Spithead Mutiny Begins
In 1797 Britain’s navy enjoyed perhaps its most daring victory at the Battle of St Vincent ; two months later one of its least auspicious moments followed when sailors in the fleet moored at Spithead off Portsmouth mutinied, though that term seems overblown – took industrial action seems more apposite.
Louis XVI had been executed four years previously; Republican France was at war with Britain, whose ruling class lived in fear of similar upheaval spreading across the Channel – the French tried indeed to help Irish nationalists in February 1797 with the last invasion of mainland Britain. Under such circumstances it is amazing that the mutiny which began at Spithead should eventually have been resolved peacefully.
Sailors of the Channel Fleet at Spithead refused orders on April 16, protesting at conditions and remuneration. Inflation had eroded the value of their pay; the wars with France begun in 1793 meant many from non-sailing backgrounds were serving, discontented in themselves and by their inadequate performance discontenting their more experienced shipmates; and all of them spending less time ashore thanks to ships being copper-bottomed. Add poor provisions – and even those reduced by corrupt custom and practice – and the recipe for mutiny was complete.
The mutineers conducted themselves very intelligently: their leadership was kept secret (thus safe from retribution) but they elected representatives; they avoided charges of treason by offering to put to sea were the French to threaten; and though at times insolent they avoided violence against even hated officers. Negotiations dragged on, but when pardons were agreed on top of a pay rise, improved provisions, and the most despised officers being removed from the rebellious ships, the action ended on May 15. Not so the copycat mutiny at Nore in the Thames Estuary which started on May 12.
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