With Richard Parker’s surrender and imprisonment, the inevitable retribution began. The British Navy had a tradition of leniency towards certain kinds of mutiny but by the same token ruthlessly suppressed mutinies which struck at the authority of the captain. The Nore mutiny clearly fell into the latter category and the mutineers, by their blockade of the Thames, had forfeited any claim to being considered loyal subjects, a theme, we will recall which was relentlessly repeated by Valentine Joyce and the Spithead mutineers.
The sailors involved in the mutiny were under no illusions about what was coming.
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.
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.
The men of the Channel Fleet waited patiently throughout the month of March and into April for a response to the appeals for higher wages they had addressed to Lord Howe. By early April, though, it became apparent that no redress was planned and their man-to-man request of a flag officer they held in high esteem had been dismissed without an answer.
We’re slowly but surely working our way through the mutiny of the Channel Fleet at Spithead and the the North Sea Fleet at The Nore with the help of Mainwaring’s Floating Republic.
We’ll take a time out from the action to introduce characters who are central to the story. One of these is Admiral Lord Bridport, commander of the Channel Fleet.
Alexander Hood, brother of Samuel Hood, was born in 1726 and entered the navy at age 15. He was appointed a lieutenant in 1746 and served in that rank for ten years before being promoted to commander. He caught the eye of Rear Admiral Sir Charles Saunders and served as his flag captain before commanding a frigate with some distinction at the Battle of Quiberon Bay and in single ship actions.
He was promoted to rear admiral in 1780. At the end of the American Revolution he went on half pay and served in the House of Commons. He was recalled to the colors when war broke out with Revolutionary France and fought under Lord Howe at the Glorious First of June. For his heroism he was created Lord Bridport.
On 23 June 1795, with his flag in HMS Queen Charlotte, he fought the inconclusive Battle of Groix against the French off the Île de Groix and captured three ships. Wikipedia says he was criticized within the navy for failing to win a more decisive victory, though that seems hard to credit as it doesn’t seem much less decisive than most of the other sea battles of the era.
In that same year he succeeded to command of the Channel Fleet and held that command until his retirement in 1800.
Some accounts of the Spithead mutiny paint Bridport as somewhat feckless and indecisive during this crisis. I’m not certain that assessment bears up under analysis.
He died in 1814.
The Spithead Mutiny, as we discuss here, did not erupt from a single deed, rather it was the culmination of a long pattern of the Admiralty ignoring some very basic demands for more equitable terms of service on the part of British sailors and equally ignoring and thereby tolerating the existence of petty tyrants within the ranks of officers and warrant officers.
In the past, when wars were shorter and fleets routinely stood down over the winter, these issues did not reach critical mass. During the era which began with the French Revolutionary Wars changed all that. The British navy was kept constantly at sea, except for the brief period of the Peace of Amiens, for 22 years. Most of the British fleet was involved in endlessly churning wakes in the sea outside the great Continental ports of Brest, Toulon, Marseilles, Rochefort, and Texel. A life of hardship, danger, and deprivation without the respite of shore leave, prize money, or even combat.
The impact this had on pressed men and volunteers alike is hard for us to comprehend in an age where there we argue over whether or not a combat tour of 15 months is a breach of faith.