One of the bugbears afflicting the British government during the Spithead mutiny was the notion that the mutiny was actually operating under the control of either the French revolutionary regime, the United Irishmen, or some similar seditious element. The idea that the men could be reacting to a history of being the victims of officially condoned brutality and sharp financial dealings on the part of the government had a great deal of trouble registering with the Admiralty’s collective brain even after commanders in the Channel Fleet voiced sympathy with some of the demands.
I cannot help fearing the evil is…deeply rooted in the influence of Jacobin emissaries and the Corresponding Society.
I am more and more convinced that Jacobin management and influence is at the bottom of this evil.
Enter onto the scene a young Bow Street magistrate named Aaron Graham who was empowered by the Under Secretary of State to the Home Department to investigate what dark forces were manipulating the men of the Channel Fleet. Graham was an energetic and thorough young man who, time would show, had impeccable integrity. Later in life he was charged with reforming the odious system of prison hulks used in Britain.
Graham arrived in Portsmouth on May 11 and immediately set to work. His initial plan was to chat up some of the Fleet delegates with a view of building a case against Valentine Joyce and James Melvin, a 34 year old quartermaster from Sunderland who represented Pompée. It soon dawned on him that the social difference between him and the man o’ war’s man who represented his ship as a delegate was an unbridgeable chasm so he went to work on Joyce’s friends and relations in Portsmouth.
He procured the assistance of a friend of Joyce’s mother to question her about her son’s activities but this yielded nothing. Then he turned his attention to Melvin. A sailor who claimed to be a friend of Melvin’s told Graham that if Melvin was guaranteed a discharge from the navy he would tell all. Graham approached Melvin with this deal and left empty handed.
Undeterred, Graham frequented the dock, bars, and probably brothels, frequented by sailors trying to overhear conversations pointing to foreign or seditious influences. At length he reported to the Home Department:
I am persuaded from the conversation I have had with so many of the sailors that if any man on earth had dared openly to avow his intention of using them as instruments to distress the country his life would have paid forfeit. Nothing like want of loyalty to the King or attachment to the government can be traced in the business.
The men who managed the mutiny at Spithead imposed rigorous discipline upon the Channel Fleet and followed a few principles.
1. Loyalty to the nation above all. At every turn the delegates, verbally and in letters to newspapers the sailors repeated vowed their readiness to fight the French and vowed their loyalty to the King.
2. Don’t threaten the noncombatants. The decision to exclude frigates and sloops — those ships responsible for carrying mail, escorting merchantmen, and suppressing French privateers — from the mutiny was a clear message that they did not want the livelihood of the merchant class put at risk. This, as much as their protestations of loyalty, reassured citizens and government that the real agenda of the Fleet was a change in its living conditions not an overthrow of the social order. The sympathies of the merchant class rapidly moved towards the sailors because of this gesture.
3. Keep goals limited and finite. The goals set forth by the mutineers, a pay raise, fair weights and measures, better food, time ashore, etc., were readily understood by everyone. Indeed, much of British society had no idea of the living and working conditions aboard a man o’ war. Once these goals were met the leaders did not overreach by adding new demands. This made the government much more willing to deal with them peacefully when it became obvious that they were not going to be subjected to endless demands.
4. Don’t upset the social order. The officers were scrupulously obeyed and deference shown in virtually all cases. This prevented officers who were sympathetic with the goals of the mutiny from being threatened by the mutiny itself.
All in all, the restraint shown by the mutineers encouraged restraint on the part of the government and led to a peaceful and satisfactory end to what could have been a bloody debacle.