The Breeze at Spithead. Part 7. The Ante Is Raised

The Spithead Mutiny demonstrated a high level of centralized planning, iron discipline, and a shrewd understanding of the British public.

By keeping their demands small, e.g. a pay raise after 150 years without one, a chance to go ashore, better food, it was impossible to portray them as a radical element though Spencer, via the newspapers aligned with his party such as The Times, attempted to do so. The average working man could understand low pay, inadequate food, and being turned out by one’s employer when he was injured.

By professing to be prepared to fight the French at a moment’s notice it was impossible to lump them in with domestic revolutionaries or to paint them as tools of the French.

Their decision to limit the mutiny to ships of the line and insisting that frigates and sloops go about their business of protecting British commerce was nothing short of inspired. This demonstrated to the rising British middle class as nothing else could that their grievances were limited and they remained committed to the defense of the realm.

Indeed, on April 19 the mutiny took on a Gilbert and Sullivan air when the Prince of Wuerttemberg who was betrothed to Charlotte, Princess Royal, visited Portsmouth. Spencer and Bridport took him on a tour of the fleet and the sailors, ostensibly in a state of mutiny, turned out to cheer the royal couple.

The London Chronicle, a paper which seems to be aligned with Prime Minister Pitt’s Tories (though I am open to correction on this issue), opined:

It is but common justice to say that the seamen have conducted themselves throughout the whole business with a sobriety, steadiness, unanimity and determination, that would do honor to a better cause…

The government placed stories in the paper favored by the sailors, The Sun, which tried to sow dissention but to no avail. On the other hand, the sailors, or more properly their delegates, showed they, too, could play the game.

On April 21 they went two letters to Lord Bridport. The first apologized for the insult committed to his flag by raising the red banner on Royal George. They begged him to raise his flag again and called him “the father of the Fleet.” The second letter was official in which they complained of Gardner’s outburst and his use of the word “loyal” to describe sailors not participating in the mutiny when they considered their patriotism to be unaffected by pressing their demands. Instead of settling the issues forthwith, the Admiralty was taking actions which led them to believe it had no intention of settling short of the surrender of the sailors.

They also wrote a third letter to the Admiralty.

But we beg leave to remind your lordships, that it is a firm resolution that, until the flour in port be removed, the vegetables and pensions augmented, the grievances of private ships redressed, an act passed, and his Majesty’s gracious pardon for the fleet now lying at Spithead be granted, that the fleet will not lift an anchor; and this is the total and final answer.

This raised the ante considerably. Now Spencer was to experience the cost of temporizing because everyone knew what the redressing “the grievances of private ships” meant.

There is no doubt that there were tyrants holding commissions as naval officers. Whether they were as many or as brutal as the literature, now some two centuries into the future, states is arguable. But there is no doubt that the disciplinary practices aboard some ships were arbitrary, capricious, and clearly worked to the detriment of the men, the ship, and the navy.

But to address these demands put the status and prerogatives of every commissioned officer in the navy in jeopardy. Because if the men could have a tyrant removed today, they could have a mere jackass removed tomorrow. And who among us who has commanded hasn’t been a jackass on occasion.

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

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