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All Posts, Military History

Author Guest Post: Philip MacDougall

The Naval Mutinies of 1798

Philip MacDougall, Ph.D.

Invasion. That was the threat, the fear. It was the ultimate danger hanging over England in 1798. Would France, Revolutionary France, be successful in bringing overwhelming forces to the shores of England? In Brest, La Rochelle and L’Orient, a massive army was ready and in waiting. But to get to England, the French had to come by sea. Only the British navy and its Channel Fleet stood in the way. But what if the Royal Navy failed? What if it lost command of the sea? How could Britain have survived?

The Naval Mutinies of 1798 is, in no way, an alternative history, it does not attempt to re-write the story of Britain’s fight against Revolutionary France through a fictitious scenario telling of a successful invasion. But it does tell of a carefully orchestrated plot designed to undermine the strength of the Channel Fleet and which, if successful, would have provided the French with an unobstructed open sea passage. Spearheaded by the United Irishmen, a secret underground organization dedicated to severing Ireland from the rule of Westminster, it was supported by radicals and revolutionaries in both England and Scotland. The idea was that like-minded seamen serving in the Channel Fleet would, through mutiny, take control of the ships on which they served, and sail them into a French harbour. Not only would it deprive the British navy of much-needed warships, but it would have comprehensively strengthened the French revolutionary navy.

What if these plans had met with success?

What if ships of the Channel Fleet, many of them with sizeable Irish Catholic crews had witnessed mutinies on board, with the mutineers sailing those ships to Brest, La Rochelle or L’Orient? What would have been the outcome? The Channel Fleet might have lost as many as ten major warships. In turn, the navy of revolutionary France, would have been strengthened by the arrival in her naval bases of ten of the most powerful war machines then available to any nation in the world. Would this have been a sufficient upheaval and reversal of the strength of these two contending powers to bring England to her knees? For the Supreme Council of the United Irishmen based in Belfast, the answer was, most assuredly, yes!

First, and through the weakening of the British navy and the strengthening of the French navy, an invading army from France would have sailed. Its target would not have been the south coast of England, but Ireland. Here, and supported by thousands of Irish patriots already armed and awaiting the call to rebel, it was expected that Ireland would soon fall to the invaders, becoming a republic in its own right. From Ireland, an invasion of England would have then been mounted. After all, Ireland was the back-door into England. The distance across the Irish sea to the mainland was, at its shortest, no more than 10 miles, with a possible landing anywhere from Campbeltown in Scotland to Milford Haven in Wales, a length of coast in excess of 250 miles. Consequently, the Royal Navy, weakened by the loss of ships through mutiny, would have been hard pressed to make contact, or even oppose, an invading force making a surprise attack anywhere along that extensive coastal area. Once in England, the French, alongside an auxiliary army of former Irish rebels, would find support from English and Scottish revolutionaries, members and supporters of the United Britons, the United Englishmen and the United Scots. These, as their name suggests, were closely modelled on the United Irish both in terms of organisation but especially in their desire to turn Britain into a French-style republic.

Putting the what if to one side, here is the reality. It was a plan fostered in Ireland but fully supported by the French Directory in Paris. French agents working alongside Irish emissaries frequently met in secret, these meetings often taking place in the busy cosmopolitan seaport town of Hamburg. Other meetings took place in Paris. To provide substance, United Irish activists and supporters were encouraged to enter the British navy, creating the numbers necessary to take control of British warship and bring them into French seaports. Also entering the British navy were key organisers, men whose task was to form secret cadres of the most committed. Known as clubs, it was through these cadres that others of similar persuasion were recruited, organised and motivated. On most ships, the organisers worked alongside committed English and Scots, but the majority, in all but a small number of ships, were Irish. It was the organisers who communicated to members of the cadre the instructions received from agents on shore, agents who themselves had direct contact with the executive committee in Belfast. These land-based agents also acted as go-betweens, sharing intelligence received from the cadre organiser of one ship with the organisers on other ships, so ensuring that all were acting in unison.

Of course, the plans of both the United Irish and their supporters across the British Isles, never came to fruition. But on a number of ships much was in readiness, with cadres formed, detailed plans developed, sizeable numbers recruited and weapons carefully hidden. From Paris had also come clear promises of support, allowing Irish and other revolutionary-minded seamen to know that if they did take a British warship into a French port they would be well rewarded.

Of the various ships I write about, there is clear evidence of shipboard revolutionary cadres having been formed, and through extensive research I demonstrate not just the existence of a high level of commitment among those drawn into these planned shipboard rebellions but how the cadres operated, methods of recruitment and the processes to be used in the taking of each ship. As one ship mutinied, a domino effect would supposedly follow, one ship after another falling into rebel hands. While the plots on board a number of ships were eventually uncovered, remarkable was the secrecy of what was taking place. Under the nose of the officers, large numbers of men were meeting and planning treason. Only in the final hours of these plots being actioned did they come to the attention of the officers of the quarter deck, and the rebels overpowered. In turn, the Admiralty took its revenge, hanging indiscriminately those they believed to be the main plotters. In doing so, undue bias was shown towards those who were Irish. Seemingly naval officers of high rank were in disbelief that English and Scottish seamen could be so minded as to harbour sentiments of liberty, fraternity and equality.

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