Echoes of a historic mutiny

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On the blustery 16 April 1797, Easter Sunday, a procession of ships' launches could be seen moving across the great anchorage of Spithead, off Portsmouth, closing up to the massive oaken sides of an ominously silent Channel fleet which that morning had been ordered to sea against a threatened French invasion. As the knot of men in the stern sheets of the leading boat hailed the man-of-war, they were answered, in turn, by fellow matelots lining the gunwales and clinging to the rigging, with three thunderous cheers. The unthinkable had happened; a British fleet had mutinied in time of war and precipitated the crisis of what has been called "the darkest and most perilous year in English history".

Spithead had been seething with tension and rumour for weeks. The seamen had signalled to the Admiralty as early as February that their patience was exhausted. In petitions drawn up in copperplate handwriting by their delegates (today's union shop stewards) they outlined their grievances to the man most likely to hear them sympathetically. Admiral Lord Howe, their commander-in-chief, known affectionately to them as "Black Dick," had led them to victory at the Glorious First of June, 1794, but now, at 70, was little more than a figurehead, and anyway was nursing his gout at Bath.

One petition read: "It is two years since your petitioners observed with pleasure the augmentation in pay of the Army and militia and the provision for their wives and families. Sailors serving abroad expected the same munificence but alas no notice was taken of them." On HMS Minotaur, delegate George Crosland, from Thorne, near Doncaster, petitioned Howe to remove Lieutenant William Compton "for abuse and ill-treatment - it is the general wish of the ship's company to have him changed". Also Surgeon Bell, "for inattention to the sick and not being qualified".

HMS Marlborough was probably the worst ship. Captain Henry Nicholls set the tone by emerging from his cabin in the morning "with a countenance similar to a thundery cloud ready to burst on the heads of those near him". What burst was usually the captain's spyglass, which served as an alternative to his fists. Nicholls had a man flogged to death, and others were flogged when ill, or tied up in the rigging for hours on end. The surgeon allowed a man who subsequently died from water on the brain to be given masthead punishment.

Howe dismissed the petitions as the work of a single malcontent, as they seemed to be in the same hand. Both he and Earl Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty and ancestor of the Princess of Wales, completely misread the rumblings of discontent and were stunned when on 13 April a Captain Philip Patton took on himself the responsibility of signalling the Admiralty in Whitehall, via the Portsmouth shutter telegraph: "A mutiny is brewing at Spithead".

It was the first example in British history of a carefully planned and highly disciplined industrial action. The seamen's eventual victory set an example of solidarity and moral courage in their negotiations that is being reflected, though less dramatically, in a new trades union initiative in Britain's armed forces. Parallels with 1797 should not be drawn too closely; strikes are outlawed, and the very word mutiny is anathema to an old soldier like Ray Northgreaves.

His Colours Association is the nearest thing HM Forces boast to a trades union, and this spring will be recruiting sailors and airmen for the first time. A former master sergeant specialising in electronic intelligence, Ray Northgreaves has built up a membership by word of mouth among active servicemen and veterans, claimed to run into thousands.

With the general election imminent, this tough but gentle Yorkshireman, has been in touch with the Labour party and helped by lawyers who have represented the Police Federation, is targeting areas ripe for reform. As he said to me, "Many servicemen are members of the TUC through their various trades but aren't allowed to participate in union activities. We have to put some knuckle down now on a range of issues."

Some of these demands dimly echo the grievances at Spithead. A call for index-linked pay and pensions and a new deal on war disability payments. "On discharge men disabled an active service and those injured at work don't have the same rights as a civilian," the Colours Leader explained. "They cannot go to the DSS for a hand-out. Once you make a claim for an industrial disability they tell you to go back to the War Pensions Agency Board, where it can take up to four years to have a case heard."

Able seamen in the 18th century were paid 24 shillings a lunar month and ordinary seamen 19 shillings, from which deductions were made for pension, clothing and bedding. Pay could be up to two years in arrears, in the form of tickets which could be cashed only in the port of discharge. Consequently many families were "on the parish", or poor relief. Payments for men disabled in action were not guaranteed, nor was a retirement place at Greenwich Hospital.

Northgreaves continued: "Anyone injured in Northern Ireland really has to fight hard to get anything out of the Northern Ireland Office. And when a soldier is discharged after 22 years he is not protected from inflation until he is 55. We have told the Government that we want our pensions index-linked from the day they are issued."

One demand made by the Nore mutineers later that summer was for a jury of their fellow seamen at courts martial," comments Northgreaves. "For years I have seen the injustices in the system; presiding officers can swing cases the way they wish. I tried to represent a soldier at a court martial but it wasn't allowed."

The Spithead mutiny, in the words of Ann Coats, organiser of an exhibition (until 23 May) at the Public Record Office, Kew, "scared Pitt's Tory government to death". Spencer and the rest of the Admiralty Board took a fast coach down to Portsmouth, and in an amazing turn sat down to negotiate with the mutineers. Guided by their chairman, 28-year-old quartermaster's- mate Valentine Joyce, the strikers quietly checked every attempt by Spencer to outwit them or terrorise them with threats such as loss of pension rights or prosecution under the 21 Articles of War, transgression of which carried the death penalty.

Many were imbued with the concepts enshrined in the Rights of Man, but Tom Paine's "enslaved seamen" wanted liberty only to enjoy shore leave (often stopped at a home port for fear of desertion), equality in the share-out of food (all choice meat went to-the officers' tables) and prize money, and a fraternity based on an appreciation of their loyal services to their king and country.

The seamen called for "three cheers for an Act of Parliament and an honest 3lb of pork". They secured from a reluctant government, which had just seen a run on the Bank of England and was preparing for French invasion, the "Seamen's Bill" guaranteeing able seamen 29s 6d a month, ordinary seamen 24s 6d a month, fresh beef when in harbour, a pension of pounds 10 per annum, provision for the wounded, and the dismissal from the ships they had tyrannised of 46 officers, including an admiral. Another admiral, their old commander Black Dick Howe, came down to Spithead in person on 10 May and showed the King's personal pardon for mutiny on each quarterdeck. He then returned to shore with the mutineers' leaders for a grand feast.

As one mutiny ended another began, with the Nore squadron at the mouth of the Thames. It was heavily politicised and violent and the authorities exacted a heavy toll in hanged mutineers. But that is another story ...

Two one-day conferences are planned to mark the anniversary: 'Spithead', at the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, 19 April; and 'Nore', the Dockyard Chapel, Chatham Historic Dockyard, 5 July.

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