Tempest: The Royal Navy and the Age of Revolutions by James Davey
Yale University Press, 2023
As an island nation we have a particular affinity with the story of our navy. The defeat of the Spanish Armada and Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar are just two memorable events in the long and distinguished annals of naval endeavour. The typical sailor who manned these ships, especially in the eighteenth century, was often described as a ‘Jolly Jack Tar’: the honest seaman who does his best in difficult circumstances and can always be relied on as part of a well-equipped, efficient organisation. Delve deeper into the reality, however, and the story is very different. This thoroughly-researched portrait of the Navy in a time of global turmoil reveals the challenges that ordinary seamen faced.
The French Revolution was seismic, both politically and socially. In this country many welcomed the events in France, seeing them as the dawn of a new age of freedom. However, this view soon changed as news of the Terror seeped through and fear of a similar revolution became an obsession of British politics, so that social change was simultaneously advocated and violently suppressed. In this regard, the Navy was a sort of microcosm of the nation as a whole.
The rigid social structure on board a Royal Navy fighting ship mirrored the threefold hierarchy of the society that it served: the captain and his officers at the top, long-serving able seamen in the middle, and (often) impressed men at the lower end. Just as in the land-based class system, moving between groups was difficult if not impossible, but each stratum relied on the other for the successful running of the ship. Every member of the crew had to trust that the whole could, and would, work together at times of extreme stress for the common good. Naturally there were tensions between the different groups, and a large part of this book is taken up with how sailors expressed their grievances and how they were dealt with. What made this particularly important was the outbreak of war with France in February 1793.
This conflict was unlike any that the country had fought before. Our history is littered with confrontations with other nations and peoples, but this war was not only about trade or territory, but ideology as well. Revolutionary France had dismantled its social order, removed and executed the monarchy, and replaced it with a supposedly reformist government of and for the common people. Tom Paine’s Rights of Man articulated the political theory behind it, and became the rallying cry of those who sought reform in Britain. The government harshly suppressed the book and the several organisations that sprang up to discuss it and spread its influence. Paine himself was tried for seditious treason and forced to flee the country, and many advocates of political change were imprisoned, transported overseas, or even (in some extreme cases) executed. When war with France was declared the government was thus already struggling against the reform interest and the military conflict had an added dimension: it forced into sharp focus the need to recruit men, who, however, might have radical sympathies.
Under normal circumstances the Navy was maintained largely by long-serving seamen and volunteers. Davey explains that after war was declared thousands of additional crew were required to man the ships and make them seaworthy and ready to fight. Where were these extra men to come from? The solution: impressment. By 1805 and the Battle of Trafalgar the Navy as a whole contained an estimated 120,000 impressed sailors. At the start of the war some eighty-five press gangs were sent around England to gather up men for the ships. Sailors from merchant vessels were an early target, and their ships would be stormed as they came into port, but later any fit young man could be seized and forced into service. The press gangs were feared, and Davey describes the extreme measures that men would take to avoid being impressed. This could often result in violent conflict, of which he recounts an example from November 1794.
An impress tender attempted to board the merchant ship Maria, moored in Poole Harbour. The sailors resisted, lifted anchor and began to sail away. At this point the officer on board the tender ordered his men to fire, killing the pilot and two others, and wounding several more. The townsfolk of Poole were quick to protest and the three officers in charge of the action were charged with murder. Here the story becomes interesting for what it tells us about government oversight of impressment. The trial was set for the Dorchester Assize but was moved to London on the intervention of the Admiralty, who argued that as the action had taken place at sea the court had no jurisdiction —so a court martial was convened and all were acquitted. Clearly at this point the authorities regarded the recruitment of men as a higher priority than enforcing lawful behaviour by the impressment gangs. A similar incident on Portland in April 1803 resulted in the death of three men and a woman who were attempting to resist the actions of the press gang. Again those responsible were tried for murder, and again acquitted.
Despite resistance to the press gangs the Navy was brought up to fighting strength, but this huge influx of mostly unwilling men had unforeseen consequences. As already noted, the revolution in France together with increasingly vocal demands at home for political reform had made many familiar with the language and processes of political agitation. Naval discipline was harsh, and those who protested their treatment or conditions could expect severe punishment or even execution. While large-scale mutinies were rare, individual protests on ships became increasingly common and the sailors devised ingenious methods of raising their legitimate concerns while also protecting themselves. Traditionally sailors had two ways of registering their complaints. The most extreme was mutiny, in which a group of sailors or indeed an entire ship’s company would refuse to obey orders. Such an action was fraught with danger as the leaders faced execution should the mutiny fail. The other alternative, increasingly used in this period, was to petition a higher authority to instigate change or redress perceived wrongs, such as excessive or cruel punishments for minor misdemeanours.
The increasing use of such petitions is significant in many respects. It shows that more sailors were becoming aware that a political process could be used to effect change to their advantage, and that ideas of democratic accountability were relevant to them even within the context of a navy on a war footing. Petitions in the archives show that the vast majority of sailors were literate, in that they could sign their names rather than simply leaving their mark. They also demonstrate the ways in which they sought to protect themselves should the petition fail. One remarkable example contained in the book concerns a petition from the Vestal. This asked that a favourite officer be allowed to remain with the ship rather than being moved to a different vessel. The sailors signed their names in a so-called ‘round robin,’ a large circle instead of an ordered list, thereby preserving the anonymity of their leaders.
Davey has clearly examined hundreds of these petitions, and his findings make fascinating reading. The vast majority of complaints deal with particular grievances rather than the structure of naval command. Poor food, unsafe vessels, and abuse by officers seem to be the most common themes. However, many petitions were either ignored or rejected, which meant that disputes could then escalate into something more serious for both sides. The efficient running of a naval vessel was completely dependant upon co-operation between all the different levels on board and the senior leadership of the Admiralty were keen to see that order maintained, which meant that they could treat attempts to disrupt it very harshly.
When a petition failed in the case of the Culloden in December 1794, it led to a mutiny with long-lasting consequences. The ship was at anchor in Portsmouth when between forty and fifty sailors took control of it and, stressing their peaceful intent and loyalty, refused to go to sea as the ship was not fit for service and the first lieutenant was abusive and cruel. Within two days the whole company of 250 men had joined the mutiny. The Admiralty ordered two nearby warships to train their guns on the ship to prevent it moving, and after five days, and on the promise of a general pardon for everyone, the mutineers gave up and surrendered. However, as soon as the sailors appeared on deck, ten were arrested. They were later tried, and five were hung. As Davey acknowledges, this completely altered the relationship between the ordinary seamen and their officers: an essential trust had broken down. As the war progressed and sailors became more assertive in their demands for better conditions, so the conflicts became more volatile and wide-ranging, and increasingly political and radical. As the war progressed sailors banded together more frequently to air their grievances and used the political language of the revolution when submitting their petitions. One highlighted by Davey begins “We the seamen of His Majesty’s Navy,” showing that the seamen involved understood themselves to be acting as a collective.
Although in the early part of the war the conflict was mainly confined to European waters, in the later stages it became truly global with a focus on the colonial territories of both Britain and France. This added a further dimension to the war, since Britain’s colonies provided a huge source of income to its economy. The triangular trade which exported cheap goods to Africa in exchange for slaves who were then traded for sugar, tobacco, coffee, and cotton was heavily dependent upon the navy for protection. Between 1781 and 1790 Britain transported more than 300,000 enslaved Africans, a horrifying number which shows how important the trade was to British prosperity. Sailors were necessary to man the slaving ships, which exposed them to conflicts involving attempts to free the slaves in the form of onboard rebellions and revolts on various islands. From 1792 onwards the Navy was involved in various skirmishes and conflicts around the Indian Ocean and Caribbean, and loss of life through illness was becoming an additional major problem.
By 1797 the difficulties that the Navy faced were becoming intractable. The war was not going well, the threat of invasion was very real, and many ships were seriously under-manned. In that year alone there were more than 100 mutinies, but a new and —for the Admiralty— frightening development was that they were often co-ordinated. In addition, the sailors used local and national newspapers to publicise their complaints and seek protection from retribution. Davey states that the mutinies of 1797 were largely political in nature, which not only marks a significant shift in the ordinary sailors’ perception of their own agency, but also a natural progression from earlier protests. The main focus of the protests was, again, low pay and conditions on board. The details that Davey narrates are fascinating, for they paint a picture of an organised workforce coming together to achieve a change in its conditions. Perhaps most surprising of all, it worked! After much delay and prevarication, an Act of Parliament did increase pay, many unsuitable officers were moved or permanently dismissed from the service, and no sailor was punished for his actions.
For so long the story of our navy has been dominated by heroic exploits and victorious battles. It is refreshing to discover a different, far more human side, one which shows that the sailors who manned the ships were not isolated from political argument and action. By concentrating on the short period of the late Georgian age, the author succeeds in demonstrating that the changes and disputes in the Navy during that time were very much affected by contemporary thought, heavily influenced by the debates surrounding revolution and reform. He shines a light on the aspirations of a group of men who were not only responsible for keeping the nation safe from invasion, but were also prepared to fight for their rights at home. It is a fascinating story, told with skill and sympathy, and deserves a wide audience.--Paul Flux