We often encounter references to the high esteem the British navy had for French men o’ war. In novels they are reputed to be faster and handier than their British counterparts and highly valued by the British navy and coveted commands.
Like most other stories, this can be traced with some certainty to John Masefield’s notoriously uninformed “Sea Life in Nelson’s Time.”
The French treated shipbuilding as an imaginative art. The very finest brains in the kingdom were exercised in the planning and creation of ships of beautiful model. Admirable workmen, and the best talents of France, produced, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, a number of sailing men-of-war which were more beautifully proportioned, faster on every point of sailing, stronger, and with larger batteries, than the ships built in this country at that time. A French 80-gun ship at the close of the eighteenth century was bigger, more roomy, faster, and a finer ship in every way, than our 98-gun ships. Our own men-of-war were so badly designed and proportioned that they were said to have been built by the mile, and cut off as required. They were very cramped between-decks, yet they were nearly always pierced for more guns than they could conveniently fight. They were very crank ships, and so “weak“ that they could not fight their lower-deck guns in anything like weather. They were slow at all points of sailing, and slack in stays. In heavy weather they sometimes rolled their masts out, or sprung them by violent pitching.
As we have to ask ourselves with any other statement made by Masefield, is this true?
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.
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.
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. Continue reading
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.