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.
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.
According to Brian Lavery in Nelson’s Navy, there were over a thousand instances of mutiny between 1793 and 1815. These involved the spectrum from one man to multiple men and instances where the mutineers got their demands as well as those who were court-martialed.
Mutiny was not an activity to be lightly undertaken. The captain of a ship was the representative of the Sovereign and for all intents and purposes held the power of life and death over his crew. Once a mutiny did break out, even if tightly disciplined and for all the right reason, the odds were overwhelming that, at a minimum, the ringleaders were going to be festooning yardarms throughout the fleet when it ended.
One of the reasons the Spithead Mutiny was more protracted than need be was the insistence by the mutineers upon a Royal Pardon for all involved. They had good reason.
Shortly after the men of HMS Queen Charlotte manned the shrouds with the cheer that set off the Spithead Mutiny, the leaders from that ship set out in a boat to visit all the ships in the Channel Fleet. At each ship they boarded and directed the ship to send two delegates, a term that would cause a lot of misunderstanding at Spithead and government recalcitrance at The Nore, to the Queen Charlotte that evening.
Generally, this went off without a hitch though Admiral John Colpoys aboard HMS London tried to prevent the delegates from coming aboard and was only restrained from having his marines fire on them by the intervention of Bridport.
Bridport tried to convince the mutineers aboard his ship that he would send their demands to the Admiralty and they should return to their duty and await an answer. Having waited in vain for over a month for an answer from Lord Howe, whom they greatly respected, they had little confidence in Bridport’s ability to get their grievances addressed by Admiralty. They probably also knew that they had crossed the Rubicon by refusing to make ready for sea and that at the very least the leaders would be hanged if they relented.