James Davey on Tempest

James Davey

Our editor met with the author of a new book on the Royal Navy during the French Revolutionary Wars.
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James Davey, we’re very used to seeing the Royal Navy as all powerful post-Trafalgar and 1805, but was this the case during the period in which you write about, the 1790s?

In short, no! The Navy of the 1790s was wracked by a series of crises and it certainly did not ‘rule the waves’. The blockade of French ports was only partly effective, while its imperial expeditions in the Caribbean were calamitous. In 1797 the French successfully landed troops on British soil, causing a financial meltdown. A more fundamental problem was that the Navy could not count on the loyalty of its own sailors. This was a decade marked by impressment riots, strikes and mutinies, all of which were reported on extensively in the national press. There were a number of naval victories that were trumpeted by government to give an illusion of naval strength, but they were of little strategic importance, and many Britons saw past the propaganda.

Your book deals with the revolutionary instincts of some sailors. Perhaps the most famous example is the 1789 mutiny on the Bounty. Was this an isolated incident?

Press Gang caricature from the late 18th century

The mutiny on the Bounty was in many ways a unique event. It took place during peacetime, in the South Pacific, and its exceptional nature is one reason it has inspired so many books and films. Every mutiny is different, but what is interesting about the naval rebellions that occurred during the subsequent French Revolutionary Wars (1793-1801) is that they were political. Sailors acted collectively, sending communications between ships and ensuring that lessons learned on one vessel could be followed on another. In 1797 entire fleets at Portsmouth, Plymouth, the Nore and Yarmouth mutinied to protest their pay and working conditions. Towards the end of the war an even more extreme form of mutiny was practiced, when a series of British naval ships were seized by their crews and sailed to enemy ports.

Why were the sailors so political?

My book shows how this era of naval protest was a direct product of the ‘Age of Revolutions’. While there was no insurrection in Britain as there had been in France and Haiti, its people were still participants in this tumultuous era, marked by increasing political engagement, the growth of extra-parliamentary activity, and a national movement for political reform. Sailors were not isolated from these developments, and remained connected to land-based communities through letters and newspapers. Like their peers on shore, they read, discussed politics, and wrote petitions and treatises. Sailors, like other Britons, were politically literate, aware of their rights, and prepared to take action to secure them.

Your book covers riots, strikes and petitions all organised by sailors. Had discipline in the Navy totally broken down?

No, not entirely. The 1790s saw more shipboard discord than in any previous conflict, but the Navy was still able to count on the allegiance of many of its men. Not every sailor was a political radical, and for every would-be revolutionary there was a die-hard conservative that wanted nothing to do with mutiny. My book shows that naval ships could be sites of political debate – as in any community, there were a variety of views on every vessel. For many, protest was a means to an end: they wanted to negotiate better conditions and treatment, and were content to return to work once these had been secured. It’s worth adding that the Navy’s increasingly brutal treatment of sailors’ after 1797 does seem to have compelled some to abandon further thoughts of resistance. Whether through carrot or stick, the Navy was able to maintain fleets at sea for much of the period.

How did the Admiralty respond to the sailors’ rebellious nature?

At first naval elites couldn’t believe that sailors were capable of organising themselves so effectively, and it was assumed that political dissidents or even French Jacobins must be responsible. As it slowly dawned on them that sailors were themselves savvy political actors, the state’s response was twofold. Some of the sailors demands were granted: unpopular officers were removed from ships, and in 1797 sailors were given a significant pay raise. Alongside this, though, the Admiralty used extreme discipline to deter further protest: in 1797, for instance, fifty nine sailors were executed for mutiny. On land too, press gangs were given unprecedented powers to coerce men into the navy, and troops were sent in to put down impressment riots. These repressive policies can also be mapped directly onto the British state’s response to the Age of Revolutions, as political radicals were tried and frequently imprisoned and transported.

Discipline onboard was harsh, was that an effective deterrent to unruly and violent behaviour?

Some sailors were certainly cowed by the punitive discipline handed it out in the aftermath of the naval mutinies of 1797. However, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that naval repression prompted more resistance. If the 1797 naval executions were intended to act as a warning to others they certainly failed: the following year there was more mutinous activity than ever before. Reading through the courts martial that took place that year, I was astonished at how regularly plots continued to be hatched, despite the severe punishments being carried out. This might also explain why more extreme mutinies were carried out, when rebellious crews chose not to bother negotiating with the Admiralty, and simply handed their ships over to France, Spain or Naples.

It’s during the 1790s that Horatio Nelson becomes widely known, and he takes command of the Agamemnon in 1793. Did Nelson deal with his sailors differently?

Nelson was just as much of a disciplinarian as other naval officers, and flogged his men more than most. He was alarmed at the rebellions that swept the Navy during the 1790s, and called for even harsher punishments for mutineers. At the same time, I think it’s this context of naval mutiny that explains Nelson’s extraordinary celebrity. In late 1797 the British government attempted to rehabilitate the image of the sailor, putting on a vast ‘Thanksgiving’ ceremony and paying artists and balladeers to produce images and songs that emphasised that ‘Jack Tar’ could be trusted once again. It didn’t work, not least because reports of further naval mutinies continued to arrive. News of the Battle of the Nile in August 1798 arrived just at the right time and gave the British government exactly what it needed: a charismatic naval figure whose fidelity was not in question. For the remainder of the conflict, Nelson was repeatedly deployed at public events to help encourage loyalism among the British public.

 What was the legacy of this turbulent period – did it lay the groundwork for Nelson’s victories culminating in Trafalgar?

There were certainly legacies. The Navy had been warned about the latent power of sailors acting collectively, and in the subsequent years it was more proactive when it came to sailors’ welfare. Many of the demands made by sailors and refused by the Admiralty during the 1790s – such as increased prize money and less severe punishments – were quietly granted in the 1800s. For the most part, though, the naval victories of 1805 and beyond have obscured the much more fractious, tumultuous events that had come before. I hope that my book has gone some way to telling these men’s stories.


James Davey is the author of Tempest: The Royal Navy & the Age of Revolutions , published by Yale University Press.