The Naval Mutinies of 1797: unity and perseverance edited by Ann Veronica Coats and Philip Macdougall (eds) with 8 Contributors 316 pages; 13 b&w illustrations, 14 tablesBoydell Press, PO Box 9, Woodbridge, IP12 3DF, 2011, £60/$99 (hbk), ISBN 978-1843836698
Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
© 2013 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2013 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 230–231, March 2013
How to Cite
McAleer, J. (2013), The Naval Mutinies of 1797: unity and perseverance edited by Ann Veronica Coats and Philip Macdougall (eds) with 8 Contributors 316 pages; 13 b&w illustrations, 14 tablesBoydell Press, PO Box 9, Woodbridge, IP12 3DF, 2011, £60/$99 (hbk), ISBN 978-1843836698. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 42: 230–231. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12008_17
- Issue published online: 4 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
The naval mutinies of 1797 have recently enjoyed something of an academic renaissance, inspiring much scholarly discussion and debate. For those interested in subjects as diverse as the ship-board life of 18th-century sailors, political activism among the lower orders, and interactions between naval history, national identity and political consciousness, the events at Spithead and the Nore provide interesting sources and unique insights.
The mutinies that broke out in 1797 were unprecedented in their scale and profoundly worrying (or impressive, depending on one's perspective) in their level of organization. The unrest affected more than 100 ships in at least five different anchorages. And it had ramifications much further afield: in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic and Indian Oceans. At the height of a major war, the Royal Navy, Britain's traditional bulwark and the country's last line of defence, was paralysed by the actions of its seamen, the very men Britain relied on to preserve it from invasion. Crews on board a majority of ships of the Royal Navy's fleet in home waters, with invasion expected at any time, disobeyed orders and refused to sail until their demands were met. The implications could hardly have been more serious.
The Spithead Mutiny began in February 1797 when seamen in the Channel Fleet moored at Spithead in the Solent sent 11 anonymous petitions seeking a pay increase to Admiral Richard Howe, their nominal commander. His flawed comprehension of events was further exacerbated by the Admiralty. A series of miscommunications followed until the seamen refused to sail on 16 April 1797. Thirty-two delegates from 16 ships-of-the-line met in the cabin of the Queen Charlotte that evening and drew up rules to govern their future behaviour. Ironically, Howe acknowledged the justice of their position and was instrumental in resolving the Spithead Mutiny, but this did not prevent similar occurrences at the Nore and elsewhere.
Notwithstanding the recent upsurge in interest in these events, they have not always been well served by historians. As the editors of this collection point out in their preface, with a few notable exceptions, these events, which occurred at a crucial point in the war with revolutionary France and her allies, have not featured in naval histories as much as one might expect. Conrad Gill's definitive work was published almost a century ago, in 1913. This was followed by George Ernest Manwaring and Bonamy Dobree's The Floating Republic: An Account of the Mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1797, which first appeared in 1935. And, in 1966, James Dugan published The Great Mutiny. This volume does not attempt to replace any of these works. However, that is not to say that it is not the product of considerable effort and thought. The editors have been considering this subject for quite some time. The collection is partially the result of conferences held to mark the bicentenary of the mutinies at the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, and Chatham Historic Dockyard Chapel in 1997, as well as the ‘Reactions to Revolution’ conference held at Caen University, France, in December of that year.
Taken as a whole, the collection sets out to answer a series of specific questions: Were the mutinies a struggle over ‘arrears of pay’ or a ‘revolutionary movement'? Were there one, four or more mutinies? Is ‘mutiny’ the correct word for these events—were there, in fact, a range of ‘mutinies’, from what we might term strike action today to more ‘traditional’ definitions? In engaging with these questions, the chapters focus on particular events and ships, as well as tackling some broader themes. For example, contributions range from analysis of incidents on HMS London and HMS Trent, to chapters considering themes such as conspiracy theories inspired by the mutinies, the reporting of the events in the provincial press, sailors' petitions on the conduct of officers, and lower-deck life in the Revolutionary Wars.
In many respects, the strength of the collection lies in this focused approach. As the editors contend, the volume poses new answers to old questions. In doing so it can dispel some lingering myths that have little basis in fact: that sailors did not know how to rebel; that naval crews were unheedingly obedient to their superiors; or that the mutinies were the product of some Irish republican plot. In their place, The Naval Mutinies of 1797 suggests that ‘self-determination’ can be a powerful tool in exploring the motivations of the sailors involved in these events.
Of course, this sort of approach can also be a drawback too. Chronologically, the collection does not stray beyond the first decade of the 19th century. Indeed, apart from a final chapter on the influence of the events of 1797 upon the Nereide Mutiny of 1809, there is relatively little to say about the legacy of 1797 in the Royal Navy. While there is much more work to be done, this collection can provide the basis for future scholarship. More consideration of muster books, for instance, might provide information and more ‘subtle understanding’, as the editors put it (p. 9), ‘of those who led the mutinies or crewed particular vessels which espoused, resisted or drove mutiny forward’. Similarly, much remains to be done on issues such as the long-term impact of the mutinies on naval administration, conditions and discipline, as well as the wider cultural impacts and legacies of such potentially cataclysmic events on the national, as well as the naval, psyche.
In an article in The Saturday Review of June 1891, David Hannay remarked that he doubted whether the mutinies of 1797 ‘have ever received the attention which they deserve’. The Naval Mutinies of 1797 goes some way to rectifying that situation.