I don't believe 52 year old Vice Admiral John Griffith Colpoys (above) was an excitable man. He had served with honor in the Royal Navy through shot and storm since he was thirteen. But at about three in the afternoon of Sunday May 7, 1797, while floating peacefully at anchor and within sight of friendly shore, he threw a hissy fit. He lost his mind. His meltdown began just an hour earlier, when Edward Griffith, the Captain of the HMS London, who was also Colpoy's nephew, entered the Admiral's cabin and announced, “Sir, I am very sorry to acquaint you, that everything appears as wrong as ever with the fleet...” And at that instant, Colpoy's stable universe seemed to collapse around him.
The British Navy learned to sail in the Solent, the fifteen mile long, two mile wide strait between the Isle of Wright and the southern English harbor of Portsmouth. Just beyond the harbor entrance was the shallow anchorage called The Spithead, where for 300 years British warships had waited for off shore winds to carry them to conquer the world. And it was here, on 17 April 1797, that the British “Tars” manning the 16 ships of the Channel Fleet refused in unison to raise anchor until their long time grievances were finally addressed.
When the sailors' delegates rowed alongside to confer with the crew of HMS London, Admiral Colpoys had ordered his marines to repel them by force. Confrontation was avoided this time when Commander of the Channel Fleet, full Admiral Alexander Hood, ordered Colpoys to allow the delegates to meet with his crew. Hood sympathized with the “Tars”. And in response to the Admiralty Board's repeated orders to sail, he wrote, “Their Lordships desire me to use every means in my power to restore the discipline of the fleet...nothing in my opinion will be able to effect, but a compliance with their petitions.” Howe even ordered the captain of each ship to request that their crew supply a full list of grievances.
The 70,000 able seamen of the Royal Navy willingly endured death and boredom to keep Britain's enemies blockaded in their French ports. But they had not received a pay raise in 140 years. Two ounces of every pound of their meager daily ration of salted beef and maggoty biscuits were deducted as the “pursers' pound”. Kidnapped (impressed) “landsmen”, were paid less and were increasingly replacing the volunteers whose sacrifices in 49 engagements large and small over the previous fifty years had allowed Britannia to rule the waves. The men wanted a pay raise, equity of pay among sailors, a full ration and promise of a pardon from the King for their “mutiny”. And they would not raise anchors until their demands were met.
A three man delegation from the Admiralty arrived in Portsmouth to negotiate with the sailors' delegates, and within three days had convinced the mutineers “not to lift anchor till every article is rendered into an Act of Parliament and the King's Pardon to all concerned.” The sailors, who had taken an oath to act in unity, no longer trusted the Admiralty Board. The three man delegation retreated to London, and on Sunday 23 April, 100 copies of the King's full and complete pardon arrived in Portsmouth. With cheering thus ended one of the most polite rebellions in history – or it should have, but for two things.
First, the wind shifted. For two weeks the fleet was pinned against the lee shore, but in full communication about events in London.
While they were still rocked at anchor, on 3 May, 1797, the Tory Party under Prime Minister William Pitt (the younger - above) guided the emergency appropriations bill to pay for the salary increase and improved food smoothly through the House of Commons. But in the House of Lords the Spithead Mutineers ran into their most dangerous opposition.
The new obstacle was the Wig gadfly, Francis Russel, 5th Duke of Bedford (above). As a public speaker Francis was ‘intolerably prolix and heavy in style”, but two years earlier this 34 year old handsome odd ball had protested new taxes on the white hair powder used by members of Parliament by going “native”, at least on his head. For this he was widely celebrated in Liberal newspapers. But now this good friend of the heir apparent Prince of Wales, and a man who was always in favor of raising wages, demanded a full accounting. How much would the raise in wages, and better food for sailors cost the tax payers?
Normally the Duke of Bedford's gambit would have been nothing more than a minor irritation to William Pitts government. However, on 5 May a boat pulled alongside the 100 gun HMS Queen Charlotte at Spithead and tossed newspapers onto the lower gun deck. Within the day, every able seaman in the Channel Fleet knew “the seaman's cause” was threatened. The officers remained in the dark until, on 7 May, when the Captain of His Majesty's Ship “London”, John Griffith, informed his Admiral Edward Griffith Colpoys, that there was new trouble on board .
HMS London was a 177 foot long, 2,200 ton triple-decked 98 gun ship-of-the-line. It had taken five years and 6,000 oak trees to build her, and 4 acres of canvass, 27 miles of hemp and 750 sailors and Marines to sail her . She had 28 cannon on her lower deck, each throwing a 32 pound iron ball, 30 18-pounders on her middle deck, 30 12-pounders on her upper gun deck, eight more 12- pounders on her quarter-deck with two more on her forecastle at the bow. After thirty hard years of service she was still state of the art because naval tactics had not changed in a century. But the recent coating of her hull with copper had extended her tours of duty by years, beyond the endurance of the underpaid and badly fed men who had fought 49 naval battles over the last fifty years.
Colpoys ordered the seamen assembled on the aft quarter deck. In the meantime, he had Captain Griffith make certain the marines would back their officers. Colpoys then asked if the crew had any new grievances. Assured they had none, he pledged, “if you will follow my advice, then you shall not get into any disgrace with your brethren in the fleet, as I shall become responsible for your conduct.” He then ordered them below to close the gun ports. And as soon as the last sailor was below decks, the marines and officers were stationed at every exit. He now had the crew bottled up below decks. When grumbling was heard from below, Griffith asked if they should fire should the crew try to come on deck. Colpoys answered, “Yes, certainly; they must not be allowed to come up until I order them.”
They did not wait. The crew began edging up the hatchway. Taking the Admiral's orders to heart, twenty-five year old First Lieutenant Peter Bover threatened the mutineers with his flintlock pistol. A delegate dared him to fire, so Bover did, shooting the man in the chest. The enraged crew stormed the hatch, pummeling the Lieutenant. More shots were fired. The entire marine detachment, except two, threw down their arms and joined the crew. The shocked Admiral abruptly surrendered. It seemed that Admiral Hood had been right, after all.
The infuriated crewmen dragged Lieutenant Bover to the forecastle, and slipped a noose over his head. But just as they were about to string him up, a voice shouted, “If you hang this young man you shall hang me, for I shall never quit him.” The speaker was Quartermaster's mate Valentine Joyce, a seventeen year veteran of the service -, about as experienced as Admiral Hood. Joyce was stationed aboard the 100 gun Royal George, and must have just come aboard in the confusion, or been aboard for some time. One of the primary mutiny negotiators, his presence at this critical moment cannot have been completely accidental.
In all five officers and four sailors had been wounded. Three of the sailors would later die, including the man shot by Bover. The entire rebellious fleet now raised anchor and floated ten miles south, away from Portsmouth. They dropped anchor again off the east coast of the Isle of Wright., near the small village of St. Helens and the Bramble Bank. Four days later, on 11 May, Bover was handed over to civilian authorities to be tried for murder. (a jury would find his actions to be “justifiable homicide.”) At the same time Captain Griffith and Vice Admiral Colpoys were released on the beach. The Mutineers had a new demand, that certain objectionable officers were to be removed permanently. Oddly enough, Bover was not among them.
None of it was necessary. On 8 May rumors of the fresh rebellion had reached London, and the Wigs were suddenly aware they could be blamed. The additional budget of three hundred seventy-two thousand pounds was quickly approved on a silent vote, and only a gale prevented the fleet from learning the government had surrendered. That only left the new demand for removal of the worst officers. For four days the negotiations in St. Helens dragged on. The sailors unity did not waiver, and in the end Lord Howe, the new head of negotiations for the Admiralty Board, was forced to admit , it was “fit to acquiesce in what was now the mutual desire of both officers and seamen in that fleet.” as “the officers themselves had no wish to be foisted on crews which would not obey them.”
By 15 May the deal was finally done. In all 114 officers, including Vice Admiral Colpoys and four ship captains, were removed from ships at both St. Helens and those still at Spithead, and in the rest of the Royal Navy. None of the mutineers were ever punished..On 15 May 1797 Admiral Hood ordered the Channel Fleet to raise anchor and set sail for the French Coast. Not a single ship failed to follow his orders. The Spithead Mutiny was over. The new one, at the mouth of the Thames, was just beginning.