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The Mutiny Of 1797


In the course of February and March, 1797, Lord Howe received several
anonymous letters, enclosing petitions from the ships' companies of a
number of vessels of the Channel fleet, asking for increased pay and
better provisions. These letters, though coming from different quarters,
were apparently written by the same hand, and the authorities judging
that they were so, and that they represented an agitation carried on by
one person, took but little notice of them.

A word to the wise is sufficient, but governments are not always wise,
or the Admiralty would at least have made inquiries as to the justice of
the demands made. Of this, however, they can hardly have been unaware,
for while the pay of the army and the militia had been increased, the
pay of the navy had remained the same from the time of Charles II., and
many abuses had sprung up in the administration of the commissariat
which bore very hardly upon the men. The greed of purveyors and the
corruption of commissioners provided them with food short in quantity
and often unfit to eat; while under the system then in vogue the ship's
purser was allowed to deduct two ounces in every pound of provisions
served out to the men and a similar proportion of grog and beer in lieu
of direct wages from the government.

It soon became evident, however, that the disaffection was far more
formidable than was at first supposed. On the return of the Channel
fleet into port a secret correspondence was arranged between all the
ships that composed it; and this ended in a unanimous agreement that no
ship should lift an anchor until a redress of grievances was obtained.
At this stage it was reported to Lord Spencer, the head of the
Admiralty, that a general conspiracy had been entered into to take
command of the fleet on April 16th; to test which on the 15th Lord
Bridport ordered the signal to prepare for sea. But instead of the men
proceeding to weigh anchor, they manned the rigging and gave three
cheers, as the signal for mutiny, and every other ship followed the

The officers of every ship exerted themselves to their utmost to bring
their men back to obedience; but all their endeavours were vain. The
fleet being now in the complete possession of the seamen, every ship's
company appointed two delegates, and Lord Howe's cabin was fixed upon as
their place of consultation. On the 17th an oath was administered to
every man in the fleet to support the cause in which they had engaged,
and ropes were reeved to the yard arms in every ship as signals of the
punishment that would be inflicted on those that betrayed it. Several
officers who had made themselves particularly obnoxious to their
respective crews were sent ashore.

In the meantime, though the admiral was restricted from putting to sea,
he retained the command of the fleet in every other respect; the
strictest discipline was maintained and the severest orders and
regulations were enacted by the delegates, enjoining the most respectful
attention to their officers, and threatening disobedience with rigorous

On the 18th two petitions, one to the Admiralty and the other to the
House of Commons, were drawn up and signed by the delegates. They were
both worded with the highest propriety of expression and respect. The
petition to parliament stated that the price of all articles necessary
for subsistence having advanced at least thirty per cent. since the
reign of Charles II., when the seamen's pay was settled as at present,
they requested that a proportionate relief might be granted to them. It
represented at the same time that, while their loyalty was equal to that
of the army, the pensions of Chelsea had been augmented to thirteen
pounds a year, but those of Greenwich still remained at seven. The
petition to the Admiralty contained a recital of the services rendered
by the petitioners and a warm declaration of their readiness to defend
their country, and set forth the low rate of their pay, and the
insufficiency of their allowance of provisions, demanding increase of
both, together with the liberty of going ashore while in harbour and the
continuance of pay to wounded seamen till cured and discharged.

Such, in the meanwhile, was the alarm of the public, and particularly of
the government, that it was judged necessary to transfer the board of
Admiralty to Portsmouth, in order to be nearer at hand to inspect the
transactions on board the fleet, and to consult on the readiest and most
likely means of quelling the discontent, the consequences of which might
prove ruinous to the nation by throwing open the Channel and all the
neighbouring seas to the uncontrolled dominion of the French fleets and

The first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Spencer, accompanied by Lord Arden
and Admiral Young, repaired accordingly to Portsmouth, where they
directly proceeded to take into consideration the petition that had been
transmitted to the board. They authorised Lord Bridport to inform the
ships' companies that they would recommend the king to propose to
parliament an augmentation of pay to the seamen in the navy at the rate
of four shillings a month to petty officers and able seamen, three
shillings to ordinary seamen, and two shillings to landsmen. Seamen
wounded in action were also to continue in the receipt of their pay till
cured or declared unable to serve, when they should be allowed a pension
or admitted into Greenwich Hospital.

To this notification the seamen replied by requesting that the
long-established distinctions in the navy, of able and ordinary seamen,
should be retained; the pay of the former to be raised to one shilling a
day, and that of petty officers and ordinary seamen in the usual
proportion; they also requested that the pay of the marines while on
board should be the same as of ordinary seamen, and that the pensions
of Greenwich Hospital should be increased to ten pounds.

On April 20th the lords of the Admiralty notified to Lord Bridport their
compliance with the demands of the seamen, directing him to make it
known through the fleet, and to require, in consequence, an immediate
return of the people to their duty, on pain of forfeiting their right to
smart-money, to pensions from the chest of Chatham, and to an admission
into Greenwich Hospital, and of being made responsible for the
consequences that might ensue from the continuance of their
disobedience. They were informed, at the same time, that an unqualified
pardon for all that had taken place would be granted to every ship's
company that should, within one hour of these resolutions being
communicated to them, submit to their officers and cease to hold farther
intercourse with those who remained in a state of mutiny.

On the 21st, Admirals Gardner, Colpoys and Poole went on board the
Royal Charlotte in order to confer with the delegates, who explicitly
informed them that it was the determination of the crews to agree to
nothing that should not be sanctioned by parliament and guaranteed by
the king's proclamation. Admiral Gardner was so irritated by this
declaration that he seized one of the delegates by the collar, and swore
he would have them all hanged, with every fifth man throughout the
fleet. This behaviour of the admiral so exasperated the ship's company
that it was with difficulty he escaped with his life.

The delegates from the Royal George returned immediately to their ship
and informed their crew of what had happened; after some consultation
they resolved to summon all the delegates on board their ship. This was
forthwith done by hoisting the red, a signal that struck terror through
the fleet, as it was not generally understood; the officers in
particular being apprehensive that some fatal designs were in agitation.
The crew now proceeded to load their guns, to order the watch to be kept
as at sea, and to put everything in a state of defence.

On the following day the ships' crews directed two letters to be
written, one to the lords of the Admiralty, to acquaint them with the
motives for their conduct on the preceding day, and another to Lord
Bridport, in which they styled him their father and their friend, and
assured him of their respect and attachment. This induced him to return
to his ship the next day, the 23rd, and to rehoist his flag, which he
had struck during the confusion on the 21st. After a short and pathetic
address to the crew he informed them that he had brought with him a
redress of all their grievances and the king's pardon for what had
passed. After some deliberation these offers were accepted and every man
returned to his duty.

From April 23rd to May 7th the fleet remained in due subordination; but
on that day a fresh mutiny broke out. The seamen, from whatever cause it
arose, had conceived a mistrust of government, and apprehending a
violation of the promises made to them, renewed their former menaces. As
soon as this alarming intelligence arrived, government dispatched with
all speed a person of the highest weight and authority to quell this
unexpected tumult. This was Lord Howe, an officer long held in the first
degree of respect and esteem in the British navy, and personally beloved
by all that had served under him for his humane disposition as well as
for his many great qualities. His presence and exhortations wrought the
desired effect, and happily dissipated the suspicions that were
beginning to prevail.

Conformably to the expectation of the public, the House of Commons on
May 8th took into consideration the estimates laid before it by the
ministry, for the purpose of augmenting the pay, and the Bill, as soon
as it was framed, went through the necessary formalities without delay,
and immediately received the royal assent by commission.

The suppression of the disturbances among the seamen at Portsmouth,
without recurring to violent measures, and by granting their petitions,
occasioned universal satisfaction, and it was hoped that no farther
complaints would arise. These reasonable expectations were, however,
wholly disappointed by a fresh mutiny that broke out at the Nore on May

The crews on that day took possession of their respective ships, elected
delegates to preside over them, and to draw up a statement of their
demands and transmit them to the lords of the Admiralty. These demands
went much farther than those of the seamen at Portsmouth and Plymouth,
and were not met with the same indulgence. On June 6th, in the morning,
the fleet at the Nore was joined by the Agamemnon, Leopard,
Ardent, and Isis men-of-war, together with the Ranger sloop, which
ships had deserted from the fleet under Admiral Duncan.

The principal person at the head of this mutiny was one Richard Parker,
a man of good natural parts and some education, and of a remarkably bold
and resolute character. Admiral Buckner, the commanding officer at the
Nore, was directed by the lords of the Admiralty to inform the seamen
that their demands were totally inconsistent with the good order and
regulations necessary to be observed in the navy, and could not for that
reason be complied with; but that on returning to their duty they would
receive the king's pardon for their breach of obedience. To this offer
Parker replied by a declaration that the seamen had unanimously
determined to keep possession of the fleet until the lords of the
Admiralty had repaired to the Nore and redressed the grievances which
had been laid before them.

In order to put an end with all possible expedition to a mutiny that
appeared so dangerous, Lord Spencer, Lord Arden and Admiral Young
hastened immediately to Sheerness and held a board, at which Parker and
the other delegates attended; but their behaviour was so audacious that
the lords of the Admiralty returned to town without the least success.
The principal article of complaint on the part of the mutineers was the
unequal distribution of prize-money, for the omission of which they much
blamed their fellow-seamen at Portsmouth. On the return of the lords of
the Admiralty from Sheerness a proclamation was issued offering His
Majesty's pardon to all such of the mutineers as should immediately
return to their duty; intimating at the same time Admiral Buckner was
the proper person to be applied to on such an occasion. All the buoys,
by the order of government, were removed from the mouth of the Thames
and the neighbouring coast; from which precaution any ships that might
attempt to get away would be in danger of running aground. Great
preparations were also made at Sheerness against an attack from the
mutinous ships, which had manifested some strong indications of an
intention to bombard that place; and furnaces and hot balls were kept

Emboldened by the strength of men and shipping in their hands, and
resolved to persevere in their demand till they had exhorted a
compliance, the mutineers proceeded to secure a sufficiency of
provisions for that purpose by seizing two vessels laden with stores,
and sent notice ashore that they intended to block up the Thames and cut
off all communication between London and the sea in order to force
government to a speedy accession to their terms. They began the
execution of this menace by mooring four of their vessels across the
mouth of the river and stopping several ships that were coming from the

These transactions, while they excited the greatest alarm in the nation,
were violently reprobated by the seamen belonging to the two divisions
of the fleet lying at Portsmouth and at Plymouth. Each of them addressed
an admonition to their fellow-seamen at the Nore, warmly condemning
their proceedings as a scandal to the name of British seamen, and
exhorting them to be content with the indulgence already granted by
government, and to return to their duty without insisting on more
concessions than had been demanded by the rest of the navy.

But these warnings proved ineffectual. The reinforcement of the four
ships lately arrived, and the expectation of being joined by others,
induced them to persist in their demands. The committee of delegates on
board the Sandwich came to a determination to commission Lord
Northesk, whom they had kept in confinement in the Montague, of which
he was commander, to repair to the king in the name of the fleet, and
to acquaint him with the conditions on which they were willing to
deliver up the ships. The petition which he was charged to lay before
the king was highly respectful and loyal to him, but very severe on his
ministers, and they required an entire compliance with every one of
their demands, threatening on the refusal of any to put immediately to
sea. Lord Northesk readily undertook to be the bearer of their petition,
but told them that from the unreasonableness of their demands he could
not flatter them with the hope of success. Confiding in him, they said,
as the seamen's friend, they had entrusted him with this mission on
pledging his honour to return with a clear and positive answer within
fifty-four hours.

Lord Northesk departed accordingly for London, and was introduced by
Lord Spencer to the king. But no answer being returned to the message,
and information being brought to the fleet that the nation at large
highly disapproved of their proceedings, great divisions took place
among the delegates, and several of the ships deserted the others--not,
however, without much contest and bloodshed. The mutineers, despairing
now of accomplishing their designs, struck the red flag, which they had
hoisted as the signals of mutiny, and restored a free passage to the
trade of the metropolis. Every ship was now left at its own command, and
they all gradually returned to obedience, though on board of some
violent struggles happened between the mutineers and the loyal parties.

The principal conductor of the mutiny, Richard Parker, was seized and
imprisoned, and after a solemn trial that lasted three days on board of
the Neptune, was sentenced to death. He suffered with great coolness
and intrepidity, acknowledging the justice of his sentence, and
expressing his hope that mercy might be extended to his associates. But
it was judged necessary to make public examples of the principal and
most guilty, who were accordingly tried, and after full proof of their
criminality, condemned and executed. Others remained under sentence of
death till after the great victory obtained over the Dutch fleet at
Camperdown by Admiral Duncan, when His Majesty issued a general pardon.

Next: The Battle Of Camperdown

Previous: Triumph In Retreat

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