Issue 240 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
In the city of Portsmouth naval heritage is more or less inescapable. As the town's role as a real naval base and traditional holiday resort has declined, so naval history has become more central to Portsmouth's presentation of itself to the world.
First, there are the 'historic' ships--the Mary Rose, the Warrior, and the Victory, Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar. Then there's the D-Day Museum, statues of Nelson, Montgomery and a Falklands Yomper, and much else besides. Even the new comprehensive is called the Admiral Lord Nelson School.
Yet in all this obsession with naval tradition there is one historic event of which there is not a hint or mention: the 1797 mutiny of the Channel Fleet at Spithead anchorage off Portsmouth. The omission is no mystery. There can be few developments more hateful to the ruling class than mutiny in the ranks of its armed forces.
In 1797 Britain was at war with France. It was a war waged to crush the democratic and revolutionary impulses emanating from the French Revolution, and to expand British colonial possessions in the Caribbean, India, and so on. In this war sea power was of the utmost importance but when, on the morning of 16 April, Admiral Lord Bridport ordered the Channel Fleet to put to sea not a single ship weighed anchor. One of the most heroic and successful struggles in the history of the British working class had begun.
The demands of the mutiny were simple and telling. For an increase in pay--sailors' pay had not increased since the middle of the 17th century, and the 1790s were a time of inflation. For better food--rations were meagre and almost inedible. For the removal of particularly hated officers-whom the men knew to be bullies and sadists.
This has made it possible for some historians to depict the mutiny as just a one-off spontaneous revolt of unsophisticated folk against intolerable conditions. The conditions certainly were intolerable. Many of the sailors were pressed men, ie prisoners on ship, and not allowed ashore for years on end. All lived cooped up in foul air with endless hard labour, facing the constant threat of disease, drowning and death in battle. All were subject to a permanent reign of terror which ranged from arbitrary blows with a rope end, through flogging with the cat o' nine tails, to keel-hauling and hanging at the yardarm. But the historical context was such that the revolt inevitably had much wider significance.
This was an age of revolution. Following the American Revolution and the French Revolution, radical ideas were spreading like wildfire round the world. It was the time of Tom Paine's The Rights of Man, of the great slave revolt in Haiti, of Robert Burns and William Blake, of Wolf Tone's United Irishmen, and of the beginnings of the British working class movement.
Spithead was part of that rising movement: ships of the line were the largest workplaces of the day, and the mutiny of the whole Channel Fleet was really a special form of mass strike in which the stakes were exceptionally high. Mutiny was a capital offence. Every mutineer was risking death or public torture (flogging). Simultaneous mutiny of the whole fleet could not have been purely spontaneous. It needed prior organisation and leadership, albeit leadership that had to remain hidden.
The conflict was further sharpened by the circumstances of the war. The revolt of the Channel Fleet left the whole south coast open to invasion from France. This was the sailors' trump card, forcing the admiralty, parliament and even the king to deal with them. Relay riders broke all records for messages from London to Portsmouth.
The first response of the admiralty was to try to get the sailors back to work by promising concessions while keeping open the option of revenge on the 'ringleaders' once discipline was restored. This strategy was foiled by the intervention of Valentine Joyce, probably the real leader of the whole movement. Arriving just as a deal was about to be struck, Joyce reminded the sailors' delegates of the retribution visited on the Culloden, an earlier mutiny, and insisted on the need for a direct pardon signed and sealed by the king. When the delegates swung behind this demand Admiral Gardner lost his temper and showed his hand, threatening to 'hang every fifth man in the fleet'.
There followed several weeks of tense negotiations, with armed conflict nearly breaking out on the London (three sailors were killed on the orders of Vice-Admiral Colpoys).
But the sailors held firm and by mid-May the admiralty capitulated. Virtually all the sailors' demands were met, including the royal pardon and the removal of more than 100 officers, including Colpoys.
It was a great victory, and the sailors paraded with the townspeople through the streets of Portsmouth. Sadly, victory in Portsmouth was followed by the defeat of a second mutiny at the Nore in the Thames estuary (where about 30 men were hanged and many others flogged round the fleet).
But this does not change the fact that the Spithead Mutiny remains a beacon of the power of the rank and file and a glorious episode in the history of the oppressed. No wonder both the navy and the New Labour council want to leave it buried under a mountain of patriotic 'heritage'.