The Revolution’s Caine Mutiny


In a prefatory note to The Caine Mutiny Herman Wouk makes the point of informing the reader that “the records of thirty years show no instance of a court-martial resulting from the relief of a captain at sea under Article 184, 185, and 186 of the Naval Regulations,” and that both persons and events in his novel are imaginary. Had his researches carried him back much farther into the American past, as far back as the closing years of the American Revolution, he might have uncovered a singularly parallel case, one where fact proved even stranger than his fiction.

The mutiny on the Continental frigate Alliance occurred under much the same circumstances as on the mine sweeper Caine. In both cases the captains were relieved of command because they were considered by their officers to be no longer in control of their mental faculties. Lieutenant Commander Philip Queeg and Captain Pierre Landais were both martinets who threw tantrums over the slightest infraction of their orders. Both had paranoid personalities, were unreasonably suspicious and gripped by feelings of persecution, and both sought to withdraw from reality when the crisis came. Both were petty and arbitrary toward their subordinates, arguing with them over the ship’s water and food supplies. And finally, the reputations of both commanders were destroyed as a result of sensational courts-martial.

Congress christened one of the largest and best-built ships in the Continental Navy the Alliance and then fittingly gave command of the swift-sailing frigate to a Frenchman. He was a naval captain named Pierre Landais, a supercharged egoist whose conduct proved of great disservice to Franco-American amity.

From her maiden voyage, the Alliance seemed destined to ride stormy seas. In the winter of 1779 she sailed for France with Lafayette as a passenger. Hardly had she left Boston when Landais revealed what was to be a characteristic weakness as a disciplinarian. Writing to Franklin in February, 1779, Landais reported that he had reached Brest only after putting down a full-scale mutiny of the crew with the aid of the Marquis and the officers of the ship. As a result of a court of inquiry held on shipboard, thirty-eight of the crew were put in irons and on reaching port were confined to a French prison without the formality of a trial.

Benjamin Franklin, who directed American naval operations in foreign waters in addition to running interference for the Franco-American alliance, now ordered Landais and the Alliance to report to L’Orient and there join John Paul Jones’s squadron. John Adams, who had been in France as a commissioner, was now anxious to return home on the Alliance, and during this period spent a good deal of time in Landais’ company. Adams found him frustrated in his ambitions, disappointed in love, unable to win the affection of his officers or hold their respect, and consumed by jealousy. In his diary for May 12, 1779, Adams recorded: “Landais is jealous of everything, jealous of everybody, of all his officers, all his passengers; he knows not how to treat his officers, nor his passengers, nor anybody else.” He found him a bewildered man, constantly harping on imaginary plots against him. Adams, who served as peacemaker between captain and crew, predicted that when he left the ship “all will become unhappy again.” He entered a further prediction: “Landais will never accomplish any great thing … This man … has a littleness in his mien and air. His face is small and sharp so that you form a mean opinion of him from the first sign.”

It did not take Landais long to confirm Adams’ prognosis. His astounding behavior during the notable engagement of the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis, which took place in the North Sea on September 23, 1779 only seven months after the Alliance arrived in European waters, should have been conclusive evidence that he was dangerously unstable. With the converted Indiaman and the more heavily gunned British frigate both afire, Jones was relieved when the Alliance finally made her appearance. To his consternation his would-be rescuer discharged a broadside into the stern of the Bonhomme Richard.

“For God’s sake forbear firing into the Bonhomme Richard” Jones shouted frantically, but Landais continued to pour shot into Jones’s ship. One of his volleys killed several men and an officer of the forecastle, and others hit the Bonhomme Richard under water. Only fantastic bravado saved the day for Jones.