The word alone is evocative. The marine guard overpowered or subverted. Officers butchered in their bunks by oppressed sailors. Loyalist survivors set adrift in small boats, or (worse) killed for the amusement of the mutineers. Mutiny is a staple of nautical fiction. We have seen these scenes repeated from Nordhoff and Hall's Bounty Trilogy through James Nelson's just published book By Force of Arms. The actual history of mutinies during the age of fighting sail was more prosaic, and less common than Tall Ships fiction would lead one to believe.

From the Seven Years War in the 1750s, through the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, there was only one mutiny in the Royal Navy in which a ship's captain (or any of his officers) were deliberately slain by mutineers -- the bloody Hermione mutiny in 1797. It was one of only three where the ship was hijacked by the crew, and sailed on open waters. The other two were led by the ship's officers (!): The Bounty mutiny and one where a frigate was commandeered by a lieutenant intent on turning it into a pirate vessel. That last mutiny was suppressed by the crew, once they realized the officer's intentions.

The Hermione mutiny, more than the better known Bounty mutiny, created the stereotype used by nautical novelists. All of the elements were present: a sadistic captain, weak officers, a crew driven beyond reason or pity, circumstances permitting a mutinying crew to turned over their ship to the enemy for gain. It was unique in its violence and outcome. Yet it forms the pattern imitated by Kent, Pope, and many others.

Mutinies were common, but typically occurred in port or just offshore, not on the high seas. They were more like modern labor strikes than the fictional stereotype. Crews would refuse to sail ships viewed as unsafe, or refused to carry out duties until wages owed were paid. Often they offered to accept transfer en masse to a safer vessel or to sail if a battle impended. The Great Mutiny of 1797 was this type of action. Three entire Royal Navy fleets went on strike until conditions were improved.

Occasionally ships did go over to the enemy. Typically these were small craft, commanded by lieutenants, on blockade duty. In most cases the commander was incompetent, the ship had been at sea under hazardous conditions for long periods, and living conditions execrable, even by the standards of the day. Almost all of these mutinies occurred in the period between 1803 to 1815, the tag-end of a quarter-century of continuous naval warfare.

These type of mutinies did not occur during the American Revolution. That war was much shorter, and the demands much different. The Phalarope mutiny and its counterparts are anachronisms. It is like reading a novel about a platoon of dope-smoking marines who frag the company commander after a battle in the jungle. You might buy the storyline set in the Vietnam War, but not on Guadacanal during World War II. Marijuana and grenades existed during World War II, but conditions that led to their widespread abuse one generation later did not.

Mark Lardas
Palestine, TX

Copyright 1996 by Mark N. Lardas
Commercial reproduction prohibited without written consent of the author.

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