Young’s Nautical Dictionary of 1863 defined mutiny as ‘a kind of piratical revolt of seamen’. It was a vague definition. More than 150 years later The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea defines mutiny as ‘a resistance by force to recognized authority. … In its strict legal sense the term implies the use of force but by long custom a refusal to obey a legal order of a superior is considered to be mutiny.’

Of course, in mutinies there are two sides and there are disagreements about who is to blame. Two famous mutinies in the British Navy illustrate the difficulty of distinguishing between a mutiny and a strike or a protest.

In April 1797 the crews of sixteen ships at Spithead, near Portsmouth, refused to sail. They demanded better pay, better food and better conditions. The seafarers ejected a number of officers they accused of ill treating crews. The mutiny was well organised and measured. The leaders undertook to call off their protest if the fleet was threatened by their enemy, France. In the end the crews of the sixteen ships were seen to have legitimate grievances and many of their demands were met. Even though their actions were seen as mutiny, the crews were given a Royal Pardon.

However, a month later, in May, a mutiny at the Nore, in the Thames, came to a very different end. The crews demanded more shore leave and a fairer distribution of prize money. They were less united than the mutineers at Spithead and went a step further than passive resistance; they attempted to block shipping through the Thames and threatened to sail their ships to France. The Government directed the Navy to suppress the mutiny. Under this pressure the crews fell apart and when the leader gave the signal to sail to France, no one followed. Twenty-nine leaders were hanged and many others were flogged or transported to Australia as convicts.

Mutiny could also apply in the merchant service. When seafarers joined a ship they signed the articles – a legal contract that set out their pay and conditions and bound them to complete the voyage. Seafarers who left their ships or refused to work broke the law and captains could ask police to charge them.

However, the 1830s was a time of change. Working people in Britain were demanding new rights and seafarers were increasingly aware of their power to unite – and challenges to authority increased in the decade. Masters tended to call challenges from the crew mutiny; seafarers were more likely to call them strikes.

Courts usually supported the ship captains in disputes with crews, but there was a movement for change. Following public protests about the safety of Britain’s merchant ships and the competence of their officers a Royal Commission was established in 1833 to examine Britain’s mercantile marine. It saw abuses in the way seafarers were employed, in the safety of shipping and in the skills of officers. In 1836 the Commission recommended that a Seamen’s Register be established to keep records of seafarers’ characters and that tribunals be set up to settle disputes arising onboard ships. The bill was defeated by Parliament and debates about the safety of ships and the conditions of seafarers continued through most of the nineteenth century.

Strikes and mutinies were extreme ways of protesting. When they were in port, dissatisfied seafarers might simply sneak ashore and leave the ship. In fact, absconding was so common that it was one of the reasons captains avoided stopping in Ports such as Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro.

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