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To understand unrest in our time, a study of mutinies in another

May 12, 2011
Courtesy of the University of Washington
and World Science staff

Movies about the 1787 mu­ti­ny on the Brit­ish ship HMS Boun­ty show sailors be­ing flogged for triv­i­al rea­sons, be­ing forced to dance, and en­dur­ing storm-ridden cross­ings to sat­is­fy the cap­tain’s ego.

We may not think these harsh con­di­tions have much rel­e­vance to­day. But mu­tinies still oc­cur, es­pe­cially in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries’ mil­i­tar­ies, and mu­tin­ies have si­m­i­lar­i­ties to oth­er types of re­bel­lions such as strikes, ri­ots, pris­on re­volts and po­lit­i­cal up­ris­ings.

This log book kept by the master of the HMS Culloden includes daily recordings on the weather, ship's location, supplies and events such as accidents, disturbances and disciplinary actions. (Credit: Steven Pfaff, U. of Washington)


So just how an­gry do peo­ple have to be to re­volt? What oth­er fac­tors in­flu­ence the like­li­hood and na­ture of an up­ris­ing?

“18th cen­tu­ry sailors had lots of grievances, but usu­ally they were not se­vere enough to cause a re­bel­lion,” said Un­ivers­ity of Wash­ing­ton so­ci­ol­o­gist Ste­ven Pfaff. He is work­ing on a study on “what tips the bal­ance from put­ting up with grie­vances, to risk­ing ex­e­cu­tion for mu­ti­ny.”

Pfaff and col­leagues are stu­dying rec­ords of mu­tinies in the Brit­ish Roy­al Na­vy from 1740 to 1820. The fact that all the in­ci­dents oc­curred with­in a re­strict­ed type of set­ting of­fers some dis­tinct ad­van­tages to a re­search­er. The his­tor­i­cal rec­ord re­flects a rel­a­tively well-meas­ured, con­trolled and con­sist­ent set of con­di­tions free of at least some of the con­found­ing fac­tors—such as wildly var­y­ing so­ci­etial cus­toms and val­ues—that would frus­trate some­one try­ing to stu­dy, say, all types of re­volts an­y­where.

Work­ing with mar­i­time his­to­ri­an Moi­ra Brack­nell at the Un­ivers­ity of Ex­e­ter, U.K., Pfaff has an­a­lyzed me­tic­u­lous, hand-written ship logs and reg­is­ters of of­fi­cers and men kept by na­val of­fi­cers. He rec­orded the crew’s de­mograph­ics, the ves­sel’s age and size, wheth­er it was sail­ing dur­ing war or peace, how long it had been at sea and the num­ber of sailors aboard due to forced re­cruit­ment, com­mon then. He al­so tried to gauge ship man­age­ment qual­ity based on ac­ci­dent rates, ad­e­qua­cy of ra­t­ions and amount of boo­ty cap­tured from en­e­my ships. He an­a­lyzed qual­ity-of-life in­di­ca­tors such as sev­er­ity of pun­ish­ments, the ex­tent of re­duced ra­t­ions, sick­nesses and spoiled food.

Pfaff, along with stu­dents and so­ci­ol­o­gist Mi­chael Hechter, now at Ar­i­zo­na State Un­ivers­ity, are con­tin­u­ing to study the logs and court mar­tial rec­ords from the Roy­al Na­vy. In June, Pfaff and Hechter will pre­s­ent some of their find­ings at a con­fer­ence at the In­terna­t­ional In­sti­tute of So­cial His­to­ry in Am­ster­dam, Neth­er­lands, en­ti­tled Mu­ti­ny and Mar­i­time Rad­i­cal­ism in the Age of Rev­o­lu­tion.

The pe­ri­od cov­ered by the study was one in which Great Brit­ain achieved glob­al dom­i­nance on the shoul­ders of her na­vy.

“Dur­ing that time, there were about 70 cases in which sailors were able to take over ships for a pe­ri­od of time,” said Pfaff, an ex­pert on col­lec­tive ac­tion – how groups of peo­ple work to­geth­er to­ward a com­mon goal. Pre­vi­ously, he’s stud­ied col­lec­tive ac­tion in the con­text of re­li­gion, so­cial move­ments and po­lit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tions, such as mass pro­tests fol­low­ing the col­lapse of com­mun­ism in East­ern Eu­rope.

“I have gen­er­ally found that peo­ple do not act irra­t­ionally when they pro­test, even when the costs of en­gag­ing in col­lec­tive ac­tion are po­ten­tially very high – as with mu­ti­ny,” Pfaff said. “Usually they are act­ing in hopes of re­dress­ing spe­cif­ic kinds of grievances.”

In many cases, Pfaff finds that mu­tinies emerged be­cause of un­paid and de­lin­quent wages or ex­ces­sive pun­ish­ment.

Safe­ty con­cerns were al­so a fac­tor. Sea­men aboard the Ca­mil­la near Ja­mai­ca in 1783, for in­stance, re­fused to sail be­cause small­pox had killed sev­e­ral men, wors­en­ing a short­age of sea­men on an un­der­staffed ship. They ar­gued that they could not sail with­out more men be­cause if a squall – or a hur­ri­cane – set in, they would not be able to han­dle the ship.

Some­times there were seem­ingly triv­i­al rea­sons for mu­ti­ny: wa­tered-down grog aboard the De­fi­ance in 1795; poor qual­ity beef aboard the Ber­wick in 1794; rag­ged clothes on the Crown in 1764; lack of shore leave for sailors on the Ori­on in 1794. Grievances re­lat­ed to food, drink and cloth­ing were sim­ul­ta­ne­ously a mat­ter of com­pensa­t­ion, Pfaff said, since the sea­man’s wage in­clud­ed spec­i­fied en­ti­tle­ments to ra­t­ions and sup­plies.

Anoth­er seem­ingly odd rea­son for re­bel­lion oc­curred in 1793 aboard the Mi­ner­va as it re­turned from the East In­dies. Cap­tain Whit­by in­sisted the men ex­er­cise by fiddle-dancing, be qui­et when above deck and for­bade them from swear­ing – a cher­ished prac­tice of sea­men of the era.

Pfaff said that the ep­i­sode on the Mi­ner­va was a mild case of mu­ti­ny and was set­tled peace­ful­ly. The Mi­ner­va mu­ti­ny is al­so an ex­am­ple of a com­mon thread Pfaff finds for mo­tiva­t­ions to reb­el: vi­ola­t­ion of na­val con­ven­tions.

“It was a rough equi­lib­ri­um most of the time,” he said of life on board. Many times sailors ex­pected of­fi­cers to “look the oth­er way in mat­ters of pet­ty de­viance.” On the oth­er hand, they were will­ing to en­dure a lot if they be­lieved their of­fi­cers were fair, com­pe­tent and pro­tec­tive of their wel­fare.

Stud­y­ing the size and age of the ships gives Pfaff a sense of the sailors’ abil­i­ties to plan and co­or­di­nate usurpa­t­ion – no small feat in such cramped quar­ters or in the face of su­per­vis­ing of­fi­cers and armed ma­rine guards. “It’s a small com­mun­ity and hard to hide,” Pfaff said of life aboard a ship. Would-be mu­ti­neers “would have to per­suade some­one to in­sti­gate the mu­ti­ny, know­ing that ringlead­ers would be pun­ished more se­verely.”

By stu­dying court-mar­tial doc­u­ments from mu­ti­ny tri­als, Pfaff found that col­lec­tive oaths were a com­mon way to lock in sol­i­dar­ity in ad­vance of an up­ris­ing. “S­ince the oaths were them­selves il­le­gal and po­ten­tially punisha­ble by hang­ing, the will­ingness to take an oath was a cred­i­ble sig­nal that one’s ship­mates were relia­ble,” he said.

Un­like the well-known mu­ti­ny on the Boun­ty, in which mu­ti­neers took over the ship and set the cap­tain adrift in a small boat with his sup­port­ers, most mu­tinies were more like strikes, a situa­tion that oc­curred in about two thirds of the more than 60 in­ci­dents Pfaff has stud­ied so far, he said.

Now Pfaff and his re­search team are try­ing to un­der­stand the pre­cise con­di­tions that tipped a res­tive crew to­ward re­bel­lion and what in­spired some sea­men to risk the most by be­com­ing mu­ti­ny ringlead­ers. Pfaff and his un­der­grad­u­ate re­search­ers are cod­ing da­ta from hun­dreds of ships´ rec­ords from ships with mu­tinies and – as a con­trol group – ships that did not have mu­tinies. Then the re­search­ers will per­form sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­ses to iso­late the fac­tors that in­creased the odds of mu­ti­ny.

* * *

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Movies about the 1787 mutiny on the British ship HMS Bounty show sailors being flogged for trivial reasons, being forced to dance, and enduring storm-ridden crossings to satisfy the captain’s ego. We may not think these harsh conditions have much relevance today. But mutinies still occur, especially in developing countries’ militaries, and mutinies have similarities to other types of rebellions such as strikes, riots, prison revolts and political uprisings. So just how angry do people have to be to revolt? What other factors influence the likelihood and nature of an uprising? “18th century sailors had lots of grievances, but usually they were not severe enough to cause a rebellion,” said University of Washington sociologist Steven Pfaff. He is working on a study on “what tips the balance from putting up with grievances, to risking execution for mutiny.” Pfaff and colleagues are studying records of mutinies in the British Royal Navy from 1740 to 1820. The fact that all the incidents occurred within a restricted type of setting offers some distinct advantages to a researcher. The historical record reflects a relatively well-measured, controlled and consistent set of conditions free of at least some of the confounding factors—such as wildly varying societial customs and values—that would frustrate someone trying to study, say, all types of revolts anywhere. Working with maritime historian Moira Bracknell at the University of Exeter, U.K., Pfaff has analyzed meticulous, hand-written ship logs and registers of officers and men kept by naval officers. He recorded the crew’s demographics, the vessel’s age and size, whether it was sailing during war or peace, how long it had been at sea and the number of sailors aboard due to forced recruitment, common then. He also tried to gauge ship management quality based on accident rates, adequacy of rations and amount of booty captured from enemy ships. He analyzed quality-of-life indicators such as severity of punishments, the extent of reduced rations, sicknesses and spoiled food. Pfaff, along with students and sociologist Michael Hechter, now at Arizona State University, are continuing to study the logs and court martial records from the Royal Navy. In June, Pfaff and Hechter will present some of their findings at a conference at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, Netherlands, entitled Mutiny and Maritime Radicalism in the Age of Revolution. The period covered by the study was one in which Great Britain achieved global dominance on the shoulders of her navy. “During that time, there were about 70 cases in which sailors were able to take over ships for a period of time,” said Pfaff, an expert on collective action – how groups of people work together toward a common goal. Previously, he’s studied collective action in the context of religion, social movements and political revolutions, such as mass protests following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. “I have generally found that people do not act irrationally when they protest, even when the costs of engaging in collective action are potentially very high – as with mutiny,” Pfaff said. “Usually they are acting in hopes of redressing specific kinds of grievances.” In many cases, Pfaff finds that mutinies emerged because of unpaid and delinquent wages or excessive punishment. Safety concerns were also a factor. Seamen aboard the Camilla near Jamaica in 1783, for instance, refused to sail because smallpox had killed several men, worsening a shortage of seamen on an understaffed ship. They argued that they could not sail without more men because if a squall – or a hurricane – set in, they would not be able to handle the ship. Sometimes there were seemingly trivial reasons for mutiny: watered-down grog aboard the Defiance in 1795; poor quality beef aboard the Berwick in 1794; ragged clothes on the Crown in 1764; lack of shore leave for sailors on the Orion in 1794. Grievances related to food, drink and clothing were simultaneously a matter of compensation, Pfaff said, since the seaman’s wage included specified entitlements to rations and supplies. Another seemingly odd reason for rebellion occurred in 1793 aboard the Minerva as it returned from the East Indies. Captain Whitby insisted the men exercise by fiddle-dancing, be quiet when above deck and forbade them from swearing – a cherished practice of seamen of the era. Pfaff said that the episode on the Minerva was a mild case of mutiny and was settled peacefully. The Minerva mutiny is also an example of a common thread Pfaff finds for motivations to rebel: violation of naval conventions. “It was a rough equilibrium most of the time,” he said of life on board. Many times sailors expected officers to “look the other way in matters of petty deviance.” On the other hand, they were willing to endure a lot if they believed their officers were fair, competent and protective of their welfare. Studying the size and age of the ships gives Pfaff a sense of the sailors’ abilities to plan and coordinate usurpation – no small feat in such cramped quarters or in the face of supervising officers and armed marine guards. “It’s a small community and hard to hide,” Pfaff said of life aboard a ship. Would-be mutineers “would have to persuade someone to instigate the mutiny, knowing that ringleaders would be punished more severely.” By studying court-martial documents from mutiny trials, Pfaff found that collective oaths were a common way to lock in solidarity in advance of an uprising. “Since the oaths were themselves illegal and potentially punishable by hanging, the willingness to take an oath was a credible signal that one’s shipmates were reliable,” he said. Unlike the well-known mutiny on the Bounty, in which mutineers took over the ship and set the captain adrift in a small boat with his supporters, most mutinies were more like worker strikes. Pfaff calls these “voice” mutinies, after a distinction made by the famous economist Albert Hirschman. Voice mutinies occurred in about two thirds of the more than 60 incidents Pfaff has studied so far, he said. Now Pfaff and his research team are trying to understand the precise conditions that tipped a restive crew toward rebellion and what inspired some seamen to risk the most by becoming mutiny ringleaders. Pfaff and his undergraduate researchers are coding data from hundreds of ships´ records from ships with mutinies and – as a control group – ships that did not have mutinies. Then the researchers will perform statistical analyses to isolate the factors that increased the odds of mutiny.