The Naval Mutinies of 1797: Unity and Perseverance. Edited by Ann Veronica Coats and Philip MacDougall . Boydell. 2011. xviii + 316pp. £60.00.


The naval mutinies of 1797, first at Spithead and then at Plymouth and the Nore, the anchorage in the Thames estuary close by the dockyard at Sheerness, paralysed the Royal Navy in home waters at a critical stage of the French Revolutionary War. While the sailors at Spithead repeatedly stressed their loyalty, and their willingness to fight, the Nore mutiny turned radical, leading many to suspect the action was politically motivated. The combination of unprecedented sustained organized action by the sailors and an invasion scare at a time when deep ideological fault lines separated Britain from France ensured that these events were, and remain, controversial. This edited collection contains the fruits of research first aired in the bicentenary year. It consists of an editorial introduction and sixteen chapters, by nine authors, with Coats and MacDougall leading on Spithead and the Nore respectively. Coats explores the historiography, a field polarized between those taking the official or the mutineer line. In 1842 Neale stressed the link to improved conditions for contemporary naval ratings. Conrad Gill's book of 1913, still the ‘standard’ account, made extensive use of newly accessible admiralty archives, while a 1935 study by Mainwaring and Dobree inevitably reflected the recent Invergordon mutiny, which shared many core issues with Spithead, and like James Dugan's 1966 text wore its pro-mutineer sympathies overtly. These texts all suffer from significant inaccuracies. The best modern account is that of N. A. M. Rodger in his large-scale work The Command of the Ocean of 2004, which acknowledges the then unpublished work of the contributors to this collection.

The remaining papers include two by David London dealing with government attempts to manipulate media coverage of Spithead and events on board HMS London. Although lives were lost when Vice Admiral Colpoys ordered the marines to fire on mutinous sailors, the men were restrained by their leaders, and the admiral merely deported. Christopher Doorne offers a fresh view of the Nore, playing down the role of political radicals. The ‘political’ argument had been adopted by naval officers seeking to shift the blame for the unrest from their own failings, and left-wing radicals attempting to politicize working men's protests. It is unlikely this debate will ever be closed; the evidence remains inadequate. While the essays focused on 1797 are consistently rewarding, the more widely focused essays by Roger Morriss, Brian Lavery, Nick Slope and Jonathan Neale begin the process of exploring the impact of these events on the navy of the day, and in the longer term. Morriss and Slope examine the disciplinary history of single ships, HMS Minerva and HMS Trent, across six- or seven-year periods. They establish the unique and the specific character of naval discipline, and the unwritten bonds between officers and men. By contrast, Lavery deploys his expertise on the lower deck of Nelson's navy to contextualize the events, and Neale explores the gradual shift in attitude among officers towards the subject of discipline, through the 1809 mutiny on board HMS Nereide, a notorious case of a violent and unpredictable captain. These studies suggest the way forward for the subject will require a renewed focus on the community of the ship, and the many ways in which it could break down under stress. By examining the connection between the twin elements of an organized labour dispute over pay and conditions, in which the men easily established the soundness of their claim, and the altogether more alarming politicized agendas of the Nore, Bell and Ellerman's 2004 collection examining naval mutinies across a wider period, and in many navies, offers useful comparisons. The majority of mutinies have been driven by issues of poor, usually inconsistent leadership, food, pay and general working conditions.

Elsewhere the ongoing significance of mutiny to armed forces should be obvious. In the nineteenth century naval men, serving and retired, officers and seamen used 1797 to support disparate agendas as the service moved from volunteers and pressed men, disciplined by the lash, to Continuous Service ratings with a clear professional identity, punished by withholding pay, perks like the rum ration and the odd spell in cells. The Royal Navy's response to the Invergordon mutiny of 1931 included a sophisticated treatment of Spithead and the Nore, a confidential text that was securely locked away in the ship's safe, for senior officers. Nor was the impact of 1797 restricted to Britain: Herman Melville's final, unfinished novella, Billy Budd, addressed the subject; Benjamin Britten's treatment of that text survives at the heart of the repertoire of English National Opera.

The success of the Spithead mutiny reflected the calm, disciplined conduct of the men, largely a product of their common experience in the Channel Fleet and frequent opportunities to meet and discuss their grievances, the skill and moderation of their leadership, and the desperate position of the administration. Attempts to discredit the sailors signally failed, and in a belated act of justice the service received its due, the first pay rise since Charles II, a full ration of food and no discrimination against the mutineers. The Nore was different. The ships that mutinied were a random assembly of units from many locations, united only by the chance that brought them to that place at that time. Significantly the mutineers were commanded from a floating depot ship, not a seagoing first rate. When they decided to reject the Spithead settlement and began to raise wider political demands, the ministers cut them off from the outside world, prevented them spreading their message and starved them out. Their ostensible leader, Richard Parker, may have been a front man for a radical faction that managed to escape to the continent. His death, Coats argues, was more a matter of ritual atonement than justly merited punishment; naval discipline had always been a question of theatre over substance. The mutinies inspired a dramatic reaction in the Mediterranean, where Earl St Vincent quickly crushed any hint of insurrection, to prevent the infection spreading. The ‘Wooden World’ would never be the same again. Boydell Press is to be congratulated for making these important essays accessible.