The Spithead and Nore mutinies were two major mutinies by sailors of the Royal Navy in 1797. There was also discontent and minor incidents on ships in other locations in the same year. The mutinies were potentially dangerous for Britain, because at the time the country was at war with the Revolutionary government of France. There were also concerns among some members of the British ruling class that the mutinies might be the trigger to a wider uprising similar to the French Revolution.
The mutiny at Spithead (an anchorage near Portsmouth) lasted from 16 April to 15 May, 1797. Sailors on 16 ships in the Channel Fleet, commanded by Admiral Lord Bridport, protested at the living conditions aboard Royal Navy vessels and demanded a pay raise.
Seamen’s pay rates had been established in 1658, and due to the stability of wages and prices, they had still been reasonably competitive as recently as the Seven Years’ War, 40 years earlier; however, high inflation during the last decades of the 18th century severely eroded the real value of the pay. At the same time, the practice of coppering the bottoms of hulls, starting in 1761, meant that British warships no longer had to return to port frequently to have their hulls scraped, and the additional time at sea significantly altered the rhythm and difficulty of seamen’s work. The Royal Navy had not yet made adjustments for any of these changes, and was slow to understand their effects on its crews. Finally, the new wartime quota system meant that there were a large number of landsmen from inshore, who did not mix well with the career seamen (volunteers or pressed men) and led to discontented ships’ companies.
The mutineers were led by elected delegates and tried to negotiate with the Admiralty for two weeks, focusing their demands on better pay, the abolishment of the 14-ounce “purser’s pound” (where the ship’s purser was allowed to keep two ounces of every pound of meat as a perquisite), and the removal of a handful of unpopular officers — neither flogging nor impressment was mentioned in the mutineers demands. The mutineers maintained regular naval routine and discipline aboard their ships (mostly with their regular officers), allowed some ships to leave for convoy escort duty or patrols, and promised to suspend the mutiny and go to sea immediately if French ships were spotted heading for English shores.
Due to mistrust, especially over pardons for the mutineers, the negotiations broke down, and minor incidents broke out with several unpopular officers sent to shore and others treated with signs of deliberate disrespect. When the situation calmed, Admiral Lord Howe intervened to negotiate an agreement that saw a Royal pardon for all crews, reassignment of some of the unpopular officers, and a pay rise and abolishment of the purser’s pound. Afterwards, the mutiny was to become nicknamed “breeze at Spithead”.
The leader of the mutiny remained anonymous even after its resolution. Rumours during the time placed Valentine Joyce as the mastermind. Valentine Joyce was a quartermaster’s mate aboard Lord Bridport’s HMS Royal George (Roberts 2006).
Inspired by the example of their comrades at Spithead, the mutiny at the Nore (an anchorage in the Thames Estuary) began on 12 May when the crew of the Sandwich seized control of the ship. Several other ships in the same location followed this example, though others slipped away and continued to slip away during the mutiny, despite gunfire from the ships remaining (who attempted to use force to hold the mutiny together). The mutineers had been unable to organise easily due to the ships being scattered along the Nore (and not all part of a unified fleet, as at Spithead), but they quickly elected delegates for each ship. Richard Parker, a former naval officer and French sympathizer, was elected “President of the Delegates of the Fleet”. Demands were formulated and on 20 May, a list of 8 demands was presented to Admiral Buckner, which mainly involved pardons, increased pay and modification of the Articles of War, eventually expanding to a demand that the King dissolve Parliament, and make immediate peace with France. These demands infuriated the Admiralty, which offered nothing except a pardon (and the concessions already made at Spithead) in return for an immediate return to duty.
The mutineers expanded their initial grievances into the beginnings of a social revolution and blockaded London, preventing merchant vessels from entering the port, and the principals made plans to carry their ships to France, alienating the regular English sailors and losing more and more ships as the mutiny progressed. After the successful resolution of the Spithead mutiny, the government and the Admiralty were not minded to make further concessions, particularly as the key leaders of the Nore mutiny had overt political aims beyond pay and living conditions of the crews on board ship.
The mutineers were denied food, and when Parker hoisted the signal for the ships to sail to France, all of the remaining ships refused to follow — eventually, most other ships had slipped their anchors and deserted (some under fire from the mutineers), and the mutiny failed. Parker was quickly convicted of treason and piracy and hanged from the yardarm of HMS Sandwich, the vessel where the mutiny had started. In the reprisals which followed, a total of 29 leaders were hanged, others sentenced to be flogged, imprisoned or transported to Australia. The vast majority of the crews on the ships involved in the mutiny suffered no punishment at all.
Other Mutinies and Discontent in 1797
In September 1797, the crew of the “Hermione” mutinied in the West Indies, killing almost all the officers in revenge for the flinging into the sea of two men who had broken their limbs falling from the rigging in a desperate scramble to avoid flogging for being last man down on deck. Other mutinies took place on the coast of Ireland and at the Cape of Good Hope and spread to the fleet under Admiral Jervis off the coast of Spain.
*”The Floating Republic” – Dobree and Manwaring (1935) ISBN 0-09-173154-2
* “The Great Mutiny” – James Dugan (1965)
* “The naval mutinies of 1797” – Conrad Gill (Manchester University Press, 1913)
*”A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler” – Roberts (2006) ISBN 0-00-716106-9
* “A Brief History of Mutiny” — Richard Woodman (2005) ISBN 0786715677