In 1791 Thomas Leonard, a midshipman assigned to duty aboard HMS Saturn, refused to subject himself to the masthead punishment ordered by his First Lieutenant and triggered a series of events that came to be known as the Midshipmen’s Mutiny. The incident involved the young gentlemen of the Channel Fleet and made visible a break down in the Royal Navy’s system of officer recruitment and advancement in the pre-commission ratings. The ‘mutiny’ highlighted a confusion among the young gentlemen involved over which took precedence, social rank or naval rank. It also revealed a high degree of sensitivity to matters of honour among the corps of officer trainees stationed in Portsmouth. Evidence from court martial records shows that conflict over issues of gentlemanly honour and naval subordination, as it related to officer aspirants, was no isolated problem. This article examines the facts of the ‘mutiny’ and the reasons why it has remained in the shadows of naval history.
This article is as long as it is fascinating (very), so I highly recommend downloading the PDF to read at your leisure. I will not be including the full text here.
Social Politics and the Midshipmen’s Mutiny, Portsmouth 1791
by S. A. Cavell
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Few events in Royal Navy history are more provocative than mutiny. The word evokes images of unrest that range from civilized protests to acts of carnage. In 1797 the Great Mutiny at Spithead took the form of a labour strike over low wages, inadequate care of the sick and wounded, and the injustice of awarding additional bounties to unskilled men brought in by the Quota Acts. In the same year, a mutiny aboard HMS Hermione (32) saw the crew murder their captain, Hugh Pigot, and most of the ship’s officers in revenge for Pigot’s ‘inconsistent and irrational brutality’. These examples address two aspects of mutiny – lower-deck resistance to quarterdeck authority and physical violence – which, to varying degrees, have come to define the phenomenon. Yet one mutiny, which took place in 1791, exhibited neither of these characteristics. In the wake of the Nootka Sound and Ochakov mobilizations, a large-scale act of insubordination struck a potentially serious blow to naval discipline within the Channel Fleet. The threat, however, came from a most unlikely source – the fleet’s ‘young gentlemen’, or commissioned officers-in-training.
The strange affair of the ‘Midshipmen’s Mutiny’ has received little attention from modern historians. Contemporaries, too, describe the events only in passing with short references appearing in various memoirs and a few extant newspaper articles. Yet, the events surrounding the Midshipmen’s Mutiny inspired four days of testimony at a court martial involving the most senior officers of the Channel Fleet. The threat posed to ‘good order and discipline’ appeared to be of utmost concern to Lord Hood, the commander-in-chief, and the captains and admirals who participated in the court martial of one of the ringleaders, Midshipman Edward Moore.4 The trial transcript revealed the seriousness with which the Admiralty approached the case which centred on the retaliatory actions of a number of young gentlemen who voiced their outrage over the treatment of a colleague. Their actions also spoke to a wider crisis of identity and authority within the navy’s corps of officer aspirants. This article examines the details of the mutiny, proposes explanations for its development, and looks at the possible reasons why so little information has come to light about this extraordinary event.
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From The Mariner’s Mirror 98:1 (February 2012). Courtesy of Jose C. and S. A. Cavell.
Image: Court Martial of the Officers of the Megaera Aboard the HMS Wellington (1871). Courtesy of Old Print.