The Breeze at Spithead. Part 6.

The Admiralty and the fleet delegates were now at a standoff. The delegates had presented a very respectful petition which had initially been ignored. When the Admiralty got around to addressing the petition they essentially ignored it. Now the delegates had refused to be dealt with by a bum’s rush.

Over dinner the Admiralty board members who were negotiating with the delegates came to the conclusion that the incipient mutiny was actually the doing of a small number of agitators and that most of the fleet remained obedient.They conceived the idea that the officers aboard all but a small number of recalcitrant ships could order their cables slipped and take their ships out of Spithead to St. Helens Roads. The worst offenders would remain at anchor and be dealt with at leisure.

A solution, perhaps the least preferred solution, but a solution nonetheless.

That evening the board summoned Bridport, three of his admirals, and the sixteen captains whose ships were under the control of the delegates and pitched their scheme. One must assume that good breeding prevented the assembled officers from guffawing, but they were able to impress upon the board the fact that the sailors were unified and that the ships would not be able to move.

The board began to waiver a bit.

Spencer was still terrified of the political reception a pay increase would receive in Parliament but Prime Minister William Pitt wrote him that “[t]he amount of the expense is comparatively of no consequence.” More than the pay, though, Spencer was driven by what he saw as the necessity of winning. A win he seems to have defined as the delegates giving in to him on every issue.

His counterproposal was:

  • meet the pay demand of the sailors;
  • pay marines the same rate of pay whether they were stationed ashore or afloat;
  • set the issue of rations at 16 ounces to the pound;

On the other hand, he insisted that a pay rate of “landsman” be created and that “landsmen” would not only be paid less but receive a smaller advance against their pay. The other demands in the petition were again ignored. A letter presenting the board’s proposal was prepared for each of the ships in mutiny and given to its captain to be read to the ship’s company.

On the morning of April 21st, the bosun’s calls shrilled “all hands” and the crews of the sixteen ships of the line assembled to hear the letter. Generally the sailors were pleased and Captain Holloway aboard HMS Duke nearly convinced his crew to accept the terms but in the end all the ships referred the matter to their delegates who were meeting aboard HMS Queen Charlotte.

At this point Spencer had an even chance of pulling out a deal. The sailors were clearly disposed towards returning to duty with their most significant demand met. The delegates would have felt the pressure of their constituents to settle and not overreach. At this point Admiral Gardner placed his noted diplomatic skills to work.

He was concerned that the meeting of the delegates was taking too long and that what they were most in need of was a voice of authority to make them see reason. To this end he, along with Admirals Colpoys and Pole went aboard Queen Charlotte. Surprisingly, Gardner held his temper in check and spoke convincingly of the need to accept the terms and ask for forgiveness. This was all reinforced by a note arriving at about the same time from Spencer saying that refusal to accept his terms would be met by “condign punishment…[and]…the utmost punishment of the law.”

As the delegates set about composing the letter Gardner had requested, four late arriving delegates came on the scene. They were Valentine Joyce and John Morrice (32 year old able seaman from Aberdeen. Scotland) of the HMS Royal George and John Huddlestone (34 year old Yeoman of the Sheets from Holvach) and Patrick Glynn (34 year old able seaman from Dublin, Ireland) or the Queen Charlotte. While they hadn’t had the experience of Gardner’s sales pitch they could read Spencer’s note and the tenor of that note when combined with the lack of responsiveness of Spencer in dealing with their demands must have set alarm bells ringing. Why should they have to ask forgiveness if the Admiralty was negotiating in good faith? They would have been keenly aware of the fate of the Culloden mutineers and added to their list of demands a Royal Pardon.

Gardner exploded. He called the delegates “a damned mutinous blackguard set” and charged that they “knew the French were ready for sea, but were afraid of meeting them.” Most of the men in the room were veterans of the Glorious First of June. This slur to their manhood caused them to surround Gardner and his companions and hustled off the ship. Gardner’s reaction must have underscored to the delegates the necessity of receiving a Royal Pardon if they were to truly be safe.

That evening Joyce and Morrice convened an emergency meeting of the delegates aboard the Royal George. The signal for the meeting was a red flag hoisted first on Royal George then repeated from each of the ships in the mutiny. The officers were appalled. The red flag was they symbol of revolution and given that they were at war with Revolutionary France, many undoubtedly believed the fleet was changing allegiance. Lord Bridport was incensed. Until this point he’d continued to fly his flag over Royal George but now he hauled it down vowing never again to subject it to such insult.

To prevent the mutiny from being broken up via a series of ship-by-ship deals with the authorities the delegates issued a letter spelling out the circumstances that would end the mutiny.

A CAUTION FROM THE DELEGATES TO FLEET

The settlement of a business of such vast importance as the present is the most critical and ought to be attended to with the greatest wisdom, as ourselves and characters depends on our present conduct, therefore the following considerations are absolutely necessary as a security and bulwark against the fair speeches of designing men, who will use all their eloquence to defeat our laudable intentions.

First–Indispensably requisite that the prayers of our petition be fully answered.

Second–That no verbal answer be attended to on our part.

Third–that an Act of Parliament be passed for the augmentation of our pay and other articles in our petition.

Fourth–That after the petition is fully satisfied, a petition be presented to His Majesty, and the pardon for the liberty we have now taken be received in due form, through the whole Fleet.

Spencer seems to have for the first time realized the nature of the problem. He immediately set off for London to arrange a Royal Pardon. The breeze had not yet accomplished its purpose but for the first time it looked as if the mutineers were calling the tune and Spencer dancing to it.

Visit all our posts on the Spithead Mutiny and the mutiny at The Nore.

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