Letters Reporting the Mutiny of the Plymouth Squadron, 1797

Lee-Jane Giles

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Lee-Jane Giles is a PhD candidate at University of Plymouth. Her research focuses on the admiralty general court martial records in the 18th century, specifically 1755-1779, and considers how the charges related within them can shed light on how members of the marine corps constructed masculine values and validations. Lee-Jane is also a writer, researcher and online editor for the magazine format of the popular podcast, live show, and book series, Histories of the Unexpected.

This post presents letters reporting the outbreak of mutiny in the Plymouth squadron in April 1797. The letters were written by captains of ships at anchor, sent to the commander-in-chief of the Plymouth squadron, who forwarded them to the Admiralty. They are now held in the National Archives in Kew.

The year 1797 has become synonymous with growing unrest within the Royal Navy which culminated in several mutinies. The most well-known mutinies occurred at Spithead, the Nore, and the North Sea squadron at Yarmouth, but there was also a mutiny at Plymouth.[1]

The unrest at Spithead began as a dispute about pay but when the Admiralty miscalculated the strength of feeling amongst the men it became a protest against the living and working conditions of the sailors. [2] The blockade of the Thames by the sailors at the Nore paralysed trade, and with the country at war with revolutionary France, the mutinous ships jeopardised the nation’s security, attracted the attention of the national press and intrigued the public.

The unrest at Plymouth was inspired by the same concerns as the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore. It lasted from April until June and drew in over twenty ships and their crews anchored in Plymouth Sound and Cawsand Bay, and culminated in the trial and execution of several of the seamen involved.[3]

The following letters shine a light on the start of the Plymouth mutiny by detailing events as they unfolded. They were sent from captains of the ships involved in the mutiny to Sir John Orde, commander of the Plymouth squadron, who then sent them with a covering letter to the Admiralty. They are held in The National Archives as part of ADM 1/811, Letters from Commanders-in-Chief, Plymouth, April 1797.

The accounts highlight the unity and commitment of the sailors in different squadrons of the Channel Fleet; the speed with which news of the Spithead mutiny reached the crews anchored in and around Plymouth Sound; and just how briskly and effectively they reacted to the ongoing events at Spithead. The quick response of the crews demonstrates the effectiveness of the propaganda campaign led by the delegates at Spithead in order to gain popular support. The letters also show that the Admiralty was caught unawares with the speed of the mutiny at Plymouth and demonstrate that the unrest at Spithead was not an isolated act but a rallying call to all of the sailors in the Royal Navy as a chance to improve sailors’ living and working conditions .

It is well documented that the mutiny at Plymouth started on 26 April after the arrival of the Porcupine carrying news from Spithead and specifically the Admiralty’s delay in agreeing to the petitions delivered by the Spithead delegates.[4] These letters show that the Atlas was the first of the ships anchored in Plymouth Sound to receive news of the Admiralty’s delay in agreeing terms with the delegates at Spithead. When this news reached the crew of the Atlas a collective response was drawn up in the form of their own articles which was then taken by, amongst others, a petty-officer, round to the rest of the ships at some point after 10 a.m. This occurred after a call had gone up from the crew in the form of a cheer, which the other crews then responded to in kind, allowing the crew of the Atlas to see which ships would be responsive to the mutiny.

Comparison can be drawn here with the Spithead mutiny which was also directed by a group of petty-officers and leading seamen, men already used to leading the sailors of the lower decks.[5]

Letter 1

Written by J. MacDougall, captain of HMS Edgar at anchor in Cawsand Bay, it is likely that this was the first official news of trouble within the squadron at Plymouth.

Edgar Cawsand Bay 26th April 97
 
Sir,
 
I beg leave to state to you the information of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty that a Boat from H. Maj. Ship the Atlas came on board this ship from the Sound this morning with a person having the appearance of a petty officer, he immediately ran down betwixt Decks, & in a few minutes the whole Ships company came after and requested that he might be allowed to read a paper (a copy of which I enclose) on my endeavoring to appease them a number of men run on the poop and took possession of the Armed Chests, while others were placed as Centinels over the Magazines; I found it in vain to resist the Torrent, and dreading the evil consequences which might not only result to this Ship, but the service in general I judged it prudent to yield, and take the earliest opportunity of making this communication thro you to their Lordships.
 
I have also to add that they have declared their firm determination to abide by the contents of the enclosed.I am Sir,your most obedientVery humble ServantJ M.Dougall

Captain MacDougall included a copy of the articles which he referred to in his letter. It is written on behalf of the crew of the Atlas, is addressed to the crew of the Edgar and was read to that crew on her deck.

 Articles as set down by the crew of the Atlas

We the Ships Company of H. Mj Ship Atlas have unanimously resolved to stand to the following Articles Viz1st.
 
That every person onboard pay due respect to his Officers as before, and discharge the Duty of the Ship as formerly in every respect except in going to Sea before going to Spithead, unless proofs appear of the Enemy’s Fleet being at Sea. –2nd.
 
That no Person belonging to the Ship be admitted to go on Shore excepting Officers and Boats Crews on Duty. –3rd.
 
That no Liquor be admitted on board and any Person or Persons being intoxicated and behaving in a contemptible Manner shall be liable to such punishment as the Ship’s Company shall find meet –4th
 
That as we being unacquainted with the requests of the Fleet at Spithead we are willing to comply with the Terms, which may be accepted of by them5th.
 
Any Person or Persons deviating from these Articles shall be punished as the Majority of the Ship’s Company shall find meet.
 
To the Ship’s Company of H M Ship EdgarSignals to be observedFor getting under weigh to go to Spithead – A Blue flag at Main Top Gallant Mast Head
 
For a Boat every Morning – A Blue Flag at the Mizzen Peak

Letter 2

The second letter highlights events as they occurred on the Atlas later that evening and was written by the ship’s captain, M. Squire, whilst at anchor in Plymouth Sound, again addressed to Sir John Orde.

Atlas Plymouth sound 26 April 97
 
In consequence of your Order I endeavour’d to get on Board which I effected (from the wind blowing very hard) at 7 O’Clock this evening, on getting on Board I found by the Lieutenants report that the Ships Company had Cheer’d the other Ships which was return’d by them; I herewith send you the Articles they have agreed to – I have harangued the Ships Company since I have been on Board & find they have had letters from Portsmouth & from the Edgar, Informing them that if they do not act as the Ships have done at Portsmouth they will treat them very Ill when they join.
 
They have promised me that they will be Obedient and respectful to every Officer on Board the Ship & execute the Order of every Officer with alertness – this is the state I am present in, & think it my duty to give you this early informationI am with respect your most honourable Servant.
 
M al Squire

Letter 3

The ‘Cheer’ that Squire mentioned in his letter is echoed within the next document contained within the dispatch and was written by Captain George Blagdon Westcott of HMS Majestic, again written whilst the ship lay at anchor in Plymouth Sound on 26 April 1797.[6] It makes clear the collaborative nature of the response of the Plymouth crews.

Majestic Plymouth Sound 26th April 1797
 
Sir,
 
I have to acknowledge the receipt of yours of this day which gives me particular pleasure – at the same time I have to inform you that at Eight o clock this Morning the Atlas’s Ships Company gave three Cheers which was followed by the Saturn & this Ship – that about 11 o Clock a Boat came from the Atlas with a Paper for the Ships Company – that this Paper was soon after presented to me on the Quarter Deck by the Ships Company, for my inspection – the Contents were mearly this –
 
‘To obey the Officers in every thing except Weighing the Anchor, unless to go to Spithead, or to Sea if the Enemy should be there – that no Boats were to go on shore unless on Duty or with an Officer – that Drunkenness was to be seuerely Punished. And with two Signals – a Blue Flag at the Fore Topmast Lead – To Go to Portsmouth. – And another Signal for a Boat every Morning, which I do not recollect
 
–I have the honor to be Sir
 
your most Obedient Humble Servant
 
GBWestcott

Letter 4

These letters from the captains were sent to Sir John Orde who then sent the following covering letter to the Admiralty on 26 April. This letter clearly shows that those in command at Plymouth were aware that there was unrest within the crews before the mutiny occurred, but that they were convinced that the men were unlikely to cause any disruption, being of ‘good disposition’. Unfortunately for Orde he was wrong, and he blamed the change on threats made to the men by mutineers at Spithead, rather, it would seem, than face the unhappy truth that the men were joint conspirators in the mutiny and shared the grievances against the Admiralty and the government with the mutineers at Portsmouth.

Cambridge in Hamoaze April 26.
 
Sir,
 
Inclosed I send you for the information of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty two letters received from Capt. Westcott of the Majestic and Capt. McDougall of the Edgar, the latter enclosing a Paper entitled articles the Ships company of the Atlas have unanimously resolved to stand to,And it is with respect I must add that although I have not yet had any direct report from Capt. Squires of the Atlas and Capt. Douglas of the Saturn, that their crews have acted the same part with the Edgar and Majestic’s yet, unfortunately, I have every reason to be assured they act in conjunction with them.
 
From the demonstrations of satisfaction with the plan proposed for the better encouragement of the seamen and marines serving in the fleet evinced by the crews of the several ships here when I communicated to them on Sunday last, and from reports made to me since by the several captains of the good disposition still continuing amongst the menI had hoped that all the seamen of all the ships here would have remained in perfect obedience, notwithstanding the arts I feared were practised to seduce them; but unhappily it seems the latter joined to the threats and persuasions of the crews of H M Ships at Portsmouth (which the Lieut of the Edgar sent to me by Capt. McDoug says that Ships company acknowledge they have received and been influenced by) have prevailed, and led them to adopt a conduct, which having I apprehend induced the Commanders of all the line of Battle ships in the Sound and Cawsand Bay to surrender the command of them to their men, leaves nothing in my power to do, until I receive the Lordships commands, but by desperate means to endeavour to keep these deluded men within bounds if I should fail in recalling them to their duty, which I think an official recount of all being settled at Portsmouth would much contribute to effect.
 
Capt. Draper of H M Ship Porcupine who I have desired to carry this with all expedition will be able to give their Lordships every further information they may requireI am SirYour most Humble Servant

J Orde

To Evan Nepean Esq.

[1] Philip MacDougall, ‘’We went out with Admiral Duncan, we came back without him’: Mutiny and the North Sea Squadron’ in Anne Veronica Coats and Philip MacDougall (eds), The Naval Mutinies of 1797: Unity and Perserverance (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2011), p. 243.

[2] In February 1797 seamen at Spithead sent eleven petitions seeking a pay increase, by April that year their demands now included, pension increases, raising of provisions, full pay for sick and injured sailors, and removal of certain officers, see Coats and MacDougall, The Naval Mutinies, pp. 22-27.

[3] See ADM 1/811 List of Delegate Ships involved which lists 16 ships, see also Anne Coats, ‘The Delegates: A Radical Tradition’ in Coats and MacDougall (eds) The Naval Mutinies of 1797 p. 45 which lists a further five ships. The mutiny at Plymouth finally ended on June 6 after the delegates were satisfied that those at Spithead had achieved their aims.

[4] Anne Veronica Coats, ‘Launched into Eternity’ Admiralty Retribution or the Restoration of Discipline?’ in Coats and MacDougall (eds) The Naval Mutinies of 1797, p. 216.

[5] G. E. Manwaring & Bonamy Dobree, The Floating Republic: An Account of the Mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1797 (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books Ltd, 2004 (reprint), p. 262.

[6] Although it is believed that the Majestic was at Spithead during April and May 1797(see Westcott’s ODNB listing) this letter shows that the ship and Westcott were in Plymouth

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