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To explain the occurrence of this form of high-risk collective action, this chapter shows that shipboard grievances were the principal cause of mutiny. However, not all grievances are equal in this respect. We distinguish between structural grievances that flow from incumbency in a subordinate social position and incidental grievances that incumbents have no expectation of suffering. Based on a case-control analysis of incidents of mutiny compared with controls drawn from a unique database of Royal Navy voyages from 1740 to 1820, in addition to a wealth of qualitative evidence, we find that mutiny was most likely to occur when structural grievances were combined with incidental ones.
Social order in the Navy was produced vertically through formal institutions and professional practices that usually assured good governance. It was also produced horizontally through informal mechanisms that knitted seamen to one another, provided leadership and enabled cooperation. This social order could be fragile, however. Poor governance fomented grievances and incidents of misrule focused existing grievances on commanders. As grievances mounted, the informal groups that gave coherence to seamen’s lives provide a basis for protest. The challenge for seamen was coordinating a response and attaining the solidarity necessary to achieve their collective goals.
How do insurgents maintain solidarity when faced with increasing costs and dangers? Based on a combination of process tracing and event-history analysis concerning the mass mutinies in the Royal Navy in 1797, this chapter explains why solidarity varied among the ships participating in the Spithead and Nore mutinies. Solidarity, proxied here as the duration of a ship’s company’s adherence to the mutiny, relied on techniques used by the mutiny leadership that increased dependence and imposed control over rank-and-file seamen. In particular, mutiny leaders monitored and sanctioned compliance and exploited informational asymmetries to persuade seamen to stand by the insurgency, even as prospects for its success faded.
Mutiny tells us much about threats to social order and the exercise of command. Attaining social order in so large and complex an enterprise as the Royal Navy was no small feat. Inspired by now-classic explorations of social order at sea, our study explains how order was attained in the Navy and why it sometimes broke down. In addition to correcting many misperceptions about mutiny that traditional approaches have fostered, our book explores why people commit to participate in dangerous collective action, exploring the roles of grievances, coordination, leadership and dynamic mobilization processes.
Rebellious collective action is rare, but it can occur when subordinates are severely discontented and other circumstances are favorable. The possibility of rebellion is a check – sometimes the only check – on authoritarian rule. Although mutinies in which crews seized control of their vessels were rare events, they occurred throughout the Age of Sail. This book is the first to analyze mutiny sytematically using techniques borrowed from epidemiology and in light of a new theory that links grievances to collective action.
Officers and naval officials reinforced social order through stability and predictability. Despite this, mutiny fostered social and institutional change in the Navy by calling attention to issues in need of urgent attention. Mutinies inspired calls for reform, which eventually led to the abolition of starting, better control over flogging, wage improvements and better health and nutrition. The remarkable operational effectiveness of the Royal Navy by the end of the eighteenth century came about, in part, because naval authorities strove more conscientiously to attend to seamen’s welfare and improve their health in the wake of mutinies. The possibility of mutiny seem to have been a necessary condition for the initiation and sustaining of many institutional reforms in the Navy.
Perceived threats to established social order can influence the willingness of those in authority to inflict punishments as well as the severity of those punishments. This chapter analyzes the case of summary punishment by flogging in the Royal Navy. Eighteenth-century reforms were intended to rationalize and normalize flogging and limit its severity. However, naval commanders saw the established order under attack after 1789 and, emphasizing moral offenses, imposed tighter discipline on their crews. Our analysis shows that greater penal severity is associated with several factors, including a period effect associated with the onset of the revolutionary age. Our findings are consistent with research that suggests that disorder influences the willingness to punish.
Seamen faced both grave dangers and profound uncertainty when considering rebellion. The detailed evidence that we have assembled on dozens of mutinies shows that they resulted from the convergence of long-standing structural grievances among seamen combined with incidental grievances that intensified discontent and focused it on the person of the captain. Rebellious seamen intentionally employed tactics that enhanced coordination and secured the commitment of their shipmates. The occupational culture and social capital of seamen provided them with resources that made mutiny possible.