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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
Then Landais had no recourse but to order the marines put under arms at once. Captain Parke, an original and consistent anti-Landais stalwart, called the roll of marines. Not a single man would come aft. A state of mutiny now existed, with the crew in control of the ship and the officers and passengers exceedingly uneasy. Here Landais’ indecisiveness was fatal. All witnesses at the trial agreed that had Landais called upon his officers at this time he would have had their support, and the crew might possibly have been overawed. One of the officers named Buckley went to the Captain and asked him, “in the name of God,” what to do when so many were against him. Landais did not know the answer. He went below, allowing the crew to make sail and take charge of the ship.
The next day, at 10 A.M., the Alliance found bottom in thirty-five fathoms on the Banks of Newfoundland. In accordance with regulations laid down by the Continental Congress, the crew were provided with fishing tackle so they could supplement the ship’s rations with fresh fish. The men threw their lines overboard and almost at once three fish were caught. Thoroughly beside himself, Landais rushed to the quarter-deck and out of sheer perversity ordered the fish thrown back into the sea and told the officer of the watch to make sail and bear away. This order was carried out, amidst much grumbling.
The fishing episode revealed that Landais could be both spiteful and sadistic. That evening at dinner Samuel Guild, the ship’s surgeon, remonstrated with him, pointing out that the stores for the sick were almost expended and that a number of them (three had already died during the passage) needed nourishing food.
“Everybody is in a hurry to get home,” Landais retorted, “so everybody will soon be where he can get everything he wants.” Furthermore, he argued, if the men stopped to fish they would delay the trip and thus consume more of the precious stores. The surgeon pointed out how ridiculous this argument was: off the Grand Banks the crew needed just two hours to catch a supply sufficient for the remainder of the voyage. Landais replied curtly: “I can stop for nothing.”
The reader of The Caine Mutiny will recall how Queeg found excuses in migraine headaches and kept to his cabin completely, leaving the running of the ship to his executive officer. Landais did the same. He returned to his cabin, said he was sick, threw himself on his cot, and feigned sleep.
The officers of the Alliance now had the greatest difficulty in getting the crew to return to their duty. Accordingly, they requested Landais to head for the nearest port in the United States. He refused, insisting that his orders were to go to Philadelphia. Muttering increased. At 2 P.M. on August 10, two of the foremastmen, Thomas Bayle and James Pratt, proposed to the officers that they change the ship’s course to Boston. When the officers refused, the greater part of the ship’s company assembled on deck at 3:10 P.M., and when the officers still refused to change course, declared “they would not fire a single broadside against any frigate that they should fall in with if the ship would not carry them to Boston.” They warned the officers that they carried nails in their pockets with which to spike the guns should a hostile ship come alongside. During this mutinous altercation Landais did not appear on deck.
A five the next morning the officers drew up a written report on the dangerous condition of the ship and brought it down to Landais, who would not allow the paper to be read. “I will not hear itl I will not hear itl” he cried out. “I have my orders to go to Philadelphia and will go there.”
“We now looked upon the Captain as deserting his command,” the purser later testified, and Lieutenant Lynd backed him up: “We thought the Captain had abdicated the command and would not assist us and that it was high time to choose somebody to command.” The officers then wrote out and signed a statement pointing out the “alarming situation” aboard the frigate “from the discontent of the people which is now of the most serious nature, being universal and fermented to a great degree,” but Landais refused to receive the communication, outshouting the delegation and declaring he would neither have nor receive anything from his officers.
The officers now held a meeting and, according to Captain Parke’s later testimony at Landais* trial, declared “they would rather be hanged for bringing the ship into a safe port than be taken by an inferior force and carried to the enemy’s port.” The passengers then submitted to the officers, in writing, their opinion that an officer be designated to conduct the ship to the first safe port in the United States.
Acting with considerable circumspection and with every caution to keep a record of every move they made, the officers by unanimous vote chose Lieutenant Degge to take over the command. Degge was the only commissioned officer aboard except Landais, and he was still under arrest. With understandable reluctance he accepted, but only after the ship’s other officers gave him their orders in writing.
“I never saw Captain Landais out of his cabin after that time until we came in sight of land,” the purser later told the court.