The State can ultimately be reduced to bodies of armed men. These bodies of armed men are used by the ruling class either to maintain its power against what it sees as internal enemies, to defend itself against foreign aggression, or in support of its own aggressive action against foreign nations. Since its power lies in its ability to threaten or actually to use force, the ruling class regards anything that jeopardises the effectiveness of the State apparatus with the utmost seriousness. This explains why mutinies in the armed forces are of such concern to them.
In April and May of 1797 the British ruling class was horrified when two naval mutinies broke out; the first was at Spithead, close to Portsmouth; the second at the Nore which marks the seaward approach to the Thames Estuary. These occurred in some of the Royal Navy's most powerful fighting ships and in the middle of a desperate war against the French. The first mutiny was characterised by rigid discipline, a respect for good officers and utter loyalty to the King on the part of the mutineers. The second was more complicated.
Ostensibly these mutinies were about concrete grievances concerning pay and living conditions at sea. The pay of sailors had not increased since 1653 while prices had risen dramatically. Pay was frequently in arrears and sometimes withheld for years as a deterrent to desertion. It grated that army pay had been significantly improved in 1795 while that of naval ratings was apparently forgotten. Sick and wounded men received no pay at all. Another issue was that of leave to go ashore. The bigger fighting ships spent much of their time engaged in tedious but demanding duties blockading French naval ports. Even when they returned to port, the crew was usually not allowed a run ashore, again for fear of desertion. Other sources of discontent included the poor quality of the provisions and bullying and arbitrary punishments, usually imposed by noncommissioned and petty officers.
In wartime, the Royal Navy was always short of men. It received some volunteers but never enough. The pressgang swept up sizeable numbers of enforced recruits and was normally only interested in those who had at least some experience of ships and the sea. There were not enough such men. Because of serious under-manning, the Quota Acts were passed in 1795 and 1796. These required counties and boroughs to supply a specified number of men for naval service. Many were found among men awaiting trial or sentencing or incarcerated in debtors' prisons. Those liable to be hanged or transported often preferred to take their chance at sea. Their presence in the crowded confines of a fighting ship often harmed morale as they found it hard to fit into the live-and-let-live style necessary for shipboard life. Also swept into the Royal Navy was a sprinkling of political dissidents who found fertile ground for their ideas among their more disenchanted shipmates. While some of these men were natural leaders, the naval authorities saw them only as potential trouble-makers, described disparagingly as 'sea-lawyers'.
At this time ordinary people had no effective way of obtaining redress for their grievances about wages, rising prices, the stinginess of the Poor Law, the corruption in political and public life and all the other issues which concerned them. Inevitably by impressing into naval service thousands of working men, forcibly plucked from family, friends and all that was familiar, the government was creating potential trouble. Sporadic mutinies had occurred in the Royal Navy over the previous century but they were usually the last desperate measure of a crew pushed beyond breaking point by bullying officers or failure to receive some or all of their pay. In the case of the naval mutinies, however, those caught up by the pressgang had inevitably been influenced not only by their own everyday concerns but also by the recent revolutionary events in France. These had demonstrated that ordinary people were capable of throwing off their oppressors and changing the course of history. In a lesson as important today as in the 1790s, revolutionary events in one country clearly provided an example and encouragement to those engaged in the class struggle elsewhere. The class struggle has always been international.
In February and March 1797, the Admiralty and Lord Howe, the widely respected officer commanding the Channel Fleet, received a number of anonymous petitions purporting to come from men in ships in his fleet demanding better pay. Clearly these communications were the result of co-ordinated activity between the various ships; something always dreaded by the authorities. When the Channel Fleet returned to Spithead, there was a palpable sense of resentment and expectation among almost all the ships. The Admiralty's answer to the seething discontent was to order the fleet to sea once more in the hope that the rigours of ship-handling would leave no time for the fomenting of discontent. The men responded on 16 April by collectively refusing to obey the order to weigh anchor. For the next week the fleet was immobilised by the mutineers while a body of elected delegates, two from each ship, constituted a council of deputies which carried on negotiations with a number of senior admirals, most of whom verged on the apoplectic at the very idea of negotiating with mutineers rather than hanging them from the nearest yardarm.
A few especially unpopular officers were put ashore but no violence or indiscipline was tolerated by the delegates and the ordinary routine of the ships continued except that the fleet was under the control of delegates elected by the men of whom it was composed. The mutineers had highly capable leaders who went to great lengths to stress that they were patriotic, loyal to the King and that they would put to sea immediately if the French fleet posed a threat. They called for an increase in pay, various improvements in the supplies of food and drink and how the sick and wounded were treated. They also protested about the presence on board of so many pressed men, not only the total landlubbers but those criminal elements who were having a disruptive effect. The Admiralty agreed to deal with most of their demands and an official royal pardon was issued on the 23 April 1797. The first Spithead Mutiny was over.
Unfortunately the measures promised required the authority of Parliament. Action was slow in coming and the men began to feel that they had been duped. On 7 May the mutiny broke out again and the tension was greatly exacerbated when Admiral Colpoys ordered the officers of his flagship 'London' to fire on the mutineers, several of whom were killed. It was only by great efforts on the part of the delegates that the men on board were restrained from hanging the admiral. Colpoys and over 100 officers were put ashore but the rest remained aboard although the delegates once more took effective command of the fleet. Two days later the relevant legislation was passed by Parliament and Admiral Lord Howe came down to Spithead to assure the delegates that their demands were being implemented. They responded by demanding that about fifty particularly unpopular officers should be replaced and Howe on his own authority wisely conceded this point. On 15 May the second Spithead mutiny was over and two days later the fleet set sail for further blockading duty off the French coast.
Meanwhile, however, another mutiny had broken out. This was at the Nore, close to the naval dockyards at Chatham and Sheerness. The Nore was not a naval station as such but many ships often anchored there waiting for orders. There were just three ships-of-the-line (what we think of as battleships) and some frigates when mutiny broke out on 12 May, initially in support of their peers at Spithead. The men's demands were more wide-ranging. They included the immediate implementation of the concessions already won at Spithead, more regular pay, an automatic right to shore leave when in port, more equitable distribution of prize-money, a pardon for deserters and a veto on the appointment of unpopular officers. The largest vessel on the station was Sandwich, a huge ship-of-the-line considered to have perhaps the worst living conditions of any British warship of the time. It was built for a complement of 750 officers and men but contained double that number. It was riddled with infectious disease and a hotbed of seething resentment.
Corporal punishment was not among the grievances and in fact the mutineers flogged several of their own number for drunkenness. The mutineers' leaders imposed a rigorous discipline, preventing all communication with the shore, while not hesitating to fire on any ships that tried to leave the anchorage. The Admiralty, having had such a bad fright, was in a less conciliatory mood this time and when senior officers arrived on the scene, they refused to make any concessions and put an embargo on the food and other supplies the ships needed. They had assessed the mood and the circumstances and considered that the leaders had less popular support among the ships at the Nore and little wider support. The fact that the relatively small number of ships at the Nore had refused to sail was not deemed such a great risk to national security as the Spithead mutinies could have been. Two of the vessels at the Nore quickly managed to escape.
At Spithead there had been a collective leadership of 'delegates' but at the Nore one particular leader took the limelight and seemed to revel in it. His name was Parker and he was an intelligent, experienced seaman. He was also a loose cannon, a resentful egotist who styled himself 'President', revelled in the trappings of power and was therefore resented by many of his fellow-mutineers. In turn he voiced his contempt for the 'lower classes' who he described as 'cowardly, selfish and ungrateful'. While some officers were violently treated, the men were at pains to stress that they were loyalists and that their action was neither rebellion nor mutiny but a justified strike for better conditions. This viewpoint was not accepted by the Admiralty, who were in no mood to parley with those they described as 'rebels' whose motivation was seditious and political. Meanwhile the Government was drawing up a raft of legislation making incitement to mutiny punishable by death and giving the Admiralty the power to declare a ship to be in a state of rebellion. This meant that anyone remaining on board was a felon or a pirate while those having friendly dealings with them also committed a capital offence.
The Admiralty was prepared to play a waiting game and the mutiny was on the verge of collapse when it received an unexpected boost with the arrival of most of Admiral Duncan's ships, which had been cruising off Great Yarmouth and which had also mutinied. This was now a serious issue because Duncan's squadron had been engaged in blockading the enemy Dutch fleet. It threatened national security because Duncan was left with only two loyal ships, and it was only a matter of time before the Dutch realised this and sailed out to meet them. Had it actually taken place, the ensuing battle would have been a one-sided confrontation. The arrival of these ships was a mixed blessing. It provided welcome reinforcements for the men at The Nore but allowed the authorities to portray them as deserters who had abandoned their posts – therefore even worse than simple mutineers. An attempt was made to blockade much of the merchant shipping sailing to and from London but the rebels themselves effectively became blockaded and crucially began to run out of fresh water, something always harmful to morale.
After Duncan's ships had joined those at the Nore, red flags had been hoisted and a declaration issued that they now constituted a 'Floating Republic'. Despite this defiance, the situation was becoming highly volatile. A discussion took place about sailing the ships to enemy or neutral ports but when this was agreed and the order to sail was given, not one ship obeyed. There were serious differences among the leaders of the mutiny, supplies were running short, several ships escaped and gave themselves up and then the Admiralty removed the navigation buoys necessary for sailing among the shoals of the Thames estuary. The mutineers were trapped. Increasingly desperate, there were fights on board some of the ships between the hard-line mutineers and men who wanted to give themselves up. The ships had all been recaptured a month after the mutiny had broken out. 29 of the mutineers' leaders at the Nore were hanged.
There is no doubt that these mutinies struck fear into the hearts of the British ruling class. For many of them, no mutiny could ever be justified and all of those involved should be hanged. The Admiralty never acknowledged by word that the grievances were justified but as we have seen they acknowledged it by deed when they rectified many of the outstanding issues. It was fashionable in some quarters to claim that the mutinies were the work of outside influences, especially those associated with the Jacobins in Revolutionary France. This of course is a standard ploy in such situations. In this case it suggested that everything in the Royal Navy was basically fine until troublemakers with their own agenda parachuted in to make mugs out of the honest but gullible Jack Tars. Others contrasted the 'unpolitical', that is, the morally justified grievances of the Spithead mutineers, with the 'political' and therefore malignant designs of the Nore mutineers. The French, the Corresponding Societies, the Irish and even the Methodists were among those blamed for fomenting the discontent. The writings of the radical Tom Paine were widely circulated and were doubtless influential, particularly among the more literate sailors. The notion was developing that even those of humble birth had rights.
The 'delegates' at Spithead put their names to documents and petitions and, far from being outsiders, they were nearly all able seamen or petty officers with long service records. They were the natural leaders of the lower decks. Few of them were Irish and none were pressed men who might have been natural troublemakers. Of the 462 men charged with mutiny in 1797, exactly 106 had been born in Ireland which is about the usual proportion of Irish sailors that would have been expected at that time.
The politicians and other men of power who made the wars and benefited from them had great contempt for those who they compelled to do their fighting on their behalf. They were horrified and appalled by the events at Spithead and the Nore but these events forced the ruling class to improve the conditions of the men who manned their ships and to start addressing many of their other grievances. The lessons of such success are never entirely lost. 1797 was one small step in the onward march of working people for equality and justice. These aspirations can only be achieved through the socialist transformation of society.