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The Revolution’s Caine Mutiny
In Pierre Landais the Continental Navy had its own real-life Commander Queeg. His tour as master of the Alliance was a nightmare wilder than any a novelist could invent
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
The boom removed, Landais slipped out to sea on the eighth of July. Trouble was not slow to appear. At least one officer aboard the Alliance did not take enthusiastically to Landais’ seizure of power. He was Captain Matthew Parke, in charge of the marines, who had received his orders from Jones. Parke had agreed to defend the ship and “her commander,” but the other officers were to defend themselves. Landais regarded this as a reflection upon his authority and ordered the purser, Nathaniel Blodget, to keep near Captain Parke and if he “saw any treachery in him to run him through the body.” Blodget considered this an “extraordinary” order and told Landais flatly he would not obey it. But Landais was taking no chances. On June 21, while still in Port Louis, he had Parke arrested, only to release him once the ship was at sea. It was his first serious blunder of the voyage.
The recapture of the command brought Landais little peace of mind. His behavior was agitated; he grew fretful and slept very little (and that in the daytime); he was distrustful of his own officers, and as his purser later testified, “gave his friends a good deal of pain.” He was constantly creating new difficulties and stirring up imaginary ones. Nobody aboard ship was exempt from his tyrannical moods, not even the five passengers, most prominent among them Landais’ staunch supporter, Arthur Lee, who had taken along a private cargo of goods, at government expense, for his own profit. One day at the dinner table Lee complained that the officers and passengers were required to drink water from the filthy common scuttle cask. Landais retorted that the water was good enough for the captain and that they ought to be content even though the water stank. By now thoroughly enraged, Landais brandished the carving knife and slammed it down on Lee’s fork as the celebrated passenger was trying to help himself from the common dish. “I’ll let you know I am captain of the ship,” he cried, “and I shall be helped first at the table. You shall not pick the liver out of the dish. You shall take the first piece that comes to hand as I do.”
That volley seemed to confound Lee.
“What do you mean? I don’t ever remember disputing you being the captain of the ship. I was never so used in my life,” he expostulated.
“When you get ashore,” said Landais, “you may load your pistols as soon as you please.”
Landais’ gluttony and his eccentricities kept the ship in a constant turmoil. He got into a man-size row with his officers. Before leaving Boston for France on the initial voyage, they had insured a supply of fresh meat for the long journey by purchasing sows with their own funds. Naturally they considered the swine their own property. But Landais demanded one half of the pigs because he owned the boar that begot them; on that ground he ordered the officers to refrain from killing any of them without his permission.
On the trip back to America the Captain became steadily more abusive and was so tactless as to reprimand his officers before the crew. On the night of July 13, Landais appeared on the quarter-deck and gave the ship’s first officer, Lieutenant J. A. Degge, a public dressing-down for not keeping the ship reared to the wind. Hitherto Degge had been one of Landais’ most loyal supporters. Now, unable to stomach any more abuse, he shouted to the men to cut off all the weather braces. Landais took exception to the tone of his voice and ordered him below. Degge refused to go.
“I had rather be in hell,” Degge was later quoted as saying, “than to sail with a man I cannot please.”
A slapstick scene followed, with Landais chasing Degge up the gangway. The Frenchman called upon Captain Parke of the Marines to arrest the Lieutenant, but Degge armed himself, went into the wardroom, and stayed below.
With passengers, officers, and crew completely against the Captain, a series of crises was building up. The first occurred on the morning of August 5, when virtually the whole ship’s company—a mixture of Americans, Frenchmen, Scots, and several other nationalities—came to the quarter-deck and asked the Captain why, since the wind was fair that morning, he had ordered sail taken up. Why was he not proceeding to America? Shortening sail hardly seemed the best way to get to the Banks. Landais, taken aback by the defiant attitude of the crew, asked the men whether or not they intended to obey him. They answered that they would, provided he proceeded to America at once. Since the Captain gave no indication of giving such an order, the men all went forward and began to make sail. Enraged at their insubordination, Landais shouted to Third Lieutenant Lynd to lower the fore-topsail, which had been hoisted. Lynd tried to do so, but the crew would not let him.