The Spithead Mutiny, as we discuss here, did not erupt from a single deed, rather it was the culmination of a long pattern of the Admiralty ignoring some very basic demands for more equitable terms of service on the part of British sailors and equally ignoring and thereby tolerating the existence of petty tyrants within the ranks of officers and warrant officers.
In the past, when wars were shorter and fleets routinely stood down over the winter, these issues did not reach critical mass. During the era which began with the French Revolutionary Wars changed all that. The British navy was kept constantly at sea, except for the brief period of the Peace of Amiens, for 22 years. Most of the British fleet was involved in endlessly churning wakes in the sea outside the great Continental ports of Brest, Toulon, Marseilles, Rochefort, and Texel. A life of hardship, danger, and deprivation without the respite of shore leave, prize money, or even combat.
The impact this had on pressed men and volunteers alike is hard for us to comprehend in an age where there we argue over whether or not a combat tour of 15 months is a breach of faith.
In February 1797 crews of the British fleet at Spithead began an organized communication to develop petitions of their grievances to be submitted to the Admiralty.
From Mainwaring’s The Floating Republic:
If your ship’s company approve of the enclosed petition, you are requested to get a fair copy, and let us know on what day it will be convenient for you to send it, that they may go by the one post, as it will be the means of insuring success by showing it to [be] the general wish of the Fleet. Let is be directed to Lord Howe, without any signature at bottom, only the ship’s name and day of the month. Therefore wishing it success,
We are yours, etc., etc.,
There is no doubt that what would become the Spithead mutiny was a very collaborative exercise. The group on HMS Queen Charlotte received this critique on February 26:
I duly received your letter yesterday, and have shewn it to several and all agree in returning you their hearty thanks for your kind intentions. The resolution is generous, the intention noble. In short it is worthy of the conquerors of the Glorious First of June. I beg leave, however, to mention one thing which you forgot. You intreat his Lordship [ed. note: this would be Lord Howe] to intercede [with] the Board of Admiralty for augmentation of pay. But that is not under their jurisdiction to do; it is a national affair, and must be addressed to the hon. House of Commons. It is from them alone that we can expect redress. They are the purse bearers of the nation. Let them be petitioned, and I make no doubt but their generosity. One thing more you might have added, there has been no alteration in the pay of the Navy since the reign of King Charles the Second when at that time every thing was so reasonable that even double the money now is hardly equivalent to purchase any of the necessaries of life. You will, if you please, reflect on these reasons and, if you approve, not otherwise, please to adopt them. I have no more to add but to assure you of our hearty concurrence to your petition as you may depend. Shall be forwarded to you in due time according to your request with every other assistance in our power to grant consistent with reason, peace, and good fellowship. Proceed in your endeavours. Proceed with caution, peace and good behaviour. Let no disorder or tumult influence your proceedings, and I have not the least doubt but your late glorious commander will step forth in behalf of his fellow-conquerors.
Please to send word what ship you would wish us to acquaint with it and it shall be done. I shall now conclude with wishing you all all manner happiness, and believe me to remain
Yours most affectionately,
In the event, the plan for sending all the petitions in one batch didn’t happen but all were sent by March 3.
Altogether, Lord Howe received eleven petitions that we know of. I say “we know of” because in their determination to be respectful, non-threatening, and disciplined in their demands the petitions were virtually identical. Howe assumed they were all from the same hand, with slightly disguised handwriting, and not from all the major ships at Spithead.
Howe did apply something of due diligence, though. He wrote a short letter to Lord Hugh Seymour, one of the Admiralty Lords, asking him to make discreet inquiries to ensure nothing was amiss with the fleet. Seymour’s inquiries revealed nothing of interest.
Howe remained in Bath for a while returning to London in late March. Perhaps he was still struck with a feeling of unease because on March 22 he handed the batch of letters off to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Spencer.
Spencer was horrified. Not apparently of the notion of the Channel Fleet in a state of mutiny but of the cost of the pay increase and the political cost. As one of his contemporaries said:
It is a stain on the memory of a truly good-hearted man, that the First Lord had nothing better to say than that money would be needed to satisfy the men; that an application to Parliament for more money in those times of heavy taxation and financial stringency would be troublesome; that to ventilate the causes of discontent in the Fleet might start mischief; and that in short the best course was to say nothing, do nothing, and hope that nothing would happen.