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The Faithful British Tar

March 2023
3min read

No student of naval history is likely to forget Admiral Mahan’s famous line about the storm-tossed British warships that stood between Napoleon’s army and the dominion of the world. Britain stayed afloat during the desperate wars that followed the French Revolution largely because the British fleet did its long, hard job with such fidelity and confidence. The legend of Britain’s indomitable Jack Tar seems to get most of its substance from the two decades that began in the mid-1790’s.

Yet the record of those great years contains one very singular chapter that is too often overlooked. For in 1797, when Britain stood alone against a Europe dominated by France’s revolutionary armies—a moment of crisis just about as sharp as the one that followed Dunkirk, nearly a century and a half later—the British fleet mutinied. During the most critical weeks of the war, 50,000 British sailors manning more than 100 warships went completely out of control. The instrument on which the British nation relied for survival suddenly became unusable, and all that saved the day was that Britain’s enemies did not know what was happening.

James Dugan tells the story of this amazing episode in The Great Mutiny , a thoughtful, well-documented book that makes absorbing reading and casts a revealing light on the great legend of British sea power.

Heaven knows, the British sailor at that time had reason enough for mutiny. His pay was much too low, and in addition he rarely got it; his food was atrocious, his living conditions aboard ship were bad enough to cause a riot in a penitentiary, and he was subjected to a brutal discipline that makes what Captain Bligh did to the crew of the Bounty look mild. (As a matter of fact, it was mild: Bligh was skipper of one of the ships involved in the 1797 mutiny, and from the record it appears that he was one of the better captains in the fleet.) And so, at a moment when the French were preparing to invade either Ireland or England itself, and the hostile Dutch fleet was waiting its chance to come out and make an attack of its own, there came a crippling mutiny.

The first chapter came in the principal fleet anchorage at Spithead, just outside the great naval base at Portsmouth. It resembled a sit-down strike, and one is tempted to remark that as a mutiny it was typically British: that is, the crews showed no disrespect to their officers, there was no violence whatever, the mutineers even promised to drop everything and go back to work if the French fleet really put to sea, everything was very orderly, and the ships were kept in full readiness for action. But the Admiralty had lost every vestige of control, and after a lot of indignant hemming and hawing, the government finally buckled down to it and dealt with the mutineers just as a factory management might deal with a militant union.

The Admiralty was lucky in the person it chose to deal with the seamen—Admiral Lord Richard Howe, a retired naval hero highly popular with the enlisted men, who knew him as “Black Dick”: a man who seems to have had none of the knock-’em-dead stuffiness traditional with British admirals of that day. Howe talked with the leaders of the mutiny as if they were reasonable men, found out that they were, and at last worked out a deal; his biggest problem apparently was to get government and Parliament to ratify the deal after it had been accepted by the seamen.

The deal was simple enough. There was a raise in pay, an improvement in food, some modification of the harsh rules that kept sailors from getting shore leave, and—not put down in writing, but nevertheless binding—an arrangement to get the most sadistic of the officers transferred to other assignments. It worked, the mutiny suddenly ended, and the battle fleet could be used once more.

The Great Mutiny, by James Dugan. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 511 pp. $6.95.

That was the first chapter. The second came in the anchorage at the Nore, at Sheerness near the mouth of the Thames. The sailors there found out what was up, put on a mutiny of their own, were assured that the gains made at Spithead would apply to them—and then undertook to raise some additional demands and created a very different sort of situation. This mutiny became everything that the mutiny at Spithead was not: that is, it was rough, disorderly, strongly tinged with an overlay of political radicalism that seemed to owe something to the Jacobin fervor of the French revolutionists. At Spithead, the leaders of the mutiny were all but unidentifiable: at the Nore they were way out in front, fighting partly for better working conditions and partly for their own aggrandizement. They overplayed their hand, and in the end the Nore mutiny was suppressed by force of arms, with two or three dozen hangings and a vast number of floggings.

And, in the end, the fleet went back to duty and the moment of crisis passed. It was a strange, strange business, altogether: two mutinies, one bloodless and almost friendly, the other as grim as any mutiny could be; the two together casting a strange light on the undying legend of the stouthearted British sailor.

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