* Home * * Search this site * 
St Vincent and the Marlborough mutiny in 1797

Earl St Vincent (Sir John Jervis) appears in the early Aubrey/Maturin books of Patrick O'Brian as a First Lord of the Admiralty during the Peace of Amiens more concerned with stamping out corruption in the dockyards that maintaining the active navy. In his earlier years he was however a fighting seaman, perhaps second only to Nelson as a fleet tactician, although he only really got one opportunity to show this: on 14 February 1797 he defeated a numerically superior, but badly organised Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent.

He had strong views on discipline: Nelson said "Where I would take a penknife, Lord St Vincent takes a hatchet". His approach is illustrated in the following description of his treatment of a mutiny in "Marlborough" off Cadiz, after the general mutinies off Spithead and the Nore in 1797. This is quoted from "Memoirs of the Earl of St Vincent"(J S Tucker, 1844) by A T Mahan in "The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire"(1892).


No sooner had Sir Roger Curtis arrived, than applications came to the commander-in-chief for courts-martial on mutineers from three of those ships, the "Marlborough," the "Lion" and the "Centaur." Selection will be made of the sequel to the "Marlborough."

As the squadron approached, and before the request for a court-martial, this ship being known to the commander-in-chief to have been among the most disorganized at Spithead, had been ordered to take her berth in the centre, at a small distance from the rest of the fleet. It, however, had so happened that a very violent mutiny in her had broken out at Beerhaven, and again during the passage, which had been suppressed by the officers, but chiefly by the first lieutenant. The very object too of this mutiny was to protect the life of a seaman who had forfeited it by a capital crime. A court-martial on the principal mutineers was immediately assembled; and one was no sooner sentenced to die than the commander-in-chief ordered him to be executed on the following morning, "and by the crew of the 'Marlborough' alone, no part of the boats' crews from the other ships, as had been usual on similar occasions, to assist in the punishment," - his Lordship's invariable order on the execution of mutineers. On the receipt of the necessary commands for this execution, the captain of the " Marlborough," Captain Ellison, waited upon the commander-in-chief, and reminding his Lordship that a determination that their shipmates should not suffer capital punishment had been the very cause of the ship's company's mutiny, expressed his conviction that the "Marlborough's "crew would never permit the man to be hanged on board that ship."

Receiving the captain on the " Ville de Paris'" quarter-deck, before the officers and ship's company, hearkening in breathless silence to what passed, and standing with his hat in his hand over his head, as was his Lordship's invariable custom during the whole time that any person, whatever were his rank, even a common seaman, addressed him on service, Lord St. Vincent listened very attentively till the captain ceased to speak; and then, after a pause, replied, -

"What do you mean to tell me, Captain Ellison, that you cannot command his Majesty's ship the 'Marlborough'? for if that is the case, sir, I will immediately send on board an officer who can."

The captain then requested that, at all events; the boats' crews from the rest of the fleet might, as always had been customary in the service, on executions, attend at this also, to haul the man up; for he really did not expect the "Marlborough's" would do it.

Lord St. Vincent sternly answered: "Captain Ellison, you are an old officer, sir, have served long, suffered severely in the service, and have lost an arm in action, and I should be very sorry that any advantage should be now taken of your advanced years. That man shall be hanged, at eight o'clock to-morrow morning, and by his own ship's company: for not a hand from any other ship in the fleet shall touch the rope. You will now return on board, sir; and, lest you should not prove able to command your ship, an officer will be at hand to you who can."

Without another word Captain Ellison instantly retired. After he had reached his ship, he received orders to cause her guns to be housed and secured, and that at daybreak in the morning her ports should be lowered. A general order then issued to the fleet for all launches to rendezvous under the "Prince" at seven o'clock on the following morning, armed with carronades and twelve rounds of ammunition for service; each launch to be commanded by a lieutenant, having an expert and trusty gunners'-mate and four quarter-gunners, exclusive of the launch's crew; the whole to be under the command of Captain Campbell, of the "Blenheim." The written orders to the captain will appear in their place. On presenting them. Lord St. Vincent said, 'he was to attend the execution, and if any symptoms of mutiny appeared in the "Marlborough," any attempt to open her ports, or any resistance to the hanging of the prisoner, he was to proceed close touching the ship, and to fire into her, and to continue his fire until all mutiny or resistance should cease; and that, should it become absolutely necessary, he should even sink the ship in face of the fleet.'

Accordingly, at seven the next morning, all the launches, thus armed, proceeded from the "Prince" to the "Blenheim," and thence, Captain Campbell having assumed the command, to the "Marlborough."

Having lain on his oars a short time alongside, the captain then formed his force in a line athwart her bows, at rather less than pistol-shot distance off, and then he ordered the tompions to be taken out of the carronades, and to load.

At half-past seven, the hands throughout the fleet having been turned up to witness punishment, the eyes of all bent upon a powerfully armed boat as it quitted the flag-ship; every one knowing that there went the provost-marshal conducting his prisoner to the "Marlborough" for execution. The crisis was come; now was to be seen whether the "Marlboroughs" crew would hang one of their own men.

The ship being in the centre between the two lines of the fleet, the boat was soon alongside, and the man was speedily placed on the cathead and haltered. A few awful minutes of universal silence followed, which was at last broken by the watch-bells of the fleet striking eight o'clock. Instantly the flag-ship's gun fired, and at the sound the man was lifted well off; but then, and visibly to all, he dropped back again; and the sensation throughout the fleet was intense. For, at this dreadful moment, when the eyes of every man in every ship were straining upon this execution, as the decisive struggle between authority and mutiny, as if it were destined that the whole fleet should see the hesitating unwillingness of the "Marlborough's" crew to hang their rebel, and the efficacy of the means taken to enforce obedience, by an accident on board the ship the men at the yard-rope unintentionally let it slip, and the turn of the balance seemed calamitously lost; but then they hauled him up to the yard-arm with a run, - the law was satisfied, and, said Lord St. Vincent at the moment, perhaps one of the greatest of his life, "Discipline is preserved, sir!"

When the sentence was executed, and not any disturbance appeared, that it might be again made perceptible to all the fleet that abundant force had been provided to overpower any resistance which a line-of-battle ship could offer, Captain CampbeIl broke his line, and rowing down, placed his launches as close alongside the "Marlborough" as their oars would permit; and then re-forming them, resumed his station across her bows, continuing there until the time for the body's hanging having expired, it was taken down, sewed up as is usual in its own hammock with a shot, and was carried in one of the "Marlborough's" boats to half a mile from the ship, and sunk; upon which, Captain Campbell withdrew his force, and the "Marlborough's" signal was made to take her station in the line.

This was the fatal blow to the mutiny in the fleet before Cadiz; not that violent insubordination, treasonable conspiracies, and open resistances did not again and again occur, to be as often and as instantaneously quelled; for the ships were many that were sent out from England, several arrived in almost open mutiny, and they brought a profusion of infection to the rest. The dreadful sentence was again and again inflicted, and in all cases of insubordination the crews were invariably the executioners of their own rebels; but never again was the power of the law doubted by any one.

From Tucker's Memoirs of Earl St. Vincent, vol. i. pp. 303-309.


Go back to my home page.


Valid HTML 5.0