Mutiny on the Culloden
On the evening of 4 December 1794, sailors on board the naval ship Culloden executed one of the most audacious mutinies of the age of sail. At Spithead, near Portsmouth, as midnight approached, around 50 sailors disarmed the vessel’s marines and drove its officers up on to the main deck. They then produced a letter that announced their demands in clear terms: in their view the ship was not fit for service and they refused to continue in it. They also demanded the expulsion of the first lieutenant who had referred to the crew as a ‘set of Cowardly Rascalls’, a slur that rankled with men who had recently fought with valour at the Battle of the Glorious First of June. The mutineers steadily gained supporters on board, and by the second day of the rebellion they had the backing of around 250 men, paralysing the ship.
At first glance, these events appear little different to any number of other naval uprisings that took place across the eighteenth century. Typically resembling a form of workplace strike, and only rarely violent, mutiny was a common means by which sailors could force naval authorities to listen to their complaints. However, it was quickly evident that events on the Culloden augured something far more threatening. The sailors swore an oath promising not to betray their crewmates, and not to desert the cause ‘till it was all over’. They also made extreme threats, declaring that if they were forced to sea ‘they would not fire a Shot’, and instead were prepared to ‘be taken by the French’. Perhaps most alarming of all, they signed their petition not with a name, but with a far more momentous moniker: ‘a Delegate’.
To understand quite why this word was so shocking, we need to take a step back. Since February 1793, Britain had been at war with revolutionary France, a nation that had deposed its monarchy and set up a National Convention based on full male suffrage. In Britain a movement for reform led by the London Corresponding Society (LCS) sought to update an antiquated constitution defined by rotten boroughs and a limited franchise. Amid fears of revolution and radicalism, the Culloden mutineers’ reference to democratic ‘delegates’ was an unsubtle reference to the French Revolution, and more specifically to the men chosen by the LCS as they made plans for a ‘British’ Convention in 1793.
The mutiny on the Culloden therefore marked the arrival of the revolutionary era in the Royal Navy. Over the subsequent years, sailors became full participants in the tumultuous politics of the 1790s, a story I tell in my recent book Tempest: The Royal Navy and the Age of Revolutions. I show how sailors read books and newspapers, wrote petitions and declarations, and organised strikes, as they attempted to improve their working conditions. They resisted the hated policy of impressment, framing their actions as a fight for fundamental ‘rights’ and acting collectively – and sometimes violently – to repel avaricious press gangs. Perhaps most importantly, they instigated mutinies with greater frequency than ever before. After 1794, the Navy was wracked by a series of shipboard rebellions, as sailors took increasingly extreme measures. In 1797, entire fleets would mutiny in protests over pay and working conditions, while between 1798 and 1801, naval crews abandoned negotiations altogether, and sailed their seized ships over to Britain’s political enemies.
On land, the British state brought in repressive legislation to subdue the threat of radicalism, and at sea naval elites also used a variety of means to attempt to subdue the groundswell of sailors’ political activity. Here too, we see the first signs of this during the mutiny on the Culloden. First the Admiralty attempted to bully the mutineers, positioning two ships of war near to the Culloden and threatening to fire on the rebellious ship. Increasingly desperate, they next tried trickery, promising a general pardon if the mutineers abandoned the mutiny. The sailors eventually agreed, but no sooner had they come up on deck than ten ‘ringleaders’ were apprehended and put on trial for mutiny; in the court martial that followed, eight of those accused were found guilty, five of whom were hanged. This injustice would not be forgotten, a shadow that would hang over the Navy across the 1790s. Two and a half years later, a naval fleet stationed at Spithead mutinied and its leader, Valentine Joyce, used the events of 1794 to unite seamen who once again faced Admiralty duplicity. ‘Remember the Culloden’, he declared.
James Davey is the author of Tempest: The Royal Navy and the Age of Revolutions.