16 April 1797: Royal Navy sailors stage the Spithead mutiny

On this day in 1797, sailors on 16 ships anchored at Spithead refused to put to sea and staged a mutiny in pursuit of better pay and conditions.

In 1797, as was so often the case, Britain was at war with France. The French were still in the throes of revolution, and any hint that it could spread across the Channel sent terror through the very bones of the British ruling class.

Key to keeping the Gallic hordes and their radical ideas at bay was the Royal Navy. But it was getting taken for granted and its men weren't happy about it. Sailors' pay hadn't increased for some 140 years, it was rarely handed over when it was due, and was often deliberately withheld to discourage desertion. The sick and wounded weren't paid at all.

Crews weren't allowed shore leave when they put in to port, provisions were appalling, officers were often cruel, and the impressment of unsuitable men – many of them criminals – was damaging to the Navy’s morale and ability to fight. And so on this day in 1797, 16 ships of the line refused to put to sea, and the men elected delegates to negotiate with the Admiralty.

It was dangerous stuff – mutiny was punishable by hanging, after all. But all the while, strict discipline was maintained, the men's loyalty to the king was repeatedly emphasised, and promises were made to put to sea if there was any hint of a threat from the French.

Negotiations continued for several days. Finally, on 23 April, their demands were met, and a royal pardon was issued. 

The same fate didn't befall the mutineers of the Nore anchorage in the Thames estuary a month later, however. There, the authorities took a much sterner line: 30 men were hanged, and many more flogged, imprisoned or sentenced to transportation.

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