Spithead and Nore mutinies

The Delegates in Council, or beggars on horseback, a contemporaneous caricature.

The Spithead and Nore mutinies were two major mutinies by sailors of the Royal Navy in 1797. They were the first outbreaks of a significant increase in maritime radicalism in the Atlantic World.[1] Despite their temporal proximity, the mutinies differed in character: while the Spithead mutiny was essentially a strike action, articulating economic grievances, the Nore mutiny was more radical, articulating political ideals as well.

The mutinies were extremely concerning for Britain, because at the time the country was at war with Revolutionary France, and the Navy was the most significant component of the war effort. There were also concerns among the government that the mutinies might be part of wider attempts at revolutionary sedition instigated by societies such as the London Corresponding Society and the United Irishmen.

Spithead

The mutiny at Spithead (an anchorage near Portsmouth) lasted from 16 April to 15 May 1797. Sailors on 16 ships in the Channel Fleet, commanded by Admiral Lord Bridport, protested against the living conditions aboard Royal Navy vessels and demanded a pay rise, better victualling, increased shore leave, and compensation for sickness and injury.[2] On 26 April a supportive mutiny broke out on 15 ships in Plymouth, who sent delegates to Spithead to take part in negotiations.[3]

Seamen's pay rates had been established in 1658, and because of the stability of wages and prices, they were still reasonable as recently as the 1756–1763 Seven Years' War; however, high inflation during the last decades of the 18th century had thus severely eroded the real value of the pay. In recent years, pay raises had also been granted to the army, militia, and naval officers.[2] At the same time, the practice of coppering the submerged part of hulls, which had started in 1761, meant that British warships no longer had to return to port frequently to have their hulls scraped, and the additional time at sea significantly altered the rhythm and difficulty of seamen's work. The Royal Navy had not made adjustments for any of these changes, and was slow to understand their effects on its crews. Finally, the new wartime quota system meant that crews had many landsmen from inshore who did not mix well with the career seamen, leading to discontented ships' companies.

The mutineers were led by elected delegates and tried to negotiate with the Admiralty for two weeks, focusing their demands on better pay, the abolition of the 14-ounce "purser's pound" (the ship's purser was allowed to keep two ounces of every true pound—16 ounces—of meat as a perquisite), and the removal of a handful of unpopular officers; neither flogging nor impressment was mentioned in the mutineers' demands. The mutineers maintained regular naval routine and discipline aboard their ships (mostly with their regular officers), allowed some ships to leave for convoy escort duty or patrols, and promised to suspend the mutiny and go to sea immediately if French ships were spotted heading for English shores.[4]

Because of mistrust, especially over pardons for the mutineers, the negotiations broke down, and minor incidents broke out, with several unpopular officers sent to shore and others treated with signs of deliberate disrespect.[5] When the situation calmed, Admiral Lord Howe intervened to negotiate an agreement that saw a royal pardon for all crews, reassignment of some of the unpopular officers, a pay raise and abolition of the purser's pound. Afterwards, the mutiny was to become nicknamed the "breeze at Spithead".