Now the dalliance of Parliament and the blinding stupidity of the Admiralty combined into what was a potentially deadly set of circumstances. Bridport had heard French fleet was out on May 3, but the winds were not favorable for the Channel Fleet to sail until May 7. Because the Seamen’s Bill had not passed Commons and the Fleet now knew of the Admiralty order to suppress all dissent, he knew fleet would not move. So he did the prudent thing and he didn’t order it to sortie.
The Fleet delegates now moved to force action. Sometime during the night of May 6-7 the delegates decided to remove all unpopular officers as a way of demonstrating their resolve and to remove potential flashpoints of violence. They also suspected that the Admiralty would attempt to deal with the mutiny ship by ship. To prevent this from happening all the ships in the mutiny were ordered to move to St. Helens where they could be sequestered from Admiralty agents and kept out of range of the militia congregating in Portsmouth.
Around 9 am the delegates began moving from ship to ship passing the word. Some officers were removed with every courtesy. Others were unceremoniously bundled ashore.
Trouble erupted when the delegates attempted to board HMS London flying the flag of then Rear Admiral Sir John Colpoys. Colpoys was no stranger to mutiny and was determined that his ship, where he’d just finished haranguing the crew on loyalty, would not take part in whatever the delegates had in store. He ordered the ship’s boats, usually trailing from the ship, to be brought in, the lower gunports secured. The sailors were sent below decks. Hatchways were closed. All entry ports were guarded. And the officers and marines were armed.
As the boat carrying the delegates came alongside, the men in the London began to press up the hatchways to the deck. The sentries at the entry ports warned the delegates off but they boarded anyway. Some sailors on the forecastle began to train one of the guns there on the quarterdeck and London’s first lieutenant, Peter Bover, ordered the men to stop but one of them dared Bover to fire. He shot the man dead. There was general confusion and and exchange of fire. The marines joined the mutineers. Colpoys ordered his officers to retire to officer’s country. One delegate, three sailors, three marines, a midshipman and an officer were left dead.
The crew of the London was incensed. They seized Bover and seemed determined to hang him. He was saved through the intervention of Valentine Joyce and another delegate, Mark Turner who was a 37 year old midshipman from Harwich serving in HMS Terrible, both of whom rightfully feared the consequences to the larger enterprise if Bover were harmed.
Colpoys reentered the scene to plead on behalf of Bover arguing that he was only obeying the orders issued by the Admiralty. Most of the men had not heard of the orders and they made Colpoys retrieve his copy and read it to the crew. While this might have helped Lieutenant Bover through his moment of immediate peril it didn’t help the navy end the mutiny. Both Colpoys and Bover were told by the crew of the London that they intended to court martial them for their actions leading to the bloodshed.
The dismissal of officers continued apace with eventually over 100 officers being sent ashore, ships other than ships of the line were specifically excluded from the either both the decision and the requirement to move to St. Helens.
There were exceptions, Nymphe (36), whose captain was given to beating men with his speaking trumpet, sent this petty tyrant and two lieutenants ashore then urgently petitioned Bridport to replace those officers so they might proceed with their duties. Stag (32) similarly dismissed officers and asked for replacements.
The day after the fleet sent undesirable officers ashore the Seaman’s Bill was to be presented to the House of Commons by a panicked government. The opposition, in the persons of Fox and Sheridan, belabored Pitt’s administration. The bill was speedily passed by the House of Lords and given the Royal Assent the same day. The bill was then sent by messenger to Portsmouth. The sea didn’t cooperate, however, and boats from shore were only able to reach a few ships with the news they had won.
In the meantime, Bover, who had been a very popular officer before the shootings, was in jeopardy of being indicted for murder by a coroner’s jury meeting on the death of one of the sailors wounded on London and who had died ashore at Haslar Hospital. The crew prevented him from answering the summons to the coroner’s inquest because they were afraid he would be charged with murder.
Even with the bill acceding to their demands, the men would not return to duty until a fresh pardon was procured. Colpoys’s actions along with the now infamous Admiralty order made the sailors certain that the leaders would be hunted down and hanged.
It was obvious to everyone that trust between the parties was broken. In a stroke of genius,Pitt appointed Lord Howe as the representative of the Crown to deal with the situation. Howe, as we saw in Part I was a hero to the Channel Fleet and despite his lack of interest which greatly contributed to the mutiny to begin with, he was trusted by the sailors.
On May 10, Bridport distributed copies of the Seaman’s Bill. Mars and Duke wanted to hold out for more but the rest of the Fleet would not go along. Howe spent two days traveling from ship to ship presenting the Bill and assuaging doubts.
A potential sticking point was the fate of the officers put ashore. The great body of opinion within the Admiralty was that to leave them beached was to essentially give the sailors the right to decide who commanded them and hence put discipline at risk. Their proposal was that the officers in question be given the chance to demand a court martial. Obviously, the sailors were not very enthusiastic about having to take the risk of testifying against a commander who almost certainly would be acquitted by a court of fellow captains.
Fifty-nine officers and warrant officers were removed from their ships, most, however, were reassigned to other commands where they were either wiser or more bitter for the experience. A longitudinal study of the those officers turned out by the Spithead Mutiny would be most enlightening.
Almost unnoticed, Colpoys forced to strike his flag on May 14. Colpoys had asked to be relieved for reasons of health before but his actions during the mutiny, especially aboard London earlier in the week, undoubtedly called his fitness for high command into question.
The mutiny was over save one final act: a new pardon had to be signed by the King. This was accomplished on May 14 though there was a glitch. The pardon had not reached Portsmouth when the sailors’s delegates met with Howe to finalize the end to the mutiny in what they termed an “armistice.” The occasion was saved by the Admiralty telegraph sending word that it was on the way.
The next day was taken up by a gala celebration. A procession of barges, featuring bandsmen, a reclining Lord Howe, a probably bewildered and exhausted William Pitt, and assorted other dignataries, rowed through the fleet to the cheers of the sailors. Howe boarded the Royal George, and read the Royal Pardon. This was repeated for all the ships of the line and some of the other ships.
At 6 pm the aged Lord Howe landed and was so exhausted with the effort of the day that he had to be carried from his barge. The Fleet delegates lifted him to their shoulders and carried him to the house where William Pitt was staying. Then the delegates reported for duty.
On May 17, Bridport gave the order to weigh anchor and the Fleet sailed to confront the French, who, fortunately, had not put to sea.
Much to the credit of the navy, the Royal Pardon was scrupulously adhered to and most of the delegates were promoted in the years following the mutiny.