Mutiny in the Royal Navy at Spithead

In the middle of the Revolutionary Wars, British sailors mounted a large-scale mutiny on 15 April 1797.

The Delegates in Council, or beggars on horseback, a contemporaneous caricature.The outbreak in April 1797 of mutiny in Britain's Channel fleet based at Spithead, outside Portsmouth, triggered off a wave of disaffection in the Royal Navy that ranked as perhaps the most serious crisis of an annus horribilis for the British Government and William Pitt, engaged as they were in the middle of all-out war against Revolutionary France.

In the wake of indifferent fortune on land against the French republic – attempts by British forces to succour Royalist counter-revolutionaries in Toulon and Brittany had been failures, as had an expedition to the Netherlands by the 'Grand Old Duke of York' – the vitality and effectiveness of George III's navy was all the more important for protecting Britain from invasion and supporting initiatives overseas against French colonies in the West Indies.

However, the 'wooden walls of England' had by the late 1790s acquired more than a little dry rot. The practice of press-ganging – which often brought an indifferent mix of recruits to the ships in the first place – was in many cases exacerbated by being exercised against unfortunate sailors, who had just got off their ships after a long voyage, so that often they went for years without leave. The appalling state of provisions, years-old leathery salt meat biscuits whose tastiest aspect were the numerous weevils within them, stale water and widespread scurvy due to lack of fresh vegetables, constituted a horrific diet. Seamen's pay, at ten shillings a month, had not been increased for over a hundred years, medical treatment was often more feared than wounds themselves, and excessive flogging was frequently imposed by Captain Bligh-style martinet officers: a formidable catalogue of grievances and resentment which summarised the main complaints of the Spithead mutineers.

The catalyst for the Spithead mutiny was the refusal of the Channel fleet's flagship, the Queen Charlotte, to put out to sea and the call of her crew to other ships to join in their demands. The remarkable skill and restraint with which the mutineers drew up a petition of demands to the House of Commons, while stopping short of outright treason – they said they would go to sea if the French appeared in the Channel – caught Pitt's government and the Admiralty, struggling with Continental reverses and a financial crisis that led them in 1797 temporarily to suspend payments in gold and substitute a paper currency, on the hop. Meanwhile the mutiny spread to include the North Sea fleet which was based at Nore on the Thames estuary.

Faced with this critical situation, and recognising (perforce) the validity of the organised grievance, the Government offered concessions. Fifty-nine of the most brutal officers in the Spithead fleet were dismissed from the service, promises of better provisions in port were made as well as a review, and improvements in pay and, especially, a Royal Pardon for all those taking part.

The conclusion to the Nore mutiny was a less happy one. Unlike their comrades at Spithead who had accepted the Government's terms, the mutineers, led by an ex-midshipman Richard Parker, held out fearing they were not properly covered by the Royal Pardon and because their grievances over officers and shares of prize-money had not been met. In fact, the spread of the mutiny at Nore put the blockade of France's ally, the Dutch fleet in the Texel, at risk and involved Admiral Duncan, the blockading commander, in a game of bluff – confining the Dutch by signalling to his nonexistent fleet.

The treatment of the Nore mutineers was harsh, but was of a piece with the paranoia of Pitt's government – that reached almost McCarthyesque proportions – about subversive Jacobin activity in Britain, inspired by the French revolutionaries. With poor harvests, radical groups at home and unrest in Ireland, the mutiny seemed to Pitt and his ministers potentially part of a subversive conspiracy. That such fears were unfounded, were shown by the enthusiastic response of the navy three months later to the attack in 1797 by Admiral Duncan on the Dutch at Camperdown which relieved the immediate threat of invasion and restored the Heart of Oak reputation of the Georgian navy for patriotic Britons.

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