When faced with the resolve of the Fleet, Spencer folded like a cheap suit.
He arrived in London at 9 am on April 22 and by 5 pm he had hammered out an agreement to meet the terms of the men at Spithead and was enroute to an audience with King George III on the subject of a royal proclamation of pardon. At 9 pm the pardon was signed and on its way to the printers. The copies of the pardon were delivered to Spithead early on April 23.
At 11 am the proclamation was delivered to the captains of the ships at Spithead and read to the crews. Aboard Royal George the men cheered and Lord Bridport’s flag was again raised over his flagship. Queen Charlotte, mindful of the fate of the Culloden mutineers, was skeptical. Questions were raised as to the authenticity of the pardon and the delegates eventually demanded to see the original bearing the king’s seal and signature. Eventually everyone was satisfied that a deal had been struck.
Queen Charlotte struck the red flag. One by one other ships followed suit, leaving Spithead for St Helens to await a suitable wind to set sail, until only Ramilles, Marlborough, Minotaur, and Nymphe held out over the fate of some of the officers assigned to those ships. The driving issue in two of these ships, Marlborough and Nymphe, was the removal of the captains of those ships who were in the habit of belaboring seamen with their speaking trumpets.
All seemed well. Unfortunately, then, as now, the culture within bureaucracies seems to have “do nothing” as its default setting rather than “do something.”
On April 22, Spencer notified the Privy Council that he had agreed to the increase of pay and provisions. The Privy Council did what any bureaucracy would do in dire circumstances; it formed a committee to study the agreement. The committee reported back on May 3 and Pitt brought the legislative package to the House of Commons on May 8 thereby winning at least an Honorable Mention in any “Too Little, Too Late” contest.
While the government was slowly inserting its collective thumb into various orifices the Fleet slid back towards mutiny.
They noted that the answer they had received from Spencer was rather dismissive of all their demands other than pay. They were told the issue of fresh meat and vegetables conceded in the agreement they were told it was not possible to do it just then. They were told pensions would not be increased. They began to form the belief that the government was not bargaining in good faith.
On April 26, while the Privy Council’s committee was getting its bearings, the squadron at Plymouth abruptly joined the mutiny that now seemed over. The informed their commander that they were willing to return to duty but would not wait more than three or four days for Parliament to act.
Now the Plymouth group seems to be driving the action. They ask for a cutter on April 28 to visit the ships now at St Helens. When their request is denied, rather than merely taking a cutter they hire a commercial cutter servicing Portsmouth harbor. This finely honed respect for authority had carried the mutiny this far and, as we’ll see, became the most potent weapon the mutineers possessed.
The men at St. Helens, though were in no mood to mutiny again and sent the Plymouth men back empty-handed. They waited patiently. For a time.
Mars, on the other hand, had been reluctant to end the initial mutiny and apparently kept in contact with the Plymouth contingent. On May 5, a boat from Mars pulled alongside Queen Charlotte and tossed through a lower gunport a bundle of papers carrying news that the so-called “Seaman’s Bill” was going to be voted down by Parliament.
Bridport tried to allay their fears but the fragile trust that had led the Fleet to actually move from Spithead was now ruptured.
At this point, the old British gibe of someone being too clever by half becomes appropriate.
Back on May 1, the Admiralty had issued a secret order to all captains. It was a unique piece of work, unfortunately I haven’t seen in the original, which seems to have not only offended the officers but potentially scuttled all compromise with the sailors. The order accused the captains of expropriating the provisions and supplies due the sailors and thereby setting off the mutiny. It also directed that they take the heretofore unprecedented step of keeping the marine detachments under arms in harbor as well as when at sea, even the densest foremast jack could figure out the reason for this, and it directed them to take “use the most vigorous means” to suppress any hint of mutiny and to bring the ringleaders to justice. Every captain realized the likely outcome if the contents of this order became known and tried to keep the contents secret. Secrets did not long stay such within the tightly circumscribed world of a man o’ war and garbled versions of what the order contained eventually made their way to the lower decks.
When the newspapers declaring the Seaman’s Bill to be dead were distributed, suspicion boiled over. Aboard Duke, angry seamen stormed the cabin of Captain Holloway and demanded to see the secret order. Holloway, wisely as it turned out, had destroyed the order. They sent word to Bridport that unless they saw a copy of the order they would subject Holloway to “a degrading punishment.” Bridport had little choice but to produce the order.
The Queen Charlotte acted with great speed. The sent a note to the other ships:
This is the sole agreement of the fleet, that our matters is not fulfilled. We are still to a man on our lawful cause as formal. We have come to an understanding of Parliament, finding there is no likelihood of redress to our former grievance. Therefore we think it prudent to obtain the same liberty as before. So until our matters are comply’d with we are determined not to go to sea.
P.S. – There is Marlborough and Nymphe in a wretched condition. If Admiral Bridport does not comply with these measures and forward them, we will take the speediest methods.
Spencer and the Privy Council had succeeded in painfully extracting defeat from the jaws of victory and the Second Spithead Mutiny was underway.