A Breeze at Simon’s Bay
The Little Nore
The Forecastle culture and the Tripartite Sailor
The Sailor in His Own Words
In the wake of the vast multi-ship mutinies of England’s fleets at home in the spring of 1797, the isolated squadron at the Cape of Good Hope weathered two separate multi-ship mutinies, one at Simon’s Bay in October, and another at Table Bay in early November. Writing after the close of these mutinies the colony governor Earl Macartney mused,
I have just communicated to you the account of the second mutiny that had broke out in the fleet here… From the most minute investigation of it I cannot discover that there was the shadow of a grievance to be pleaded in its alleviation. It appears solely to have proceeded from mere wantonness in the sailors and a vanity of aping their fraternity in England… This spirit of sea mutiny seems like the sweating-sickness in Edward the Fourth’s reign, a national malady which, as we are assured by the historians of the day, not content with its devastations in England, visited at the same time every Englishman in foreign countries at the most distant parts of the globe: ‘The general Air / From Pole to Pole /from Atlas to the East. / Was then at the enmity with English blood’.
The governor was correct about the “epidemic potential” of mutiny in 1797. As the mutinies spread throughout the Royal Navy, touching such distant locales as the Mediterranean, West Indies, and Cape of Good Hope, they threatened the very social and economic fabric of the Empire. Until recently, historians covering the British naval mutinies of 1797 have focused almost exclusively on what occurred at Spithead, an anchorage on the English channel adjacent to Portsmouth, and directly after at the Nore, located to the northeast at the mouth of the Thames. The disturbances at Simon’s and Table Bay, though lesser in scale and scope than Spithead and the Nore, deserve attention not only for their similarities to these parent mutinies in terms of organization, demands made, and resolution, but also because these similarities offer concrete evidence of the physical and intellectual networks which underpin the maritime world.
The Delegates in Council, or beggars on horseback, A contemporary cartoon of the delegation of sailors who devised the terms of settlement of the Mutiny of Spithead, 1797 (Vaisseau de Ligne, Time Life, 1979)
The character and causal factors of the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore continue to be debated by historians. Motivated in part by the desire for increased wages in the face of the rising cost of living, and exacerbated by an atmosphere of war exhaustion, what began as unanswered petitioning transformed into a concerted refusal to obey and a formal faceoff with authorities. What is certain is that the sailors involved in the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore acted in concert. They were organized, revealing forethought and intent; fleet parliaments, made from a complement of delegates elected by each participating ship’s company voiced the sailors’ demands, made decisions, and kept order aboard the ships throughout the course of the mutinies. Oaths were sworn to signify solidarity to the cause, red flags were flown at the masthead, and from the yards tarred ropes were dangled provocatively. Throughout, the mutineers attested their loyalty to the King and country. These mutinies were not to see the same resolution, however. At Spithead, the sailors were granted limited yet significant concessions; at the Nore, the authorities responded with increasingly repressive measures, which culminated in the court martial and sentencing to death of a number of mutineers.
Historians have continuously sought to forge sustainable links between the mutinous men at Spithead and the Nore and revolutionary agents, echoing the English government’s own suspicions during and after the mutinies that this kind of outside interference had to have been necessary for the mutinies to occur. For the British government, this may have been an essential step in justifying repressive actions and legislation, and downplaying the real extent of popular discontent and the changing political and social climate. Prime Minister William Pitt, in a speech to Parliament on June 2, 1797, called the Nore mutineers “deluded persons,” and went on to state, “I trust too, that as these late proceedings are utterly repugnant to the real spirit of the British sailor… it will appear that it was not in the hearts of British seamen that such mutinous principles originated.”
But what was the “real spirit” of seamen of the Royal Navy of 1797? English historian E.P. Thompson wrote of the mutinies in his seminal work, The Making of the English Working Class,
It is foolish to argue that, because the majority of the sailors had few clear political notions, this was a parochial affair of ship’s biscuits and arrears of pay, and not a revolutionary movement. This is to mistake the nature of popular revolutionary crises, which arise when from exactly this kind of conjunction between the grievances of the majority and the aspirations articulated by the politically conscious minority.
While Thompson adeptly puts his finger on the focal point of the dissenting views amongst historians, i.e. whether the mutinies of 1797 were labor strikes over working conditions without political aims or a genuine revolutionary movement, his analysis hinges on the majority of sailors having “few clear political notions.” Just as elites of that era operated on the assumption that sailors are merely “necessary instruments… most needful for others supportance,” so have generations of historians; the impact of landsmen brought in by naval recruitment policies such as impressment and the Quota Acts, as well as the intervention by radical known quantities such as London Corresponding Society members, members of the United Irishmen, or French spies has too often taken center stage in the historical debate. It is not until recently that the historiography has refocused on the influence of ideas over outside individuals, recognizing or restoring the sailor’s agency in these events. The popular view of sailors as incapable of or disinclined towards radical action is highly problematic, a conspicuous misperception, coexisting uneasily with long-standing traditions of lower deck organization and the sailor’s diverse and potentially politically conscious nature.
The behavioral contagion that occurred in 1797 offers something more than insight into the nature of ocean travel and communication, where ships in exchanging mail, supplies, and crew members, exchanged official and unofficial news. It also offers a wedge by which to pry open the door to an alternate maritime world, the elusive terra incognita of ideas, customs, and values. Situated within this forecastle culture Jack Tar may be rediscovered; in the language of the mutineers’ petitions and letters is evidence of a sailor who is a confluence of local, translocal, and specifically nautical influences, a complex persona, to whom the action of making mutiny could seem at once appropriate and even necessary.
A Breeze at Simon’s Bay
The British Empire at the end of the 18th century was more than just a nation spread out over the waves, it was also an established commercial force, an “empire of goods,” with systems, policies, and priorities that extended beyond traditional political or military authority and strategy. The linchpin of commercial Britain was its presence in Asia, via the East India Company. Ships traveling from the home islands to the Far East made the trip in approximately six months, with the Cape Colony as an important waypoint on the route.
With the war against Revolutionary France as context, the seizure of the Dutch Cape Colony by British forces in 1795 seems to be a strategic strike to deprive the French of a toehold in Africa. The British action quickly followed the capitulation of the Dutch Republic to France that same year. However, a well-positioned port locale, in attracting commerce, also serves as a nexus for people, ideas, and ultimately, power. Human geographer Alan Lester, who envisioned the British Empire as an imperial network in which the metropole and the colonies were linked by routes that circulated goods as well as manpower and information, describes the Cape Colony as a key “nodal point” in this network. The British aim was not necessarily to make or take a colony per se, but rather to protect a vital nodal point, their “stepping-stone to Asia.”
Rear Admiral Thomas Pringle (Gilbert Stuart, The National Maritime Museum)
Earl Macartney, the first official governor of the British Cape Colony, had clear instructions as he assumed his post in the spring of 1797: pacify any dissent on the part of the Dutch inhabitants, and remain vigilant against a potential French attack. Vigilance in defending the Cape translated first and foremost into protection of the trade routes it watched over and the ships that plied those routes. By the summer of 1797, a total of 19 warships were stationed at the Cape under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas Pringle.
At the same time as Macartney was settling in to his governorship, the Arniston, a British East Indiaman, was steadily approaching the Cape as part of a convoy of merchant ships bound from England to China. Departing in early June, the Arniston arrived at the Cape in late August, delivering news of the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore formally to the colony, as well as informally to the crews of the ships stationed along its coast. In a letter to Governor Macartney, Admiral Pringle reflected,
The information brought by the Arniston is truly of an alarming nature, it is much beyond anything I would possibly have expected though I have been long convinced We have more danger to apprehend from Our own Folly and Villainy than from any exertion of national Enemys, and I am by no means clear that the Path that we adopted of increasing the Seamen’s Wages will have the desired effect…
The news of the successes in collective action at Spithead and the ongoing struggle at the Nore made a profound impression on the seamen stationed at the Cape as well. In a show of solidarity, eight warships, Tremendous, Trusty, Imperieuse, Braave, Rattlesnake, Chichester, Star, and Euphrosyne, and one tender, the Suffolk, declared a state of coordinated mutiny on October 7th, electing delegates to represent each ship, putting officers ashore, and issuing petitions and lists of demands to the authorities.
Just like their predecessors in England, the mutineers of Simon’s Bay signed their names to their petitions and attempted throughout to underscore their loyalty to the crown. The demands made were strikingly similar to those of their brethren, focusing primarily on provisioning. They requested not only a general improvement in their victuals, but also a review of existing stores to combat ever-worsening quality. There was an additional emphasis on rectifying discrepancies in the weights and measures used in the allocation of provisions, as well as countering any corruption on the part of the pursers.
The mutineers confirmed their knowledge of the events at Spithead and Nore, and expressed an expectation of having the same reforms granted at Spithead applied to them. In a general statement they highlighted their willingness to be patient on this matter:
The People of this Squadron has heard something of the Conduct of His Majesty’s Fleet in England, and the regulations that has taken place in Consequence with regard to the Extra Allowance of Pay and Provisions; but as we do not expect that you have received any Official Intelligence how to act on the occasion, We do not expect those Regulations to take place until that time may arrive, and we are determined to patiently Wait the Event.
As opposed to Spithead, where grievances against officers were withheld from the official petitions and instead were aired in a more unofficial capacity, the request for the removal of officers took center stage in the demand letters at Simon’s Bay. Almost every ship, excepting the Suffolk, expressed a desire for the expulsion of certain officers, the barring of their return to duty, and their prosecution by court martial. Additionally, the shared knowledge of other ships’ issues with officers was a reoccurring theme throughout the petitions. For example, a letter from the Tremendous began by stating, “We have Received a Letter from the RattlSnake concerning Bad usage wich We are sorry to hear for we should wish to hear of Nothing but Pease and Trankeltety.”
From the outset, the attitude of those in power was one of grim uncertainty. Upon learning of the mutiny, Governor Macartney wrote to Major-General Francis Dundas, commander of the colony’s armed forces,
The news convey’d to me in your letter dated this day is the most unpleasant of any I have received from you as it seems to imply a despair of accommodation. As however it is impossible considering the situation of the fleet & the state of affairs in this part of the World, that mutineers in their circumstances can have any place whatever, that must not end in their own destruction, I can not avoid still cherishing a ray of hope that they will be the first to yield. In all events we must make up our minds to the worst that can happen & take the best care of ourselves that we can if we should be abandoned by the fleet.
Admiral Pringle was dispatched to the Tremendous to negotiate, while relaying the status of negotiations to Dundas and Macartney by way of his subordinates. By the next day, it was clear that the Admiral was to remain on the Tremendous in the presence of the delegates until some kind of agreement could be reached. In a message to Macartney, Dundas wrote of this development, “I have had a message this instant from the Admiral on the Tremendous informing me that the seamen hold out and will not suffer him to come a shore unless he complies with their demands.”
Despite the mounting tensions, and despite Admiral Pringle’s own willingness to hear the crews’ grievances and attempt to acknowledge and address them, there was still a certain level of dismissiveness on the part of those in power, most particularly Major-General Dundas. Lady Anne Barnard, Cape resident and wife of colonial secretary Andrew Barnard, writes of his attitude towards the mutineers,
I must introduce in jest a little anecdote of Genl Dundas, he left this place for Simmons Bay as quickly as the occasion demanded of him, but no one coud get him convinced that the crews could be so head strong & intemperate as he was told they were, particularly in the Tremenduous, which he was determined to go on board of – “it is only talking them round calmly he said, not minding their nonsense but arguing the matter coolly & reasonably with them” – some of his military friends smiled at the idea of his supposing himself more particularly qualified than some others, to talk the mutiny over coolly, and they fortunately persuaded him against going onboard, else both admiral & commander in chief would have been prisoners…
After being thus dissuaded, Dundas prepared to assist in the defense of the shore from the ships, whose cannon could easily reach the town. He wrote,
I fancy therefore that they are not to be brought to reason by fair means and it will necessary for us onshore to take such steps as are proper for preventing any attempt from the madmen of the fleet upon this town and Batteries. As soon as it is dark the (illegible) regiment will be ordered from Muizenberg to Simonstown to take possession of the heights & reinforce the garrison.
In a similar vein to Spithead, the major sticking point for negotiations was the fate of the officers. Dundas wrote again to the governor on October 9,
… I learn matters are not yet settled, the seamen insisting that Cap’n Stephens and few other officers they have named should not be received again into the ship and upon that point they have not been able to prevail upon Pringle to agree…. threat of the seamen being allowed to reject their officers in any case would be an example so dangerous as renders it in the present an indulgence not to be accorded. It seems the men of the Tremendous do not suffer any paper to be delivered into the Admiral’s hand which they do not read…
From Dundas’ updates to Macartney, a clear picture of the sailors’ behavior can be gleaned. Firstly, they carried out their actions in a poised, well-organized fashion, swapping the officers’ command with their own without any real rupture in discipline. Secondly, they controlled not only the Admiral’s physical movements, but also those of the other officers and captains, calling all but Captain Stephens to the Tremendous on October 9th. The summoning of the officers to the Tremendous to meet with the assembled delegates became a regular occurrence, preceded by signals given from the flagship to the shore and the surrounding ships.
While the threat of an attack by the ships still loomed, the town being situated “so completely under the guns of the ships in the Bay,” the fate of the rejected officers still proved to be the last remaining point of contention. Dundas wrote on the 10th,
It seems the crews of the ships and the Admiral have agreed upon every other question but that of a few officers returning to the ships… Pringle informs me by the servant that it is not his intention to signify to his men any wish for coming on shore though he has not yet been able to see through their plans which have however the appearance of an intention of going to sea.
Dundas’ letters to Macartney reveal the tenuous position of the authorities during the course of the mutiny, and the resulting shift in power. The sailors dictated the actions of the officers, curtailing their movements; by contrast the sailors’ own movements were incredibly free. One can imagine a dynamic atmosphere of industry, purpose, and perhaps even uncertainty and anxiety, as boats plied back and forth from ship to ship and ship to shore. As a compromise neared, the intercourse between ships and ships’ companies intensified. Dundas remarked on the final day of negotiations, “…the boats have been constantly crossing from ship to ship and in the opinion of Captain Stephens of the Tremendous who has not held the most favourable sentiment hitherto affairs wear a better face…”
By the evening of October 11th an agreement was reached between Pringle and the mutineers that included a moderate increase in provisions, improved oversight over provision quality and measurement, and the issuance of a full pardon for the sailors involved in the Simon’s Bay action, including the crew of the Vindictive. Captain Stephens of the Tremendous and Captain Steven of the Rattlesnake were to await court martial as a part of the final terms. Admiral Pringle declared a general amnesty that went into effect on October 12th, greeted by the cheers of the crews and the re-hoisting of the Royal Standard. It stated,
By Thomas Pringle Esquire, Rear Admiral of the Red and Commander in Chief of His Majesty’s Ships and Vessel employed and to be employed at the Cape of Good Hope and the Seas adjacent.
A Proclamation for pardoning such Seamen and Marines of the Squadron under my command at Simons and Table Bay as have been concerned in any act of Mutiny, disobedience of orders or any breech or neglect of duty, and who have now returned to good order and their regular discharge of their duty.
Whereas it has this day been officially represented to me that the Seamen and Marines on board His Majesty’s Squadron in Simons and Table Bay under my command have returned to their regular and ordinary discharge of their duty according to the rules and practice of the Navy, I have thought fit to issue this my proclamation, And I do hereby promise my pardon and general Amnesty to all such Seamen and Marines now serving on board the Squadron who have so returned to their regular and ordinary discharge of their duty.
Given under my hand on board His Majesty’s Ship the Tremendous in Simons Bay the 11th of October 1797.
The Little Nore
Though Admiral Pringle felt confident enough in the resolution of the Simon’s Bay mutiny to send an official dispatch on October 13th to the Admiralty Board, the sailors at the Cape were not to stay pacified for long. On October 29th, a smaller complement of ships stationed in the nearby anchorage of Table Bay rebelled against their officers and another state of mutiny was declared; the mutiny subsided temporarily, then reignited on the 7th of November and continued for two additional days.
Two specific factors contributed to this second wave of action. Firstly, an influx of new ships reenergized the seamen’s cause. The Records of the Cape Colony, Volume V, states that the Sceptre, Raisonable, and Jupiter returned from convoy duty on October 24th, and that mutiny broke out aboard these ships shortly thereafter. However, Lady Anne also writes about mutinous occurrences on the Sphinx. In a letter dated October 30th, she links the continued unrest to the conciliatory resolution of the first mutiny,
[T]he consequences of their escaping punishment has been seen since, as the Blew Jacket, (the sign of mutiny) has been hung up in two vessels from St. Helena, the Raisonable & the Sphnyx – but are now taken down tho a strong disposition appeared in the fleet to set off anew; Subordination is by no means established – the ferment is working secretly still… the sailors come ashore in Numbers, partys of 12 at a time, they pillage the markets, get drunk – riot – & endeavor by every means to corrupt the army, – their Influence begun to be felt, and Genl Dundas wisely ordered the army to be encamped… near Rondebosh…””
Additionally, the promised court martial of Captain Stephens of the Tremendous began onboard HMS Sceptre on November 6th and soon devolved into a charged faceoff between the authorities and the sailors. In a letter to the Admiralty, Pringle links the outbreak of mutiny aboard the ships of Table Bay directly to the uproar at Stephens’ court martial,
I have now to acquaint you for Their Lordships’ information that in ultimo a mutiny broke out on board the Ships of the Squadron returned from St. Helena, which was conducted by the Ringleaders in nearly the same manner as that in Simon’s Bay, and although on reading to the different Ships’ Crews the Proclamation the mutiny subsided for a time, yet it appeared on the trial of Captain Stephens… that the inclination to Riot of some of the Crews of the Squadron was not abated, for the Court was insulted in its exercise of its functions on the second day of the trial, and on its committing to prison the offender, the Mutiny again broke out with the utmost violence onboard the Sceptre, and being communicated to the Tremendous and the Rattlesnake, these ships continued in a state of tumult all the next day.
In addition to the Sceptre, Tremendous, and Rattlesnake, the Crescent was also involved in this second wave of mutiny. Paralleling Spithead and the Nore, the authorities’ response to the mutiny at Table Bay was markedly different than that at Simon’s Bay. Lady Anne Barnard recounts the escalating tensions in her journal,
…the troops were brought in from Camp… the Artillery drawn forwards, the Garrison had the hurry and melancholy appearance of preparation for a foe… the turbulence onboard the fleet increased every hour, the great number of Ships in the harbour doubled the danger, the mad crews might have seized them. A decisive stroke to quell this became indispensably necessary…”
As opposed to amnesty, the Admiral issued two proclamations on successive days that threatened the mutineers with violent reprisal. On November 8th, Pringle addressed the crews of the Sceptre, Tremendous, and Rattlesnake, offering them a period of two hours to give up “the Promoters of the Riots…” The following day, he issued an even more aggressive warning to the Crescent, which though originally anchored off Robben Island, had been brought by her captain into Table Bay. “I do hereby declare that if the Crew of H.M. Ship Crescent do not in the space of One Hour after the reading of this Proclamation deliver up the Promoters of the Present disturbance… I will declare the said Ship Crescent to be in a state of Rebellion, and Act on her accordingly.”
18th century illustration of Richard Parker (British sailor) about to be hanged for mutiny (Newgate Calendar)
Pringle’s proclamations were quickly obeyed. The sailors’ readiness in compliance was certainly due to the threat of bombardment from the shore, the ships at Table Bay “lying at anchor off the Amsterdam battery, within point blank shot.” Just as at the Nore, the theater of court martial and execution was employed to regain order and control. Though twenty-two men were “delivered up [as] the Ringleaders,” after standing trial for mutiny only four sailors, Daniel Chapman of the Sceptre, and Philip James, Richard Foot, and James Reese of the Tremendous, were put to death; three others received terms of imprisonment. Interestingly, though Captain Stephens was ultimately acquitted in his court martial, he was not to serve in the Cape Squadron again. Instead of returning to duty, he was dispatched back to England to bear news of the events. This reassignment shows a deft hand on the part of Pringle, where without overtly capitulating to the sailors, he managed to relieve the greatest point of tension.
There are definite spatial factors at play in determining why the Cape Colony authorities chose to appease one mutiny and assault the other. The strategic positioning of the parties in Simon’s Bay rendered the town and its inhabitants more susceptible to attack from the ships than vice versa. At Table Bay, artillery manned by Dundas’ troops had a clear shot out over the waters, whereas a month before at Simon’s Bay, troops and artillery had yet to be effectively deployed against the ships. Also, Simon’s Bay was the location of the British forces’ initial incursion when attacking the Dutch in 1795, and possibly remained in the minds of those in charge as a point of strategic importance.
Furthermore, at Simon’s Bay, the Admiral became an unwilling guest of the delegates, incapable of leaving the Tremendous without risking physical escalation of the mutiny. He was even impotent in the face of the ships putting to sea, as alluded to in Dundas’ letter to Governor Macartney on October 10th. In the words of Lady Anne Barnard, “These terms I fancy woud not have been granted to the mutinists Had not the admiral been prisoner on board his own ship & with him most of the other officers… it was generally regretted that the ad: was obliged to give a general pardon as even the milder people here wishd the delegates had been made an Example of…” In contrast, during the course of the Table Bay mutiny the Admiral was safe ashore, able to dictate his wishes to the sailors without fear of bodily harm.
There was also the additional threat of the sailors’ discontent spreading to the army, as alluded to by Lady Anne and confirmed by Dundas’ encampment of the army at Rondebosch during the interim between the two mutinies. Moreover, the naval mutiny had the potential to impact the local inhabitants as well. Lady Anne writes in her journal of Earl Macartney’s decision to dispatch Andrew Barnard to Stellenbosch, “to enforce an oath of allegiance on the boors, a dozen of them refuse to take it, their obstinancy increases with the spirit of mutiny in our Navy…”
Regardless of factors like strategic positioning, or the potential for the spread of dissatisfaction from the navy to those on land, key players like Major-General Dundas and Earl Macartney still possessed a somewhat patronizing view of the sailors, their motives and their demands. Macartney’s dismissal of the sailors as acting out of “mere wantonness” and “vanity” underplays the significance and the real peril of the events, as does Dundas’ purported belief that “talking them round calmly” and “not minding their nonsense” would be enough to resolve the situation. Writing on the last day of the Simon’s Bay mutiny, Dundas exclaimed, “I really think the seamen begin to be sensible of their delusion…” echoing the words and sentiment of Pitt’s speech to Parliament concerning the mutineers at the Nore. This is even more disturbing considering that all parties had knowledge of the mutinies occurring in England in advance of the unrest at the Cape. Even Admiral Pringle, who seemed most open to accepting some of the sailors’ grievances as valid, missed the opportunity to end the trouble before it began. Lady Anne writes of Pringle’s hesitance, stating,
I see Mutiny is a plague which spreads rapidly when once it breaks forth, we supposed here that our Sailors would make the requisitions which have been conceded to at home, and some wise persons who had the good of the Navy and of the Admiral at heart suggested to him whether it might not be well to grant them similar indulgences unasked;… but Admiral Pringle growled sadly at this, he would do nothing without a positive instruction from the Admiralty, its silence was only taking grounds to find fault with him…
Throughout the course of the mutinies those in a position of authority aimed to maintain or reestablish the balance of power that was lost. This was even more necessary considering the remoteness and tactical significance of the location. Acting as agents of the King and government, but without their immediate support or direction, Macartney, Pringle, and Dundas would want to give an impression of dominance, accord, and even a controlled benevolence, when dealing with the sailors and when communicating news of the events back to the Admiralty and Home Office. They would want to report of an affair summarily concluded.
This need to maintain prestige, not only locally, but also in the eyes of their superiors in England, was perhaps one of the greatest contributing factors to their seeming aloofness or lack of empathy towards the sailors. Moreover, recognition of the sailors’ complaints as valid, and honoring their rights to make those complaints, would in turn cast criticism back on those in charge. Far easier to dismiss the sailors’ issues as “nonsense,” or to dismiss the sailors themselves as “poor, infatuated… unprepared wretches!… Young, Spirited!… mistaken… misled…”
The Forecastle Culture and the Tripartite Sailor: Local, Translocal, and Nautical
Lady Anne attested that when the Arniston arrived in late August, it brought something more than just news. In a letter to War Secretary Henry Dundas, a close personal friend, she wrote, “‘there is plainly a fashion in everything in this world – the English mutiny of course has sett the fashion here and we have had a swinging mutiny of our own at Simmons viz False Bay – delegates from the malcontents at home came out, it appears in the Arniston…” In another letter, she goes even further, describing the men involved in the Simon’s and Table Bay mutinies as “blind agents of Blind agents of french miscreants.”
Simplistic though it may be, her verdict not only reflects that of the British authorities, it is strikingly similar to the efforts of later historians to deflect authorship of the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore onto outside parties. As counterpoint, there is the description of professional sailors by N.A.M. Rodger, as “predominately literate, often surprisingly well educated, especially in languages, which they picked up on their travels, and in mathematics…” This depiction is corroborated somewhat by the sailors’ ability aboard each mutinous ship to find at least one person who could clearly and effectively articulate their demands to those in power, sometimes with great eloquence.
The seamen possessed an alternate form of knowledge or an alternate culture that was less understood or appreciated than the sheer power of their labor. Even the writer Richard Braithwaite, used as a foil by Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh in The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, conceded that despite the sailor being a “necessary instrument,” “the sea hath taught him other rhetoric.” According to Rediker and Linebaugh, Braithwaite “knew that sailors were essential to English expansion, commerce, and the mercantilist state. He knew, moreover, that they had ways of their own—their own language, storytelling, and solidarity.”
These ways of their own, the forecastle culture of the sailor, is the legacy of a coming together of various peoples and ethnicities, social and historical influences, and a vigorous cross-pollination between merchant and navy. The British sailor was, to borrow a term from David Featherstone, a “translocal character,” exposed to different cultures and modes of thought from ship to ship, crew to crew, and port to port contact. This is a basic reality of participation in the vast and complex maritime commercial networks that drove the era and the Empire, networks in which both Royal Navy and British merchant sailors played a part.
In contrast to Featherstone’s primacy of the translocal, the sailor was actually a translocal and a local character, also shaped by homegrown trends of thinking about his self and his rights. N.A.M. Rodger locates much of the symbolism and technique employed in the 1797 mutinies as being rooted in English tradition, writing,
All the seamen’s methods of organization – red flags, oaths, delegates, committees – can be traced to merchant seamen’s disputes of the eighteenth century or earlier. Many assertions about their rights come, not only from Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, but also from their seventeenth-century democratic inheritance: the Commonwealth republican navy, collectivism of the Diggers and Levellers in the New Model Army, and the 1688 bloodless revolution.
Sailors were also thalassological or nautical beings, exposed to a seafaring ethos that transcended any particular locale or origin point, but instead derived from the unique physical landscape of life on or near the sea. Fundamentally, the sailing ship was an exceedingly collaborative environment. Designed to master or at least meet the physical challenges of movement over water, it was a complex machine driven by manpower, dependent on coordination and cooperation to function. The ability to organize and act in concert was literally built into almost every facet of life and labor, “something inherent in the nature of seafaring, and common to ships and seamen everywhere. It owed almost nothing to the authority of officers, and almost everything to the collective understanding of the seamen. A ship at sea under sail depended utterly on disciplined teamwork…”
From the mid-18th century onwards, the divisional system was employed aboard the ships of the Royal Navy as a means of fostering “greater efficiency and closer control.” However, there were more informal systems of grouping that far predated this; from the gun crew to the sailor’s mess, to division by labor or task, the men were broken into confederacies from which a sense of solidarity was formed. Younger, less experienced crew members were known to instinctively respect and follow the lead of older, more seasoned sailors.
Furthermore, the well-documented history of sailors striking or rioting to resist wage reduction and impressment should not be downplayed. Rediker and Linebaugh saw sailors as “prime movers in the cycle of rebellion” due to their agitations on land, participating in labor strikes and public riots, as well as on board the ship through collective protest over working and living conditions. While the political nature of the average sailor most likely falls between the two extremes of naïf and “prime mover,” with some members of the shipboard community more radical, and others more conservative, here is an image of the sailor that is the inverse of the verdicts rendered by the authorities and early historians. With the potential to be overtly political, an instigator and actor in his own right, this sailor has ties not only to his country of origin or employment, but also ties to a greater maritime culture which operates outside the spatial bounds of country and locale.
Most importantly, there is ample evidence that the act of bringing grievances to their superiors and taking action when those grievances went unmet was nothing new to the sailors of the Royal Navy. N.A.M. Rodger, in his coverage of the navy during the mid-18th century, describes a world in which petitions were common, redress was frequent, and mutiny was understood, by the sailors and by those in a position of command, as a necessary “safety-valve,” and thusly “a means of safeguarding the essential stability of the shipboard society, not of destroying it.”
However, the world of ship petitions and safety valves of the mid 18th century was fundamentally different from the reality of the Royal Navy in 1797. England in the late 18th century was witness to a growing consciousness of class and class differences, heightened by the palpable repercussions of the American and French Revolutions. The war with Revolutionary France not only meant a war against an enemy and her allies abroad, but an increasingly politicized, and repressive climate at home, one that had a definite impact on the world at sea. For Royal Navy officers, this translated into a fear that once acceptable means of dissent on the part of their sailors could now lead to something far more serious, and this fear played out in their reactions. Petitions and other forms of airing grievances became less and less acceptable; as time honored forms of permissible protest were quashed, the “safety valve” was slowly wrenched shut. Historian Jonathan Neale writes that during this time of flux, “On one level, neither officers nor men knew what would happen next in any confrontation. On another level, after the French Revolution neither side knew what the ultimate consequences of any mutiny would be.”
It can be argued that the French Revolution instilled in sailors “a feeling of their rights as men, and just as importantly it broadened their horizons.” Military historian Leonard Smith takes this idea one step further, introducing a novel concept of the French citizen-soldier that implies from the moment of the French Revolution onwards, the soldiers and sailors of France were living embodiments of the philosophy and principles of the revolution. By the process of cultural exchange that comes with the fluid, interconnected nature of a life at sea, and the influx and outflow of prisoners that accompanies war, there is no doubt that British sailors not only fought against, but also intermingled with the citizen-sailors of France, and in the process were influenced by their ideas. A similar argument can be made for the impact of the American Revolution and the ideas of the United Irishmen, who would go on to organize a rebellion against the English a year later.
However, the focus here is on potential ideas, how they shaped sailors’ worldviews and moved them to action, and not so much on specific individuals. The best research done so far into individual sailor’s memberships in radical political organizations is in Philip MacDougall’s chapter on mutiny in the North Sea Squadron. MacDougall confirms the existence of certain sailors’ memberships in Corresponding Societies, but also some individual’s links to the United Irishman. While there is no doubt there were many Irish, and some United Irishman in the Royal Navy during this time period, it is not until the Irish Rebellion of 1798 that we see definitive evidence of Irish sailors revolting aboard ship for this particular end.
The Sailor in His Own Words
As evidenced, the inspiration for the actions taken during the mass mutinies of 1797 can potentially be located within a dynamic mixture of influences. The sailor is an active assemblage, and not something fixed or inert, operating in a space that defies the traditional conception of country or empire, a space of shared behaviors, shared living conditions, and shared needs and values. Mining the missives of the Cape squadron might allow for a better understanding of what was necessary and important to the average sailor of the Royal Navy, revealing more clearly systems of belief and motivations for action.
Chief amongst the Cape sailors’ demands were their complaints against officers. For the crew of the Rattlesnake, inconsistency in punishment was a concern. They wrote, “We are likewise Resolved Not to Bear under the Affliction any longer their have Been so Mutch Whiping and Starting at the Will of Arbitrary command Whitch is not good Disciplined…” For the Imperieuse, one officer “rendered himself disliked by a most Haughty and Contemptuous manner in carrying on his Duty, often using harsh and abusive language when not deserved, and we had every reason to think that had he been on Good Terms with a Superior Officer he would be a Terror to a Ship’s Company.” On the Star, a reputation for bad behavior alone was enough to warrant expulsion, “The Master Robert M’Carty which has lately been made Out of the Trusty, and we had but little Trial of at present, but he bore such an Infamous Character In that Ship, that we thought proper to turn him on shore.”
On the Rattlesnake, additional examples of ill conduct were given against specific individuals. Lieutenant Syms was faulted for being “full of Pride, Arbitrary Command, and degrading Speeches,” while the Boatswain’s Mate, Mr. Stewart, was accused of devising punishments of a particularly cruel and bizarre nature:
We have had One Man by the Command of an Officer, to ride the Spanker Boom at Sea, with a Hand Swab for a Whip, others by the same Officer have had a Boatswain’s Handspike lashed across their shoulders and their arms extended at full length with a Twelve Pound Shot hung at each end. This was nothing to another mode of Punishment that took place by the Command of the same Officer, that is to sling a Hoop horizontally, and hang it perpendicularly to the Mizzen Stay, called Two Men that done their Duty as Cooks in the Ship, seized their Left Arms to the Hoop and presented each with a piece of Rope Inch and Half, or Two Inch, Directly ordered to frap, or Damn you I will…
The expressions used by the seamen at the Simon’s Bay mutiny to condemn their delinquent officers are extremely evocative. Phrases such as “tyranny,” “oppression” and “oppressive,” “fraudulent,” and perhaps most intriguingly, “usage” a word synonymous with “treatment,” were all frequently employed. Several of the ships decried bad or ill usage, or aspired to good or better usage. The rumor of ill usage was additional motivation for one ship to stand behind another in action. Crewmembers of the Tremendous wrote, “Throu out the fleet good Euzage must be… as other Ships as Mad application to us we must see them Righted Every ship in the Fleet must be Eused like men…”
An emphasis on proper usage is one way that the Cape sailors’ understanding of their deserved rights was made manifest in their letters to the authorities. This notion of rights and fair treatment was not unique to the Cape sailors, but rather echoes language used by mutineers back in England. As part of his analysis of the ships of the North Sea squadron, historian Philip MacDougall analyzed letters sent out by sailors to their families during the course of the Nore mutiny; in one a sailor writes of “a vast quantity of ships there sticking out for their rights and wages.” In another, a sailor insists, “Dear friends, we poor solders and sellers want nothing more than to be used well.”
Moreover, the concerns over issues that fall under the category of “ship’s biscuits and arrears of pay,” as well as the inappropriate conduct of officers, also reveal a distinct commonsense conception of fairness. The Cape sailors craved fairness in victualling, fairness in the distribution, weighing, and accounting of provisions, fairness in payment when healthy or sick, fairness in the disbursement of prize money, as well as fairness in punishment, mandate, and equipment provided. For example, the men of the Star declared, “We think it is requisite that the People that goes a Wooding should be allowed Shoes by the Purser and not have them charged to their Wages.”
Almost all of the ships involved in the Simon’s Bay mutiny complained of short measures in addition to poor quality or a lack of ingredients; though there seemed to be a general understanding and therefore a forgiveness of the poor provisioning due to the remoteness of the locale, on the other, there was a distinct lack of empathy for short weights and measures and dishonest pursers. While the crew of the Imperieuse says of their need for more rice and better quality meat and bread, “but we are inclined to think the Commander in Chief cannot at all times remedy the defects of these last two articles,” they go on to state plainly, “The Gallon was found a half pint short, and the smaller measures lacked in proportion…It is the unanimous opinion of the Ship’s Company that the Purser’s conduct towards them have hitherto been fraudulent, that the same regard the Company has for the supplies in his charge…”
There is also a firm assertion of the need for respect in the officer/sailor relationship that comes through in the letters, as well as a demand for consistent adherence to set rules of conduct. The Articles of War were understood to be a behavioral contract, but while most often applied to the men before the mast, the sailors also saw it as pertaining to the officers that led them. This notion of reciprocity is underscored by the sailors’ repeated critique of arbitrariness or tyranny on the part of the officers. The men of the Rattlesnake charged, “We have been Oppressed by young and unexperienced Officers, who had learned to Command before they had learned obedience.” Royal Navy seamen expected to be punished for offences; this was part of the forecastle culture. However, they could not sanction what they saw as abuse of power, or a deviation from expected modes of punishment. The behavior on the part of Mr. Stewart and Lt. Syms on the Rattlesnake was as suspect for its flagrant cruelty as for its deviation from acceptable forms. In the words of the crew, “We allow Laws to Punish, but no Tyrants to bear His Majesty’s Commission.”
The envisioning of the Articles of War as a reciprocal contract is further emphasized by the critique of Captain Stephens given by the crew of the Tremendous. They took particular umbrage against his regularly reading to them a set of orders that was different from the standard Articles of War. The men’s fears for the repercussions of allowing a Captain to write his own rule book, no matter how closely allied in spirit or tone with the Articles of War, was that it “opens a wide field for fraud” depending on the temperament or caprice of the Captain. By devising and formalizing a system of rules that, though similar, is not to the letter the same as the Articles of War, Captain Stephens broke a perceived code of conduct and risked usurping the authority of the English government. His crew firmly stated that “they are Humbly of opinion that no Authority whatever has a Right to impose new Laws on them except that of the British legislature…” Here we see a subtle argument which not only decries deviation from the Articles of War, but also points to an additional sense of rights rooted in English citizenship, one which is reinforced by a letter from the Rattlesnake,
“We the lawfull and true Born Subjects of Great Britain Serving as Loyal Subjects for our king Church and State have been abused harassed and unconssistant and against the Civil order and Humanity of the laws of our Country the which we as one Man agree to fight In his Defence and in the Defence of the United Kingdoms that he Ruleth By a Good and Just Law that have been from our Ancestors…
Their equivalents at Spithead and the Nore also embraced the common themes of deserved and undeserved treatment, as well as a notion of rights that was defined by accepted codes of conduct and an evolving vision of English manhood and nationality. At Spithead, the sailors began one of their petitions to the Admiralty with the following lines:
My Lords, We, the seamen of His Majesty’s navy, take the liberty of addressing your Lordships in an humble petition, shewing the many hardships and oppressions we have laboured under for many years… We, your petitioners, do not boast of our good services for any other purpose than that of putting your and the nation in mind of the respect due to us, nor do we ever intend to deviate from our former character…
The most famous missive of the Nore, while reiterating the desire for fair and equitable treatment, also bore genuine revolutionary overtones:
Shall we, who in the battle’s sanguinary rage, confound, terrify and subdue your proudest foe, guard your coasts from invasion, your children from slaughter, and your lands from pillage—be the footballs and shuttlecocks of a set of tyrants who derive from us alone their honours, their titles, and their fortunes? No, the Age of Reason has at length revolved. Long have we been endeavoring to find ourselves men. We now find ourselves so. We will be treated as such.
The same revolutionary temper, wherein a concept of rights and fair treatment is directly linked to a rising up against tyranny, is echoed in the words of the crew of the Rattlesnake during the Cape mutinies,
We accost you with the joyfull Account of our having Canvassed our Grievances amongst each other, and finds that the Majority of us are determined to bring the Usurpers of our Rights to a just account of their future Transactions, and make or Compel them to render us justice and better usage in the future, having long laboured under their Yoke…
When studied in depth, the auxiliary mutinies at the Cape offer graspable details of both the explicit and implicit rules of the world in which the sailor lived and operated in, and the particular systems of values and rights born of that world. The men engaged in the making of mutiny at the Cape were by no means the “blind agents of Blind agents” that Lady Anne Barnard described, nor were they suffering from any kind of delusion as Major-General Dundas had hoped. Instead, they had real grievances and a genuine sense of what their rights were as men, as Royal Navy sailors, and as English citizens, and how those rights had been violated. In their protests for better provisioning, fairness in compensation, a more consistent relationship with officers and a more consistent meting out of punishment, lie specific ideas of what constitutes equitable treatment, and notions of manhood and citizenship influenced by both the political revolutions abroad as well as more homegrown cultural legacies. The sailors of the Cape Squadron acted not only in defense of their own rights, but also in solidarity with their compatriots in the Royal Navy stationed across the globe, wanting above all else for “Every ship in the Fleet must be Eused like men…”
(Return to July 2015 Table of Contents)
Allison Funk received her B.A. from Bard College and her M.A. in History from Northeastern University. She is currently pursuing research on mutiny and troop insubordination. In addition to a focus on the social and cultural history of warfare on land and at sea, she has a professional background in museum theory, collections care and management.
A88, Earl Macartney Papers, selected letters from boxes 45-221, University of Witwatersrand Library, Historical Papers Archives, Johannesburg, South Africa.
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