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The Spithead and Nore Mutinies broke out during the Napoleonic Wars

Posted in Historical articles, History, Ships, War on Monday, 30 September 2013

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This edited article about the Royal Navy originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 413 published on 13 December 1969.

Spithead Mutiny, picture, image, illustration

The squadron manned the yards and rigging and gave three cheers as the Spithead Mutiny began

It was the beginning of the year, 1797, and it seemed to the people of Britain that there had never been such a bad beginning to a year. After nearly four years of war, Napoleon had forced her to her knees, and now Ireland was on the point of rebellion. Even worse, for those with money at least, there was a run on the Bank of England which could spell ruin for many. Bad times, indeed!

One thought sustained the British people in the early months of that year. The Navy, symbol of British power, was intact, and Jolly Jack Tar still manned the fleet, God bless him. It was true that Jack Tar had complained for years of his lot, and it was true that he had some cause for complaint. It was said that his food was unappetising. But on the other hand it was a well-known fact that Jack Tar did not appreciate good food. Was not his most popular dish, burgoo, or Scotch coffee, which consisted mostly of porridge with gobbets of meat floating in it, plus a little vinegar? It was also true that many a man had become a sailor, only because he had been rounded up by a press gang. But was it not also true that many an impressed man had been brought aboard in filthy rags, which clearly showed he was better off aboard ship? Why, even the most vile paupers and ruffians had been rescued from the sinks of London and had been given the chance of a clean, healthy life on board one of His Majesty’s ships. It was true that men were flogged, but discipline was always necessary, and, anyway, a mere dozen strokes of the lash was the maximum punishment laid down by Naval Regulations. There was talk that, in actual fact, a hundred strokes was a common punishment. But of course these were only stories put around by vicious agitators. So the people of England thought and talked of their sailors, dismissing most of the terrible tales of hardship and suffering as a pack of lies.

But all of it, and more, was true. In addition to being half beaten to death for every misdemeanour, the British sailor of those times was forced to sleep cheek by jowl in the most appalling conditions in leaking ships where disease was forever rife. His pay, such as it was, had not changed since the reign of Charles the II, though the price of common necessities had greatly increased. His officers were often sadistic brutes, and nor was there any escape from them, for whenever a ship was in port no leave was granted, because men who went ashore would never return.

Dr. Johnson summed up the sailor’s lot more simply with his remark: “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail with the chance of being drowned. A man in jail has more room, better food and better company.”

In the February of 1797, Jolly Jack Tar decided that he had suffered enough. The wonder of it all is that he had not come to this conclusion before. Now that he had come to it, his plan was awe-inspiring – nothing less than the greatest mutiny of English history.

It was a mutiny which began quietly enough with the crew of four line of battle ships at Spithead addressing petitions to Lord Howe, Commander of the Channel Fleet. The requests in the letters, which had been drafted by delegates elected by their fellow sailors, were reasonable enough. But they arrived at a bad time. Lord Howe, who was irritably nursing an attack of gout at Bath, was in no mood to deal with sea-lawyers, and he merely sent the letters on to the Lords of the Admiralty, who decided that the best cure for the situation was a bout of active service for all concerned. The orders arrived at Portsmouth on 15th April, and the fleet was signalled to make the necessary preparations to set sail.

It was the signal for mutiny. As if by common consent, the squadron manned the yards and rigging and gave three cheers. Then they proceeded to take command of each ship. At this stage no violence was used, even though a lieutenant promptly shot one of the mutineers.

Once more the delegates delivered their demands, this time direct to the Admiralty. Their demands were simple: more wages, more food, fresh vegetables, fresh meat while in port, and better conditions for the sick. The Admiralty agreed to a wage increase and more food, but refused the other demands. As a sop, a free pardon was promised to all who had taken part in the mutiny. Surprisingly, the men of the Portsmouth fleet meekly accepted the offer and returned to their duties.

But it was far from being the end of the matter. Now it was the turn of the fleet at the Nore to rise in a violent state of mutiny.

The chief ringleader of the Nore Mutiny was Richard Parker, who had once been a midshipman, before he had been court-martialled and dismissed from the Navy for infamous conduct. Later, imprisoned for debt he had accepted the King’s Bounty and had rejoined the Navy in 1798 as a common sailor. A morose, ill-tempered man, he was hardly the ideal person to be in charge of an operation which needed tact and forbearance if the mutiny was to be carried out without bloodshed. In actual fact Parker favoured violence. Under his command, officers were flogged mercilessly, or they were half drowned by being dropped at the end of a rope from the yard arm into the sea, where they were kept under water for a minute, before the procedure was repeated.

By now the mutiny was well out of hand. As more ships of the line joined in the rebellion, Parker began to give way to the wildest fits of extravagance. He talked of taking the whole fleet to sea and selling it to England’s enemies. After being talked out of this scheme, he tried to stop the navigation of the Thames, declaring that he would force his way up to London and bombard the city if the Government did not accede to his terms.

Then suddenly, almost as quickly as it had begun, the fire Parker had fanned, began to die out. The fleets at Plymouth and Portsmouth disowned him. Moreover, on 4th June, the King’s birthday, the whole fleet insisted on firing a royal salute. On 10th June, the Leopard and Repulse hauled down the flag of mutiny and sailed into the Thames. Shortly after their example was followed by other ships.

Parker and his cause was lost. On the evening of 14th June, the crew of the Sandwich, Parker’s own ship, brought the vessel under the guns of the fort at Sheerness and handed him as a prisoner to the authorities. Sixteen days later he was hanged from the yardarm of his own ship. Twenty nine of his fellow conspirators were also executed.

The mutiny had been a failure, but it eventually led to widespread reforms which made the life of Jack Tar a far happier one than it had been before.

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