The very nature of living together in ships sailing sometimes alone in a thousand square miles of ocean used to mean discomfort, hard discipline and rigid rules. An early Victorian man-of- war might carry more than two hundred men and officers in a space not much larger than a modern semi-detached. The end of the eighteenth century saw many mutinies in British and European fleets.
The causes were various: poor pay, the fact that many sailors had been ‘pressed’ into service, extremely cramped, unhealthy conditions below decks where no-one but a midget could walk upright: and the traditional naval fearsome discipline. Common sailors were flogged on the bare back by boatswains – senior but fellow sailors. This was psychologically deprimental. Trainee officers or ‘midshipmen’ were beaten bare by non-commissioned officers in the presence of the Captain. No-one escaped such a beating, including Nelson when he was fifteen.
The Admiralty ignored or simply threw away petitions for redress; when France was threatening British shores for the umpteenth time, widespread mutiny was rampant. In April of 1797 the crews of the whole fleet at Spithead refused to sail until their multitudinous grievances had been rectified, though the sailors said they would fight if a French fleet appeared, but this had less to do with ‘honour’ than a general hatred of the French. The Government instantly promised more pay, though there was little it could do about conditions below decks. The British fleet put out in May, looking for a French one. But the North Sea fleet at the Nore mutinied in the same month! This was more serious because the North Sea fleet was better organized, and was making much greater demands.
Two delegates (as in modern trade unions) were chosen from each ship to report to a central ‘strike committee’ whose chairman was one Richard Parker, who had read Paine’s Rights of Man from cover to cover. But the mutineers made themselves unpopular with the London mob by attempting to blockade the Thames. A pardon was promised to sailors who submitted to justice for having been involved in a mutiny, which was the most serious offence in any country’s navy. The pardon was not extended towards the ringleaders however. Ship after ship’s crews voted to give in, and the mutiny was over by the end of June. All the leaders were hanged, including Parker, who could read but did not know when to stop.
It was clear to the administration that radical rebels were hard at work among the crews, and it was decided principally to blame the Irish. Spokesmen for the government insisted that Irish crew members wanted separation from England and felt that a mutinous fleet would improve the chances of a French invasion fleet. There may have been something in this, but it was not the point.
A lot of words were spouted and a lot of paper consumed, but it was at last seen that plots and conspiracies had nothing to do with the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore. The sailors simply wanted better conditions and more pay. Speaking frankly, the crews did not get what they wanted until the years approaching the First World War, when things were considerably better below decks because the ships were much larger and built of steel, infinitely better equipped and flogging was banned, though corporal punishment for officer cadets was still used in the British Navy when the future Edward VIII was trained at Osborne Nautical College on the Isle of Wight. (Note: see his autobiography A King’s Story)