Shortly after the men of HMS Queen Charlotte manned the shrouds with the cheer that set off the Spithead Mutiny, the leaders from that ship set out in a boat to visit all the ships in the Channel Fleet. At each ship they boarded and directed the ship to send two delegates, a term that would cause a lot of misunderstanding at Spithead and government recalcitrance at The Nore, to the Queen Charlotte that evening.
Generally, this went off without a hitch though Admiral John Colpoys aboard HMS London tried to prevent the delegates from coming aboard and was only restrained from having his marines fire on them by the intervention of Bridport.
Bridport tried to convince the mutineers aboard his ship that he would send their demands to the Admiralty and they should return to their duty and await an answer. Having waited in vain for over a month for an answer from Lord Howe, whom they greatly respected, they had little confidence in Bridport’s ability to get their grievances addressed by Admiralty. They probably also knew that they had crossed the Rubicon by refusing to make ready for sea and that at the very least the leaders would be hanged if they relented.
The delegates, as we’ve noted earlier, were not radicals. They were mostly petty officers, some were midshipmen who had come up from before the mast, a handful were rated Able Bodied seamen. There were no sweepings of the jails and gutters here. No quota men. These men were professional sailors and the backbone of Britain’s “wooden walls.” They knew disorder would quickly result in their destruction and they moved quickly to take control of the Fleet.
The routine of the Fleet remained undisturbed. Officers were obeyed in all matters short of setting to sea. Officers who were deemed unsuitable were given the opportunity to go ashore with their belongings. Indeed, the only change in the daily grind of life in a man o’ war was the requirement for the ship’s company to man the shrouds and cheer each day at 8 am and again at sunset. To show they meant business, a halter was rove at the end of the fore yardarm to underscore their insistence that no one mistake they job action they’d undertaken as an excuse to get out of line.
Significantly, the leaders realized early on that they had a much better chance of getting their demands if they kept their demands achievable and if they demonstrated they were perfectly willing to do their duty. They recognized, of course, that a Britain at war was dependent upon commerce and if they interfered with that commerce they would be quickly accused of being in sympathy with Revolutionary France. Therefore, the mutiny was restricted to the ships of the line. For instance, on April 17th the HMS Romney (50) and HMS Venus (32) were due to depart to escort a convoy to Newfoundland and the ships’s crews refused to unmoor. They received a “desire and earnest wish” from the Queen Charlotte that they obey their orders.
By now, Lord Spencer had come to the conclusion that this problem would not go away silently. Noon on April 18th found him and his entourage in Portsmouth where they summoned Bridport and other commanders to a conference. They pointedly refused to meet with the delegates of the Fleet. The upshot was they directed three admirals, Gardner, Colpoys, and Pole (the first two being monumentally bad choices for anything involving tact) to meet with the delegates aboard Queen Charlotte and tell them an answer would be provided to their demands by 10 am the next day, April 19.
Needless to say, no answer was forthcoming at 10 am. Finally, at 1 pm the delegates received a note telling them the response would arrive by 4 pm.
Instead of an answer, they received a counterproposal. Spencer offered a very small increase in wages. He also tried to split the united front of the mutiny by introducing into the offer a new rating of “Landsman” which which would be paid less than the rating of Ordinary Seaman. None of the other demands were addressed.
The delegates replied to Spencer’s offer within a half hour.
“[U]ntil the grievances before stated are redressed, and an act of indemnity passed, we are determined not to lift an anchor; and the grievances of particular ships must be redressed.
Find all our posts on the Spithead Mutiny here.