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The Genesis of Rebellion: Governance, Grievance, and Mutiny in the Age of Sail

Author(s):Pfaff, Steven
Hechter, Michael
Reviewer(s):Lambert, Andrew

Published by EH.Net (November 2021).

Steven Pfaff and Michael Hechter. The Genesis of Rebellion: Governance, Grievance, and Mutiny in the Age of Sail. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. xx + 352 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1-107-19373-4.

Reviewed by Andrew Lambert, Department of War Studies, Kings College London.


In the long history of the Royal Navy few issues have excited the same level of interest as mutiny in the age of sail, when seamen challenged the command authority of officers commissioned by the Crown. Hitherto academic research has focused on specific cases, ranging from the small transport Bounty, alone in the South Pacific, to the Grand and North Sea Fleets at Spithead and the Nore in 1797. The central question is what motivates people to rebel. This book differs in applying survey techniques and theories familiar in the social and political sciences to the great mass of cases and data.

The authors’ standing in these fields of study commands attention: they have researched and analysed rebellion in many contexts, and rebellion, rather than naval history, is the focus of their work. Existing scholarship on mutiny is used to illustrate specific issues, but the core of the work is a Case-Control strategy to sample the wealth of records held at the British National Archives, Logbooks compiled by Captains and Ship’s Masters, Muster Books and Court Martial Records. Cross-referencing these sources reduces the risk that a mutiny had escaped notice. The appendices explaining this methodology adopted should be read by all historians anxious to examine complex patterns of behaviour. The resulting statistics underpin ambitious generalizations.

Pfaff and Hechter stress that life at sea was hard and conditions poor, and the men expected their officers to prevent the situation from getting worse. They objected to random and unnecessary brutality, incompetent handling of food supplies, and anything else that violated the norms of shipboard life.  Mutiny was a high-risk option: disaffected individuals tended to desert, whereas mutiny required collective action and leadership.

The critical outputs that are mutinies stem from the grievances, real or imagined, of the seamen, and a failure of governance by the ship’s captain, officers, and the wider naval administration. The nature of naval service meant the ship was only effective if the sailors consented to be led. This floating society, familiar to contemporary observers, was highlighted in Nicholas Rodger’s Wooden World (1986), a work focused on the mid 18th century navy. Most mutinies were pre-planned and relied on the support of a significant body of men on the lower deck.

While mutinies were often sparked by specific incidents, they depended on prior planning. I would suggest that the spark for mutiny was not excessive but inconsistent punishment. The lower-deck memoir literature from this period highlights the value the men placed on consistency, not lenience. Men needed to know what the boundaries were, and what to expect for any violation. Hugh Pigot of the Hermione, known to be a flogging captain, was able to bring leading men from his previous command, a sure sign that they accepted his methods. The Hermione mutiny followed the deaths of three topmen, the most skilled hands, who fell to their deaths when trying to avoid being flogged for the being the last man to return to the deck. The random nature of threat was reinforced by Pigot’s callous disregard for the dead. Their broken bodies were hurled into the shark-infested sea, not buried according to custom. Pigot would be accorded the same treatment.

Two-thirds of mutinies were attempts to seize control of the ship, to force those in authority, Captains or Admirals, to satisfy the mutineers’ demands, necessarily including a full pardon for their conduct. Such actions normally occurred in British waters, primarily in harbors and anchorages, where the ship would not need the navigational and command skills of the officers.  The remaining incidents, attempts to seize the ship to escape from naval service, occurred at sea, usually sailing alone. Mutinies were rarely violent, as the survival of Captain Bligh demonstrated. The mutineers maintained respect for order, using all the standard techniques, including flogging, and, at the Nore, cannon shot. Very few officers were killed by mutineers, Pigot being the best known of a small group who provoked their men to take extreme measures. More often, unpopular officers were removed from the ship or detained in their cabins.

The response from those in authority depended on the context, and the mutineers’ demands. At Spithead in 1797 the sailors preserved order, stressed their readiness to fight the enemy, and made reasonable demands, which were conceded without punishment. This was a strike about pay and conditions, a commonplace of workplace relations in the modern world. At the Nore the mutineers’ demands were unreasonable, and the leaders lost the support of public opinion by threatening the state at a time of national emergency and espousing radical politics. The Admiralty balanced the fundamental need to maintain the authority of naval officers against the risk that abuses would alienate seamen. Pay and conditions were improved in 1797 and again before the Napoleonic wars ended, while Captains had to account for excessive punishments. As the authors observe the Royal Navy dominated the seas in this period, which would suggest the system was generally satisfactory. The argument that officers were more willing to use violence between 1793 and 1815 needs to be contextualized. These were unprecedented total wars, with the survival of nation, the state, and the political system at stake.

This is an important book and a major contribution to scholarship. The methodology and broad context of rebellion provide a new baseline for research on mutiny, and powerful tools for similarly ambitious projects that exploit the archival riches of the Royal Navy. Yet the mutineers get the best lines, and any sympathy on offer: there remains a hint of Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s anglophobe Bounty novels. Bligh’s mutiny has often been treated as a miniature recreation of the American Revolution. In this case the evidence is read in the context of civil unrest in American cities since the 1960s. Historians might reflect on the concluding sentence: “The urgency of restoring, or establishing, good government and confidence in democratic leadership will be a defining challenge of this century” (p. 259), and the reality that neither the Royal Navy, nor Great Britain were democratic in the age of sail.


Andrew Lambert is a Fellow of Kings College London, where he is Laughton Professor of Naval History in the Department of War Studies. His books include The British Way of War: Julian Cotbett and the Battle for a National Strategy (Yale University Press, 2021) and Seapower States (Yale, 2018), which won the 2018 Gilder Lehrman Book Prize in Military History.


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Subject(s):Military and War
Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century