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Ian Myles Slater on: A Most Irregular Affair
on January 19, 2004
By what seems to have been an odd working of coincidence, in 1963 two books were published on mutinies in the British Navy which took place in 1797. I will describe both events, because some earlier reviewers seem to have been rather unclear about the context of the account of one of them by the popular nautical historian and novelist, Dudley Pope (1925-1997).
It must be remembered that these mutinies took place during the first round of war with post-Revolutionary France, while Napoleon Bonaparte was just one more ambitious general, and the English upper and middle classes were seriously concerned about home-grown Jacobins chopping off their heads. Both mutinies were causes of concern, at times amounting to hysteria, but for different reasons
James Dugan's "The Great Mutiny," apparently long out of print, was a detailed (although not completely satisfactory) account of the "Great" (very large scale) Mutiny on the ships-of-the-line (three-deckers mounting 74 to 120 guns) at their bases at Spithead and the Nore. Although widely feared (or assumed) by the public and politicians to be an act of sympathy with the French Republic, the real trigger for this generally peaceful refusal to obey orders was simpler. It was fury at the decision to raise the pay of the army (which had known nothing but defeat), and keep that of ordinary seamen (who had been winning battles) where it had been for about a century.
The mutineers, who did have a list of reforms they wanted, insisted on their patriotism, claiming that they would gladly obey orders to fight the French, or any other [provide offensive epithet] foreigners. Xenophobia was, it seems, a remarkably effective antidote to apparent self-interest, despite the efforts of some more radical elements.
It was immediately recognized that the crews of frigates (cruisers, mounting 22 to 44 guns), except for those anchored under the guns of the three-deckers, did NOT join in the mutiny. These seamen had the hope of prize money from captured merchantmen (something available to the main fleet only in the rarest of circumstances), and seemed to have less interest in a comparatively negligible increase in official pay. Frigate captains, at least, must have felt relieved.
In this context, therefore, it was a particular shock when, later in the same year, the crew of the frigate "Hermione" suddenly rose up, killed officers and a hapless midshipman, and took the ship into a foreign port -- not French and Republican, but Spanish and Catholic, which to some traditionalists must have seemed even worse.
This very different, and, in comparison, slightly paradoxical, rebellion at sea was the subject of Pope's 1963 volume, "The Black Ship." The book has been reprinted at intervals over the years, a tribute to, among other things, its literary quality. (Also, I suspect to Pope's continuing production of naval fiction and non-fiction.)
"The Black Ship" explains how the combination of an incompetent and unfeeling captain and Irish nationalism -- not the example of France -- produced a chain of events on "H.M.S. Hermione" which seemed to defy the conventional wisdom of the navy. Pope traces the career of Captain Pigot, the favored scion of a distinguished naval family, and makes it quite clear that hardly anyone else liked him.
Unlike Bligh, who was a superb seaman, Pigot must have inspired both fear and contempt from those serving under him with his shiphandling skills. (Pope gives examples, including Pigot's efforts to blame everyone else.) Again unlike Bligh, Pigot was genuinely malicious, not merely a (catastrophically) poor judge of the feelings of others. Even so, he might have lived out a routine career, or managed to fall victim to the "hazards of the sea" which accounted for most of the Royal Navy's losses in the wars with the French Republic and Empire. (Quite possibly taking a ship and its crew with him....) Why something else happened is the burden of the first part of Pope's history of the miserable affair, and he provides a convincing explanation of just what went wrong.
The responses of His Britannic Majesty's Government and the Royal Navy make up the latter part of the story, which includes legal, political, and diplomatic issues. The recapture of the "Hermione" provides Pope with a chance to display a really good captain in action, in the same waters, with the same regulations and the same problems. The difference is remarkable, and that story, although secondary, is worth the price of the book by itself.
Some readers will probably know that bits and pieces of "The Black Ship" (and the events of the "Great Mutiny") show up in Pope's novels about Lord Ramage, written later in his career (eighteen volumes, 1965-1989), fairly lightly fictionalized. In addition, a renamed double of Captain Pigot makes an offstage appearance in one of Northcote Parkinson's novels of the Napoleonic Wars ("disguised" by a transfer to the Indian Ocean, and a very different resolution to the mutiny).