Fleet had satisfactorily settled its differences with the Admiralty. They all went back happily on the Sunday, six by one of the passage vessels, two by land express. Yet not altogether happily; for the two Delegates who had gone to St. Helens and visited the Queen Charlotte and other ships came away with a flea in their ear: the crew of the Royal George had damned them up and down for leaving their ships, told them to go back at once, and added that if they found them loitering at Portsmouth they would infallibly hang them.

Far from regarding the Plymouth affair as symptomatic, and doing all they could to soothe the men while the “Seamen’s Bill” was being prepared, on 1st May the Admiralty sent down to the captains of ships an order which was “a masterpiece of folly.” It annoyed the officers considerably, since it accused them by implication of pilfering the best of the men’s supplies (which was not altogether untrue), and insisted on the better regulation of medical stores; but its main purport was that discipline should be tightened up. The captains were to see that “the arms and ammunition belonging to the marines be constantly in good order, as well in harbour as at sea — a thing which had never been done before, and which could have only one meaning; moreover, the order concluded by saying that the officers were to be ready “on the first appearance of mutiny to use the most vigorous means to suppress it, and bring the ringleaders to punishment.” The men in command, on the spot, knew there would be the devil to pay if that got out, and were as reticent as they could be about the order: they were like men in a powder store, into whose horrified hands the authorities had thrust a lighted fusee.

Yet the Admiralty may have thought that their exhibition of sheer imbecility was a brilliantly effective creation of the intellect when they heard how an attempt at mutiny in the North Sea Fleet had been overcome by a spirited application of discipline. On the afternoon of 30th April, Admiral Duncan heard the men, who were swarming on the forecastle and fore-shrouds of his ship, the Venerable, give three unauthorised cheers. He immediately mustered the officers and ordered the marines under arms, for everyone knew what this sort of hurrahing meant. He was profoundly grieved that the men for whom he had always done so much should behave in this way, and he was also very angry indeed. He was bursting with rage as he heaved his gigantic frame forward “to know the cause of such improper conduct,” and it was only with the greatest difficulty that his chaplain was able to prevent him running his sword through one of the men. It was not long before this tower of fury got his men under control, and rated them so soundly, and so humanly, that when he asked them what they had meant, they could only answer meekly that they thought there was no harm in doing as their friends at Spithead had done. Duncan forgave them; they were his children, and that they meant no harm he knew by the letter they had written on the 27th:

Venerable,

21th April 1797.

The seamen of the North-sea fleet beg leave to return their grateful thanks to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, for their ready compliance with the humble request of their worthy companions m the Channel Fleet. At the same time to convince their lordships of our united and steady support of his Majesty and our country, we will at all times risk everything that is dear to man. Have only to regret, from the situation of the enemy we are opposed to, it has not been in our power to show the nation we wish to do our duty and honour to our country and worthy commander-in-chief.

Seamen,

Yarmouth Roads.

The affair seemed to promise well, and everybody was pleased, especially Lady Spencer, who wrote to Duncan, on 3rd May, from the Admiralty:

My dear Admiral,

You must allow me to thank you for your kind letter and obliging attention to my request, and I am the more eager to do this because, in the same page on winch I return you my acknowledgments for these favours, I have an opportunity of expressing to you my delight at your dexterity and spirit upon certain cheermgs on board the Venerable. The success attending such well-judged and vigorous conduct makes me lament that we have not more Adam Duncans. However, since we can’t cut him up into several pieces (tho’ there is certainly enough of him to make many reasonable-sized men), we must be contented with having one of that name who will keep the North Sea fleet in good order. God bless you, my dear Admiral.

Believe me sincerely yours,

Lavinia Spencer.

But on the very day that Lady Spencer wrote these charming things to her Gargantuan friend, a debate took place in the House of Lords, with a wholly unexpected result. The Duke of Bedford, cantankerously in opposition, asked if the ministers had any communication to make on recent occurrences in the Navy. Spencer answered that he was not charged by the King to make any communication to the House, nor did he foresee that any communication would be made upon that subject. Apart from the obvious consideration that the Government did not want to prejudice the question while a pertinent Bill was being concocted, no minister wanted the limelight turned on to this business: least of all would Spencer want to produce his somewhat too revealing correspondence with BridporL He hoped that everything would be hushed up and no more said. Howe then rose and gave a summary of the affair so far as it had touched him, regretting that the subject had ever been brought under discussion. Lord Grenville, Foreign Minister, told the Duke of Norfolk that he would oppose any motion for papers as being impolitic; whereupon the Duke of Bedford growled that he would try to find some means of calling for them. Really it was quite an innocuous debate, merely an opposition sticking pins into a Government; but its effect in the Channel Fleet was disastrous.

For the somewhat garbled versions which appeared in the newspapers gave the sailors, quivering with suspicion, the firm idea that either the ministry or Parliament meant to go meanly back on the promises the Board had made the Delegates. What did Spencer mean by saying he did not expect to have to make any communication? It was all very mysterious; they had waited and waited, and nothing had happened, till now—this! As early as 30th April a watchmaker on the Mars had gossiped with the surgeon’s mate while he worked in his cabin, and told him that the men thought the Admiralty were trifling with them; and, finding he had a gullible listener, went on to make the good man’s flesh creep by saying that the sailors meant to take the Fleet into Brest! Thus by the time the reports of the debate had had time to sink in like acid on an appropriate base, the men were fizzing with the certainty that they had been cheated. It seemed so obvious that one of the Delegates was heard to say “that those who had power took them for fools, or vagabond knaves; but they would convince them that they were neither, and that they would not be so treated.” 98 On 5th May the men of the Queen Charlotte were hailed by a boat from the Mars from which the men shouted that Parliament was going to throw out the Seamen’s Bill, and for proof chucked a bundle of newspapers through a lower-deck port-hole. It is not as though the Mars was led into any excess by unduly excitable or seditious Delegates, for of the two, both at that time A.B.’s, one was promoted midshipman that very month, the other quarter master’s mate the next September. 100 The simple truth is that the men profoundly mistrusted either the Admiralty or their power to get the Bill through.

As soon as Bridport got wind of this inauspicious feeling among his men, he did his best to soothe it by reading them out a copy he had just received of the Bill the Privy Council had drafted. But at this stage such a “proof” did no good. The sailors, in a state of “preternatural suspicion,” were firmly convinced that Parliament had every intention of rejecting it; and their suspicion became a certainty when it leaked out that on 1st May the Admiralty had sent down a very ominous order. In fact the men on the Duke were made so desperate by dire rumours of what the order conveyed, that they made up their minds that, by hook or by crook, they must see what it was all about. They did, in the event, adopt direct methods. They burst into Holloway’s cabin and insisted on seeing the order; but Holloway, realising what a dangerous document it was, had destroyed It. The men, however, were not to be baffled. They seized their captain, and sent a message to the Admiral demanding a copy, and swearing that if they did not get it they would either hang Holloway, or subject him to “a degrading punishment,” by which they at first meant flogging, afterwards to soften their intentions to ducking. This was flagrant, raw mutiny, but Bridport was helpless: he gave up the order, which was without loss of time hastily sent from ship to ship all round the Fleet to add fuel to the already mounting flame.

The leaders on the Queen Charlotte—if they were the leaders—acted promptly, and at once began to weave anew the close net of a disciplined mutiny. From that ship a note was sent round:

This is the sole agreement of the fleet, that our matters is not fulfilled. We are still to a man on our lawful cause as formal. We have come to an understanding of Parliament, finding there is no likelihood of redress to our former grievance. Therefore we think it prudent to obtain the same liberty as before. So until our matters are comply’d with we are determined not to go to sea.

P.S.—There is Marlborough and Nymphe in a wretched condition. If Admiral Bridport does not comply with these measures and forward them, we will take the speediest methods.

The last words have a grim sound. The two ships named, we remember, had been left behind at Spithead as being more refractory than the others; and small wonder, since the captains of both ships were in the habit of belabouring their men about the head with a speaking-trumpet.

All the next day the Fleet was in a state of, fevered activity; the men of the Incendiary transport even cheered, and were restless with insubordination; boats with messages or Delegates went ceaselessly between the ships, in which opinion was hardening, and determination rising to a height at which it could look possible violence in the face without faltering. Thus the Ramillies wrote to the Glory on the 7th, perhaps as a circular:

Brothers,

Our ideas relative to the dilatory proceedings of Administration in not passing or even of bringing in any kind of forwardness an Act of Parliament to ratify the promise made by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty for the increases of our wages, etc., are as follows:

They mean to lull us into a supposed state of security relative to their good intentions towards us by granting us a temporary increase of provisions, etc., which ’tis true they have already done, with no other view than to keep us in the dark as to their intentions respecting the main points in view. If they once divide us and get us upon different stations, be assured they think they can then make their own terms. They know we are no politicians, but at the same time our late proceedings have convinced them that we are not entirely bereft of rationality. We all know that without an Act ratified by Lords and Commons, the promises of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty are of no avail. Why, then, delay the passing of such an Act, and endeavour to amuse us with needless procrastinations and evasive subterfuges?

P.S.—We are well assured that the Seamen’s Bill is hove out, particularly meeting the disapprobation of Lord Spencer, etc. We have this from good authority. If you receive this letter and approve of it, let a pair of white trousers be hung from the sprit-sail yard arm as a signal of approbation.

The Lords Commissioners might have been flattered to feel that they were capable of such masterly depths of cunning; and probably after this note had been read a pair of white trousers did flutter gaily in the breeze, but something more alarming than the exposure of a garment happened when the Royal George got a message from the Pompee:

Our opinion is that there [is] not the least reliance to be placed m their promises, which, sorry as I am to say like, our oath of fidelity is broke if we do not remain unshakened until the whole is sanctioned by an act of Parliament. Now, brothers, your steady friends the Pompees beg of you to give them a final answer, and whatever may be your proposals, we one and all will never deviate from being determined to sink or swim.

This caused such murmuring and seething, that Admiral Pole, who had transferred his flag and joined Bridport on the Royal George, saw fit to address the crew; and urge them to wait patiently. The ferment subsided; but if Pole thought that the matter was over, he was very much mistaken. The men had waited a whole fortnight now, which in their ignorance of the majesty of legislation they supposed was time enough for their Bill to have been passed a dozen times over—an opinion fully shared by the opposition in Parliament—and were angrily determined not to be bamboozled any longer.