James Davey’s fascinating Tempest is set against the backdrop of Britain’s naval war against Revolutionary France of 1793-1801. In the Age of Revolution, it did not escape those below decks that while their enemy espoused liberty and equality their own condition resembled bondage. As one Saint-Domingue black man put it during subsequent British naval mutinies in the Caribbean; ‘the black men are already free in the West Indies by their own exertions, and why should white men continue as slaves in their own country?’
Davey starts by outlining the background to the problem – that many naval sailors were not there by choice. The impression, ramped to the ‘hot press’ in times of war, was required to crew a navy which expanded from 14,303 in 1792, to 129,884 afloat by summer of 1799. This deprivation of liberty by force; men separated from their livelihood, wives, children, and any means of supporting them was, as many pointed out, a direct breach of the magna carta – Britain’s earliest attempt to uphold the rights of the individual. These press gangs often found themselves in open warfare with the populace or, in the case of the merchant navy on which they preyed, in sea battles. Men strove to free each other using spars to batter down prison doors, and though press gangs sometimes stood trial for their crimes, as when they shot a Bristol pilot while boarding a vessel, the state intervened to protect the perpetrators granting them immunity, and thereby encouraging their excesses.
Once aboard things did not get better. Flogging was often, in practice, a death sentence, pausing only long enough for the victim to recover and then initiate more lashes. These barbaric punishments kept the navy in line while afloat, and there was little an individual could do but try to desert once ashore, which then placed him back at the mercy of press gangs. However, a mutiny on the Culloden in 1794 changed this when a letter written by a seaman was found to be signed ‘A Delegate’ – the language of the French revolution.
The British navy was struggling on many fronts. French privateers would capture 5,600 merchantmen during the conflict, forcing the navy to introduce a convoy system. Successive British expeditions to the Caribbean failed when France supported the local population and its wish for emancipation. And Britain’s position as an unassailable island was challenged repeatedly by French expeditions to support Irish rebels, and in February 1797 when French troops landed in Wales. They defeated themselves by raping a local woman and killing two captives. The Welsh rose up, and folklore has it the French fled at the sight of a battalion of Welsh women in traditional dress – mistaking their black hats and red cloaks as a battalion of British infantry.
But the naval dam broke in 1797 when the entire Channel Fleet mutinied. This mutiny at Spithead was followed by Plymouth until the whole south coast was in irons. The mutineers demands, by today’s standards, were reasonable. Successive invasion threats had seen a run on the Bank of England, inflation, and without a pay rise a seaman’s purchasing power fallen by 30%. They also wanted rid of their worst officers. The government was forced to cave and a total of 113 unpopular officers were sent ashore. But this was not revolution. In the disciplined mutiny many remarked they would put to sea if the French showed up and still held allegiance to King and country.
The Spithead mutiny was shortly followed by Nore and Yarmouth, shutting down naval operations on the east coast – the two remaining blockade ships pretending to signal to a now non-existent fleet offshore. This mutiny fared less well. Blockading the Thames proved unpopular, and this time the navy responded with a military cordon. When the mutiny broke 59 men were executed and many more lashed to near death.
But throughout this the navy fought. The Nore fleet redeemed itself in the eyes of the nation at the Battle of Camperdown, one of the most brutal naval engagements of the era killing 823 British seamen and 1160 Dutch. Why did they fight? I think Davy is correct in his assessment that they fought as much for the friends as they did for King and country: to survive, but also for the man standing next to them. He even speculates that taking part in a mutiny made those bonds stronger.
At the close of the narrative Nelson is very much in the fore with victories at the Nile and Copenhagen, along with the coming spectre of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Navy and press celebrated Nelson and his ‘band of brothers’; his officers, as a more representative model of national pride than seaman Jack Tar, who had proved somewhat unreliable. But while that is the narrative that passes today, Davy’s account is vital in that it provides insight into the third dimension of warfare. Soldiers and seamen are first human, and second in the military, and Davy’s thorough and well researched analysis breathes of fresh air through some very old yarns.
Tempest: The Royal Navy and the Age of Revolutions, by James Davey is out now and published by Yale. Tom Petch is a writer and filmmaker, his book Speed. Aggression. Surprise. The untold secret origins of the SAS is out now published by WH Allen.