In sending Bligh to concert measures with Duncan, the Admiralty were pursuing the line they had proposed to themselves, with some misgiving piercing through the debonair phrasing, when Nepean had written to the Admiral at Yarmouth to suggest that his ships might subdue those at the Nore. Bligh’s mission was, perhaps, all the more urgent, since Duncan’s reply had not been inspiring. It appeared to be by no means certain how the men of the North Sea Fleet would behave. On the evening of 16th May, for instance, the crew of the Albatross sloop had been “very riotous and disorderly,” and though the tumult had subsided, and the sloop sent upon its proper convoy business, it was not until the captain had threatened one man with a pistol, and the lieutenant had cut down another with his hanger, that calm had prevailed. Therefore it was not surprising that Duncan found Nepean’s question required “some delicacy to answer.” Having said this, he went on:

The fleet here continues to behave well, and I am sure will refuse no common service. At the same time, to call them who have kept in order to chastise those at the Nore, in my opinion would subject them to a disagreeable jealousy from all other parts of the fleet who engaged in this unhappy business; but for all this I don’t shrink from the business if it cannot otherwise be got the better of; and this day, having occasion to speak to my ship’s company, a thing I have lately practised much, from what happened last night I touched gently on what I might expect from them in support of my flag and self in the execution of my duty. They to a man said that they were ready and willing at all times to obey my commands.

What had “happened last night,” 22nd May, was the refusal of the crew of the Trent to leave their moorings, on the ground that they had not got proper weights and measures. That affair had soon been settled, especially as Duncan had been determined to enforce his orders; and, he wrote:

I asked my people what they thought they [the Trent’s people] deserved. Their general answer was that they should be made to go to sea; and if I would let them chastise them, they would. … Much harmony is in this fleet, which I think has kept us right.

Then, his outraged spirits getting the better of him, he continued:

I hear that people from the ships at Sheerness go ashore in great numbers and play the devil. Why are there not troops to lay hold of them and secure all the boats that come from them? As to the Sandwich, you should get her cast adrift in the night and let her go on the sands, that the scoundrels may drown; for until some example is made this will not stop.

God bless you and send us better times, not that I despair. This chastisement is sent us for a warning to mend our ways.

Such ferocious sentiments do not give a true picture of Duncan, who was actually most humane, much loved by his men, for the simple reason that he regarded them as human beings, and would talk to them as such. That he had their confidence he knew from the letters they occasionally addressed him, such as the one he received at about this time, entirely approving of his conduct, and declaring that “we will not, as long as life will permit, in any respect see either you or the flag insulted”: while the postscript, which referred to the Nore mutiny, stated that though “it would appear unnatural for us to unsheath the sword against our brethren, notwithstanding we would wish to show ourselves like men in behalf of our commander, should necessity require.”

This touching personal loyalty sheds a glory on men and Admiral alike. The truth is that Duncan, though stern for discipline, and never by any word approving of the men’s subversive actions, in his heart of hearts sympathised with them; in his view the ways of the upper hierarchy were certainly in want of mending. Two years before he had addressed a paper to the Admiralty strongly recommending that the number of lashes should be limited, that grog should not be stopped, that unpleasant duties should be shared out, that more petty officers should be made, that leave should be regulated, tobacco, soap, and lemonjuice served, and that there should be a more equal distribution of prize-money: he had had, moreover, a few words to say on the subject of pursers. If the Admiralty had listened then, or remembered his advice when they went to Sheerness, the mutiny need never have been expiated in blood, which, if not innocent, was at any rate righteously indignant.

On the 24th the Admiralty, hearing that the Dutch Fleet was about to issue from the Texel, ordered Duncan to put to sea if the wind held easterly; apparently it did not, for he made no immediate move. On that day also the deputation of seventeen left the Nore in the Cygnet on their hortatory mission to Yarmouth, encouraged, it is reported, by Neptune, who sang to them:

“Away, tell your Brothers, near Yarmouth they lie,

To embark m the cause they will never deny.

Their hearts are all good, their like lyons I say;

I’ve furnished their minds and they all will obey.”

The Admiralty warned Duncan of their approach, and also that the four Delegates sent earlier had been tampering with his men; no doubt it was through their instrumentality that Neptune had furnished their minds. On the 26th, therefore, the Admiral ordered the Vestal (twenty-eight guns), the Hope lugger, and the Rose cutter, to cruise between Lowestoft and Orfordness to intercept the visitors; and on the same day he decided to put to sea the next morning wherever the wind might lie.

By the time he gave the signal to repair on board he was exceedingly anxious about the state of his Fleet; and, indeed, it was not long before ominous cheering was heard from the Lion. That morning she had sent a boat to the Standard, and though her men had not been allowed on board, the men on the Standard had refused to hoist their boats in. The Lion’s men then attempted to seduce the Glatton and the Belliqueux, but without success, the Glatton’s crew retorting to a threat that they would be fired on by shouting back the sooner the better, for they could fire as fast as their attackers. Duncan had called the captains on board to find how matters stood, and what would be likely to happen if orders were given to sail; he gathered that all the ships would obey, except the Nassau, which declared its refusal to move until paid. So far good, and even better when the men of the Lion and the Standard sent apologies for what had occurred that morning; but even so, Duncan felt he could not depend upon them, except, indeed, to fight the enemy. Of that there was never any doubt.

It was not without qualms, then, that the Admiral put to sea at 5 a.m. on the morning of the 27th, with his whole Fleet except for the Nassau, which he felt it would be wiser not to tempt to disobedience. There were, however, other ships of which he was doubtful, especially the repentant Standard, loud in its demands for arrears of pay, and which he had thought of leaving behind also. For this was not the first time the Standard had given trouble. On the 5th the men had barricaded themselves in the bays, and pointed four guns aft. Duncan himself had rowed over with all speed; and the men had returned to their duty after he had shamed them with one of his stern, fatherly speeches. They had thrust a letter into his hand:

Honoured Sir,

We are sorry to have recorce to this method of disclosing our minds to you, but nesseseiy demands it to clear ourselves from the infamous imputation of mutney being thrown upon us meaning no sutch thing but the comon cans of the British Navy we being allready the jest and redicule of this whole fleet likewise our boats cannot go on shore but the men are exposed to the scoffts and jests of others and accounted as men that cannot stand up for their own rights threalned that whenever the blessings of peace shall be restord to revenge themselves upon us wherever they meat us for our cowerdlmess as they term it theirfore we hope Hond. Sir under theese curcumstances we have stated to you we hope you will not consider us as a rebellious or routines set of people but as men who without failing in the least in their respect thay owe you and the other officers would wish to do their duty as such Honoured Sir if any cruelty be used against us and any of our lives be taken you cannot think will tamely suffer it no we wil have the life of the person if we suffer for it afterwards theirfore we intend not to die cowerdly but as men who will to the utmost verge of life not only defend their countreys cause but also defend themselves against any other intemel enemies that may oppose.

That breathless and not very coherent sentence had seemed to express loyalty so long as the men could be preserved from ridicule; yet, as Duncan knew from the report of the captain the day before the outbreak, the crew considered that they were unduly in want of necessaries, and this deficiency had not yet been made up.

Moreover, one of his big line-of-battle ships, the Adamant, had been the scene of an outbreak, though he had so satisfactorily quelled it that he had told Vice-Admiral Onslow to transfer his flag there from the Nassau. On the 13th there had been the usual symptoms in the Adamant—the cheering, and the refusal to obey orders—upon which he had hurried on board, hoisting his own flag there. Facing the heated crew, opposing his solid bulk to the restless pack, he had said:

My lads, I am not in the smallest degree apprehensive of any violent measures you may have in contemplation; and though I assure you I would much rather acquire your love than incur your fear, I will with my own hand put to death the first man who shall display the slightest sign of rebellious conduct.

After a pause, which allowed the men to be quite clear in their minds that he meant what he said, he asked if any man ventured to dispute his authority, or that of any officer.

One man actually had the almost unthinkable courage to take up the challenge offered by the colossal, determined figure, and came forward to say, “insolently” no doubt, as was reported, but still with enormous pluck, “I do.” Without a moment’s hesitation Duncan gripped him by the collar, and holding him over the side of the ship with one arm, said, “My lads, look at this fellow, he who dares to deprive me of the command of the Fleet!” There are times when it is well to use a giant’s strength like a giant, especially if combined with a sense of humour; and this display was so irresistible that, though the laughter is not recorded, there was never again any trouble among the Adamant’s delighted seamen.

But Duncan could not be sure of them as yet, and there was still another ship, the Montague, which had remained at anchor, and without permission, for reasons that her captain, John Knight, explained to the Admiral in agitated prose;


Yarmouth Roads,

27 May 1797.


It is with extreme reluctance and some pain that I am under the necessity to inform you that the company of His Majesty’s ship under my command have to my surprise and mortification refused to a man to unmoor or carry the ship to sea untill they are paid up till six months. I have in vam remonstrated, assuring them that when the cruise was ended that application would be made for their being paid; they have thirteen months due, but they one and all quietly and deliberately said they had resolved by oath to abide by each other, and not to move unless to the Nore to be paid, except the enemy was in sight.

Knight wrote a similar letter to the Admiralty the same day, and with it enclosed a document “Signed by three of the most orderly men by the company’s direction”:

The ship Montagu is so leaky that she makes three feet water every 24 hours, and the decks leaking in many places, so that people’s hammocks are wet very often, in so much that the ship’s company are determined not to go to sea till she is docked or the leaks stopped and paid down according to the rules of the Navy. And we do insist on another surgeon for the present one is very unskilful.

By order of the Ship’s company,

One and All.

So the squadron was reduced by one more ship, and very nearly by another, for things had not gone smoothly on the Repulse. At the signal to unmoor the crew refused to man the capstan, and when

called on the quarter-deck to know the cause, they replied they had both pay and prize-money due, and would not go to sea. Captain Aims talked to the men for some time without effect; after some conversation in the waist with their officers they came aft and manned the capstan and we sailed,

so Lieutenant Henry Carew of that ship recorded. In fact, the whole Fleet was uneasy; and even in the Venerable herself, at four o’clock that afternoon, there was an outburst of cheering from men crowded on the rigging, but this demonstration was promptly subdued by Major Trollope of the marines, who rushed on deck with his men, secured six of the ringleaders, and put them in irons. The Admiral was profoundly hurt by this behaviour after all that the men had said to him, but took no further notice.

Duncan would not at this stage have found it “delicate” to answer the question as to whether his ships could or would subdue those at the Nore. The facts were too plain; and perhaps it was to save the generous-hearted and gallant Admiral a bitter sense of irony that fate caused Captain Bligh to arrive at Yarmouth when the ships had left, and in such circumstances that he dared not send after them the letters he brought: and what would have been the use?

We send you Captain Bligh [the Admiralty had written on the evening of the 26th] on a very delicate business, on which the government is extremely anxious to have your opinion. The welfare, and almost the existence, of the country may depend upon what is the event of this very important crisis, but till we know what we can look for from your squadron it will be very difficult for us to know how to act.

They were taking the matter seriously enough now: “the welfare, almost the existence, of the country …” that was not to put it too strongly; and they were soon to know what to expect from Duncan’s Fleet without the intermediary efforts of Captain Bligh. On the 27th the Admiralty wrote to Duncan to prepare to attack the ships at the Nore; but before the letter reached him he was writing in heartbroken tones (“ I am fatigued to death, and cannot hold it long”), “Sorry I am to repeat there is no dependence on any of us, I fear.” “The Western fleet,” he had just written, “has much to answer for; they have lighted up a flame that all their art will not suddenly quench, or I mistake it.” The worst symptom was that in most of the ships the marines seemed to sympathise with the seamen. “ I … have only further to say that I have lived to see the pride of Britain disgrace the very name of it.”

Yet at the time of his writing in this tone of despondency, on the 27th, things had not gone so badly: he had most of his ships with him, at anchor about four leagues from land, for since the wind was westerly, and thus of no use to the Dutch and French who wished to issue from the Texel, there was no need for him to make for the mouth of that river. But at about seven o’clock matters grew worse, for he received a message from the Belliqueux, to say that her crew was in great disorder, “and determined to send boats to the Lion, for what purpose I know not, but I am sure for no good.” He therefore made the signal to weigh and stand out to sea, which his ships accordingly obeyed, except for the Belliqueux, which ominously made the signal of disability. Duncan meant to stand off till the next day, with the ships that would follow him, and anchored about two leagues farther out. The prospect was gloomy, but, on the other hand, he was probably encouraged by the visit he received at eleven in the evening from the lieutenant of the Rose cutter, who joyfully told him that he had captured the Cygnet the evening before, and caught all but three of the Delegates. The bulk were safely held in the Hope lugger, in which Duncan ordered they should remain, to be conveyed to the Downs in her. That at least was on the credit side.

In the course of the night, however, the Lion and the Standard “parted company,” as the grieved Admiral put it, and early on the morning of the 29th he saw the Montague a long way to windward, standing towards the west, and rightly concluded that she was going to the Nore. As for the rest of the day, The Times reported, from Yarmouth:

Admiral Duncan’s fleet is now returning into these Roads, having been the whole time in sight of the town. The Standard and the Lion have come in and have hoisted the flag of defiance. The Nassau lying m our road has done the same… . The Belliqueux is come in and … hoisted the flag of defiance. It seems the men treat the officers in general well and perform their duty regularly.

That was the beginning of the general rot which gradually spread through the whole, though the mutiny here was more sporadic than in the other centres of the strike; no leader emerged, and there seems to have been little of that preliminary organisation, which, perfect at Spithead, had been apparent, if weaker, at the Nore.

The order to weigh which Duncan signalled on the 29th was indeed obeyed, but reluctantly, and though the ships made eastward to begin with, they one by one deserted their Admiral, to his intense mortification. Never before had a British Fleet turned for home in the face of the enemy. Yet two big ships were loyal, his own—the Venerable —and the Adamant, over whose side he had held a squirming rebel; besides these there were two small ones, the Trent, which he had threatened to fire into, and whose loyalty is a striking tribute to his personality, and the Circe frigate. So Duncan held steadfastly on his course, and on 1st June anchored before the Texel. For three days the wind was in the east, and for three days Duncan blockaded the whole enemy armada (“ 14 sail of the line and 8 frigates with a number of other vessels amounting in the whole to 95,” he wrote), with only two line-of-battle ships, and two tiny auxiliaries, making signals to an imaginary fleet in the offing. The ruse succeeded, the Dutch Fleet did not come out; but Duncan was determined that, should it do so, he would sink his ship with all her company, in such a position as to block the fairway, at a depth to leave the flag fluttering at the masthead above the waves.

Early in the afternoon of the 29th most of the ships were on their way back to Yarmouth: the Glatton, so fiercely loyal a day or two before, left at about one o’clock, going, not to Yarmouth, but to the Downs, where, however, she changed her mind, and in a few days returned to her Admiral at the Texel. On the Agamemnon the mutiny took the officers by surprise, the first they knew of it being the refusal of the men to answer the call of the boatswain’s mate after their dinner. The officer of the watch. Fourth Lieutenant Brenton, at once reported what had happened to his commander, Captain Fancourt. Then

we went forward on the lower deck, and found the men had made a barricade of hammocks from one side of the ship to the other, just before the fore hatchway, and had left an embrasure on each side, through which they had pointed two 24-pounders; these they had loaded, and threatened to fire in case of resistance on the part of the officers. The captain spoke to them, but, being treated with much contempt, returned to the quarter-deck. A few minutes after a number of the people came up; some seized the wheel, while others rounded the weather braces and wwe the ship, passing under the stem of the Venerable. The admiral made our signal to come to the wind on the larboard tack, the same as he was on himself. We answered with what was then called the signal of inability, being a flag half white and red over half blue and yellow, both horizontally divided. When the sails were trimmed on the starboard tack, and the course had been shaped by the delegates for Yarmouth roads, the captain went to his dinner with the officers, whom he had, according to the usual custom, previously invited, leaving me in charge of the deck, though without the smallest authority, if such an anomaly can be conceived. About half-past 3, Axle, the master-at-arms, came to me, and openly, in the presence of others, said, “Mr. Brenton, you have given the ship away; the best part of the men and all the marines are in your favour.” I replied that I could not act by myself; that the captain had decided, and I feared there was no remedy. I, however, went into the cabin, and in a very clear and distinct manner told Captain Fancourt what the master-at-arms had said, and added my firm conviction that he was right, advising immediate measures to retake the ship, and join the admiral. His answer I shall never forget. “Mr. Brenton, if we call out the marines some of the men will be shot, and I could not bear to see them lying in convulsions on the deck; no, no, a little patience, and we shall all hail unanimity again.” I quitted the cabin and walked the deck until my watch was out, too much irritated to say a word more.

On the following morning we reached Yarmouth roads, and joined three other ships, each having a red flag flying at her foretop-gallant-mast-head; the Agamemnon hoisted one also, which was called by the delegates the flag of defiance. During the whole of this time the officers kept charge of their watches, the seamen obeying them in any order for the safety of the ship, but no farther. A meeting of the delegates was immediately called, at which it was decided that the Agamemnon and Ardent, of “ guns, and the Leopard and Isis, of 50 guns, should go to the Nore, to augment the number of ships at that anchorage in a state little short of open rebellion, but not with any view of assisting or being assisted by the enemies of their country; and it is certain that, had these put to sea, we should have immediately gone in pursuit of them with the same zeal and loyalty as at the beginning of the war.

The last ship to turn back was the Repulse, which delayed till the 30th. There had been murmuring between her decks on the 28th, “but of no material consequence” ; on the 29th the crew “began to be unruly but with a little persuasion it was got the better of”; however, on the 30th, at 8 a.m.,

the ship’s company told the captain they were determined to go into Port, and they took the ship from the officers and after various acts of violence carried her to the Nore.

The mutiny of the North Sea Squadron was now at its most complete, but it was not, even at its height, universal.

Except for the Montague and the Repulse, the ships carried out what might be called a preliminary concentration at Yarmouth. The organisation, so far somewhat ramshackle, needed to be tightened up, and even developed. There had, as one might suppose, been some previous gathering together of the threads, the proof being that the “Outlines of the Articles of H.M. Ships Belliqueux, Montague, Standard and Monmouth” are addressed also to the Adamant, which had remained sturdily loyal. These “outlines” are not dated, but those for the Agamemnon were inscribed on the 30th. The rules were much the same as had governed at Spithead and the Nore; both sets of the Yarmouth rules insist that respect shall be paid to all officers, that duties are to be strictly carried out, that drunkenness shall be severely punished, and that although women might come on board, none might go off, unless, one set adds, “ in a bad stat of health and no hopes of recovery.” The Agamemnon decreed, “There shall be no quarrelling or lighting amongst ourselvs on any pretence whatever on pain of being severely punished”: the rules of the Belliqueux and the others required that “No acclamations or noises or any expressions such as Grog be used and that good order and discipline be carried on untill this business is over.” Apparently there were two meetings of committees on the 31st, one on the Agamemnon, the other on the Isis, but they resulted in almost identical documents, which expressed the resolution that it should be represented

to the Captains and Officers that the Delegates so appointed are not to be understood as ringleaders of a Mutinous Assembly, but as men appointed by the majority of each ship’s company, in order to prevent confusion and obtain as speedy a regularity of affairs as possible.

Thus once again the seamen insisted that their action was not a rebellion against authority, but a strike for better conditions of service, and that they were through and through loyal.

The intention of the Delegates appointed at Yarmouth was to ask their captains for the loan of a cutter to go round to the Nore; but there is no record that the bland request was ever made: perhaps it was refused outright, and thus the captains may themselves have forced the seamen to sail the squadron round to the Nore. Or perhaps the propitiatory visit of Admiral Sir Thomas Pasley, who had been sent by the authorities to persuade the sailors to return to duty, made it only too plain to them that nothing was to be got by staying at Yarmouth, and that they had better join forces with their friends. Neptune also appears to have been of that opinion:

In Yarmouth nest old Neptune raised his head,

Awake my sons, the watery monarch paid (said?)—

The torpid vapours from your souls remove —

Inspire yourselves with true fraternal love.

Unto the Nore repair without delay.

There join your brothers with a loud Huzza.

At all events, whether Sir Thomas or Neptune had anything to do with it, or whether it seemed the obvious policy, the sailors removed the torpid vapours from their souls, and ship by ship left the port to follow the Montague, led by the Standard and the Lion; these were the ships which, with four or five others, the San Fiorenzo had fled past with dissimulating cheers as she made her escape on the 30th. So by the 1st of June, all except four of the bigger ships, which were to follow later, were at anchor at the Nore, a considerable addition to that” floating republic,’ as it was called by the luridly imaginative Courier, a republic which owed temporary allegiance to President Richard Parker.