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The Naval Mutinies of 1797

The Naval Mutinies of 1797: Unity and Perseverance

Ann Veronica Coats
Philip MacDougall
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Naval Mutinies of 1797
    Book Description:

    The naval mutinies of 1797 were unprecedented in scale and impressive in their level of organisation. Under threat of French invasion, crews in the Royal Navy's home fleet, after making clear demands, refused to sail until their demands were met. Subsequent mutinies affected the crews of more than one hundred ships in at least five home anchorages, replicated in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Indian Ocean. Channel Fleet seamen pursued their grievances of pay and conditions by traditional petitions to their commanding officer, Admiral Richard Howe, but his flawed comprehension and communications were further exacerbated by the Admiralty. The Spithead mutiny became the seamen's last resort. Ironically Howe acknowledged the justice of their position and was instrumental in resolving the Spithead mutiny, but this did not prevent occurrences at the Nore and elsewhere. The most extensive approach since Conrad Gill's seminal and eponymous volume of 1913, 'The Naval Mutinies of 1797' focuses on new research, re-evaluating the causes, events, interpretations, discipline, relationships between officers and men, political inputs and affiliations and crucially, the rôle of the Irish and quota men. It poses new answers to old questions and suggests a new synthesis - self-determination - the seamen on their own terms. ANN VERONICA COATS is senior lecturer in the the School of Civil Engineering and Surveying at the University of Portsmouth and is Secretary of the Naval Dockyards Society. PHILIP MACDOUGALL is a writer and historian, author of seven books, with a doctorate on naval history from the University of Kent at Canterbury.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-005-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiii)
    Ann Veronica Coats and Philip MacDougall
  6. About the Contributors
    (pp. xiv-xvi)
  7. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
    Ann Veronica Coats and Philip MacDougall
  8. Abbreviations
    (pp. xix-xix)
  9. Introduction, Analysis and Interpretation
    (pp. 1-16)
    Ann Veronica Coats and Philip MacDougall

    The naval mutinies of 1797 were unprecedented in scale and impressive in their level of organisation. Crews on board a majority of ships of the Royal Navy’s fleet in home waters, while invasion threatened, after making clear demands, refused to sail until their demands were met. It was an all-encompassing event that affected the crews of over one hundred ships in at least five different anchorages. Furthermore these same actions were replicated elsewhere, with seamen in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic and Indian Oceans following suit. This chapter describes the 1797 mutinies briefly and examines recent scholarship and interpretation to...

  10. 1 Spithead Mutiny: Introduction
    (pp. 17-38)
    Ann Veronica Coats

    These chapters represent the most recent research into the conditions of naval seamen in 1797 and the causes and consequences of the Spithead mutiny. The Spithead and Nore mutinies of 1797 have been comprehensively investigated by historians, from a variety of ideological perspectives, but textual and contextual dimensions have not been examined exhaustively. The mutinies had such a deep psychological effect on the Royal Navy during the nineteenth century, reinforced in the twentieth century by the 1931 Invergordon mutiny, that they have received wide, although sometimes shame-faced historical coverage in the biographies of officers concerned. However, the sheer scale and...

  11. 2 The Delegates: A Radical Tradition
    (pp. 39-60)
    Ann Veronica Coats

    The delegates, elected leaders of the Spithead mutiny, were men of deserved influence with a sophisticated understanding of the issues involved in their action. They understood the political context, the strategic dimensions, and the vulnerability of Pitt’s government. The Channel Fleet, the largest in home waters, comprising eighty ships and thirty thousand men, pursued their action on behalf of the entire Royal Navy.² The majority of these crews had mustered together for at least two years, some far longer.³ They were experienced seamen professionals who knew and trusted each other. They selected as their leaders men whom they respected as...

  12. 3 What Really Happened On Board HMS London?
    (pp. 61-78)
    David W. London

    On 7 May 1797, when nearly everyone assumed the recent discontents had been amicably settled, a new disturbance broke out in the Channel Fleet. Those in government insisted it was the result of misrepresentations of parliamentary debates in the London newspapers. Those in opposition argued this second mutiny was caused by ministerial delays in confirming the promised wage increase. In truth, there was no second mutiny. From 16 April the men of the Channel Fleet insisted they would not weigh anchor, until an Act of Parliament confirming their pay increase was passed and the King’s pardon was secured.

    Until the...

  13. 4 The Spirit of Kempenfeldt
    (pp. 79-97)
    David W. London

    The mutiny came at an awkward moment for Captain Willett Payne. While he was convalescing at the George Inn in Portsmouth his ship, HMS Impétueux, mutinied with the rest of the fleet at Spithead. His unspecified maladies were rumoured to be more the product of an extravagant life ashore than the rigours of life at sea.² Payne was an intimate of the Prince of Wales. According to John Knox Laughton, he was an ‘associate of the prince in his vices and a supporter in his baser intrigues’. Indulging in one of those intrigues during the Regency crisis led the captain...

  14. 5 Voices from the Lower Deck: Petitions on the Conduct of Naval Officers during the 1797 Mutinies
    (pp. 98-106)
    Kathrin Orth

    Numerous petitions were written by individual seamen and whole ships’ companies before and during the mutinies in 1797. They offer a rare glimpse of the ordinary seaman’s opinions on discipline and punishment, as well as on the conduct of naval officers. This chapter will concentrate on the petitions submitted by the ships at Spithead in April and May 1797.

    In the eighteenth-century navy, if the ship’s company had grievances it was customary to bring them to the captain’s attention by coming on to the quarterdeck or by putting them in writing. In most cases, the captain would then forward the...

  15. 6 Crew Management and Mutiny: The Case of Minerve, 1796–1802
    (pp. 107-119)
    Roger Morriss

    Looking back over the writing that has shaped our attitude to the Spithead and Nore mutinies, the most striking feature of the books by Gill, Manwaring and Dobrée and Dugan is the extent to which they themselves were heirs to the belief that Britain in 1797 was on the brink of revolution. According to their thinking, the whole of Europe was subject to tumult precipitated by revolutionary France. England stood in danger of invasion, Ireland was on the brink of revolt, at which point the Channel Fleet, Britain’s shield against invasion, mutinied against appalling conditions of service, brutal discipline, and...

  16. 7 The 1797 Mutinies in the Channel Fleet: A Foreign-Inspired Revolutionary Movement?
    (pp. 120-141)
    Ann Veronica Coats

    George III, his government and the Board of Admiralty were horrified by this threat to naval discipline, expressed here by the Duke of Clarence to Nelson on 30 April 1797. The potential threat to the security of Britain while the French and Batavian fleets were preparing for invasion was a publicly expressed fear, but the breakdown in discipline was regarded as a far more serious risk by the British establishment, whose intelligence system had led them to expect no immediate invasion of Britain or Ireland.²

    This chapter will examine the extent of revolutionary inspiration for the 1797 mutinies in the...

  17. 8 The Nore Mutiny: Introduction
    (pp. 142-145)
    Philip MacDougall

    The mutiny associated with the Nore anchorage has always been more controversial than the preceding events which took place at Spithead. In part, this has resulted from a failure of some authorities to understand the motives that underpinned the events. Perhaps one of the most absurd offerings came from the pen of A. Temple Patterson in one of the earliest ‘Portsmouth Papers’. Admittedly, he was chiefly concerned with the parochial affairs of that particular naval town, but this was no excuse for castigating the mutiny on the east side of the country as nothing more than a desire to compete...

  18. 9 The East Coast Mutinies: May–June 1797
    (pp. 147-159)
    Philip MacDougall

    With celebrant seamen and admirals jostling shoulder to shoulder in the streets of Portsmouth, the national crisis would appear to have ended. A reluctant government having begrudgingly conceded three of the demands that had been placed before them, the mutinous seamen of the Channel Fleet and Plymouth Squadron had returned to duty. And why should they do anything else? They had received an increase in pay, improved victualling arrangements and the removal of some of the least popular officers.

    But not everything was as it seemed to be. In various ill-lit alehouses or in the secluded corners of cramped gun...

  19. 10 Reporting the Mutinies in the Provincial Press
    (pp. 161-178)
    Philip MacDougall

    The naval mutinies of 1797 placed a select number of provincial newspapers at the very forefront of one of the greatest news stories to hit a maritime nation while at war. With hostile invasion fleets seemingly ready to leave the port of Brest and the Texel, the ordinary seamen of the British navy suddenly refused to obey their officers. In one swift move, the nation’s first line of defence had been removed.

    To report the passing events of the various naval mutinies, the provincial press of the eighteenth century relied primarily upon a series of local correspondents. For the most...

  20. 11 A Floating Republic? Conspiracy Theory and the Nore Mutiny of 1797
    (pp. 179-193)
    Christopher Doorne

    The ‘conspiracy theory’ view of history is as popular today as it has ever been. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that it is often used to explain the causes of the great naval mutinies at Spithead and the Nore from April to June 1797 and the motives of the mutineers themselves. This is particularly so in the case of the Nore. E. P. Thompson, for example, wrote that:

    It is foolish to argue that, because the majority of the sailors had few clear political notions, this was a parochial affair of ship’s biscuits and arrears of pay, and...

  21. 12 Lower-Deck Life in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars
    (pp. 194-208)
    Brian Lavery

    No one disagreed that the life of the eighteenth-century seaman was filled with danger and discomfort. Dr Thomas Trotter wrote of ‘the unparalleled hardships to which seamen are exposed from the nature of their employment. Toil and danger are their constant attendants. They suffer privations to which all other men are strangers.’ They had ‘unfailing fortitude’ and ‘matchless patience’. Perhaps the actual amount of work was not as much as some believe; another naval surgeon wrote:

    While employed in the ports of those regions [i.e. the coasts of Great Britain], more particularly those termed their own, or even in those...

  22. 13 ‘Launched into Eternity’: Admiralty Retribution or the Restoration of Discipline?
    (pp. 209-225)
    Ann Veronica Coats

    On 30 June 1797, Richard Parker, elected leader of the Nore mutiny, was launched into eternity from the yardarm of Sandwich, not only in a spirit of retribution, but also to achieve the restoration of discipline. Parker was the first scapegoat, and is reported to have uttered the customary words of a condemned man: ‘I acknowledge the justice of the sentence under which I suffer; and I hope my death may be considered a sufficient atonement, without involving the fate of others.’³

    His death was not sufficient, however. Fifty-one further scapegoats were sentenced to be hanged, and eight more to...

  23. 14 Discipline, Desertion and Death: HMS Trent, 1796–1803
    (pp. 226-242)
    Nick Slope

    Perhaps the most prevalent public image of the Royal Navy of the French Wars is of the shipboard flogging of sailors.¹ Naval discipline and in particular the practice of flogging is subject to much historical controversy. Views on the subject of flogging range from the use of the lash as a brutal and brutalising imposition of authority over oppressed and impressed sailors to flogging as a minor imposition on men who would prefer to receive instant retribution for their offences rather than suffer trial and incarceration at some future date.²

    Works by J. D. Byrn Jr, Crime and Punishment in...

  24. 15 ‘We went out with Admiral Duncan, we came back without him’: Mutiny and the North Sea Squadron
    (pp. 243-263)
    Philip MacDougall

    For the North Sea Squadron under Admiral Duncan, the year 1797 was a time of seemingly irreconcilable contrasts. During the early summer of that year the North Sea Squadron, which he had commanded for the past two years, was taken from him. Not because of his transfer elsewhere, but through the emergence of elected shipboard committees that assumed power in their own right. These committees, which represented an indeterminate proportion of the seamen of Duncan’s fleet, after consultation among themselves, decided upon sailing the squadron into the Thames. Here, at the Great Nore anchorage, they joined other vessels in mutiny,...

  25. 16 The Influence of 1797 upon the Nereide Mutiny of 1809
    (pp. 264-279)
    Jonathan Neale

    In 1808 the small naval sloop Otter was part of the Indian Ocean fleet, charged with defending the waters between Bombay and the Cape of Good Hope from the French on Isle de France (Mauritius) and Madagascar. As Knight and Wilcox highlight, the East Indies station was the most remote Royal Naval location throughout the 1793–1815 wars: ‘The sheer distance from home [a minimum of four months’ sailing from England] made co-ordination from England impossible and gave the commander-in-chief on the station considerably greater independence than admirals on stations nearer to home.’¹ On 17 August the ship’s company of...

  26. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 280-296)
  27. Index
    (pp. 297-316)
  28. Back Matter
    (pp. 317-317)