It was 1719, and trouble was brewing aboard the English slave ship Hanover Succession. Jacob Key, the first mate, stood in open opposition to the ship’s master, with half the crew behind him, demanding that the ship return immediately to port. John Clipperton, the master (captain) retorted that Key was refusing to do his duty.
Later, in court, Clipperton claimed that Key had been conspiring with the crew since they had left Africa, and that the men had “combined together” for ominous purpose. He called Key an “Old rogue and a villain,” while Key replied by naming Clipperton a “Young rascally dogg,” and saying, “I’ll take charge of the ship, for you intend to destroy it!”
The dispute, which brought the ship back into its Charleston port, and the captain and crew into a mutiny trial, was based on one compelling problem: the Hanover Succession leaked, badly. The crew, experienced sailors, viewed it as unsafe. The captain, younger, wanted only to complete his voyage back to England, whatever the cost. The conflict rose to violence when Clipperton tried to set the vessel onto its final leg of the trade route. Just out of port, the crew mutinied. Key nailed a proclamation to the main mast, and members of the crew threw down their tools, vowing that they would “heave no more.”
Most modern Americans know of mutiny, if we know it at all, through the story “Mutiny on the Bounty.” The captain was cruel, the sailors wanted to go back to Tahiti. The crime of mutiny was punishable by death. The word, mutiny, occurs from time to time in pirate literature. Long John Silver led a mutiny aboard the Hispaniola in Treasure Island.
But what did it mean to mutiny, and why did it happen?
Under the system of the time, sailors had no way to protect themselves from unsafe working conditions or loss of pay. They were under orders from their superiors, dependent on the ship for food, water and safety. But sailors were highly skilled at their jobs, and often had opinions of their own about what was necessary for their survival.
The first course of action for a sailor unhappy with his work was to “jump ship,” in the next port. As he was usually under a work contract, this was an illegal act, but one that was common enough that it was usually not prosecuted by merchant captains and ship owners. A sailor who did this gave up any pay he had not yet received.
If pay was the issue, or if the ship was at sea when a dispute broke out, sailors might stage a work slowdown or a work stoppage. Saying “the beatings will continue until moral improves” might seem funny to us today, but some captains tried it 300 years ago. If they did, they were likely to face an angry crew who refused to work. If the sailors did not do their jobs, the ship did not move, or moved off course and into dangerous waters.
Sailors had to be desperate or very angry to try such tactics, which, might kill them at sea, or at the very least land them in jail when they got into port. But in some instances, they were exonerated. If they could prove that the captain was chronically drunk, the ship was unsafe, or they were in real danger of death from lack of food or water, they might win a court case. Since there were no labor laws at the time, this was the crew’s only way to keep themselves safe at work.
Mutiny was the middle level of a crew’s rebellion. A mutiny was an organized takeover of a ship, an overthrow of the officers, and usually a diversion of the ship off its course. In the merchant service – cargo ships – this meant a violation of work contracts, loss of income for the ship’s owner, which might bring jail time, and also some violence, which was also illegal. In the navy, it meant denying the authority of the King, as represented by the King’s officers. This represented treason, which was why the Royal Navy was so unforgiving of mutineers.
Mutiny against a pirate captain could not happen. Pirate captains were elected officials, and if a crew was unhappy with their captain’s performance, they only needed to raise a vote of “no confidence” and then elect another captain. Calico Jack Rackham became captain when Charles Vane was voted out, and the French pirate Olivier Levasseur was in and out of captaincy several times. Indeed, a departing pirate captain has left us a famous quote on the subject, “…since we met in love, let us part in love." -Howell Davis, dismissed from his ship. He was put out in a rowboat, and paddled away, refusing to be angry with the crew that had voted him out of office.
On the Hanover Succession Jacob Key, an experienced first officer, found himself on a ship that was leaking badly, poorly provisioned, and just setting off on a trans-Atlantic journey. The crew were exhausted from working the pumps, not only during their work shifts, but also during their time off. His quote, recorded at his trial, of “Damn you, I’ll make you take a spell at the pump as well as the rest.” indicates his belief that the captain did not appreciate the seriousness of the danger or the exhaustion of the crew.
The fact that Keys was second-in-command was a necessary ingredient in a successful mutiny. Skilled officers were needed on the crew’s side, because though the crew held all the skills necessary to run the ship, they needed a skilled navigator in order to find land. This meant officers. In Mutiny on the Bounty the lead mutineer, Mister Christian, was the second officer. Henry Avery was second officer on the Charles II when he stole the ship. And in Treasure Island the mutiny on the Hispaniola was led by Long John Silver, a former ship’s quartermaster.
The mutiny by Jacob Keys and his fellow sailors did not result in hangings or other reprisals. The so-called mutineers simply commandeered their leaking ship and brought it back to port, faced the authorities, and then went their ways, to find other ships. This was possible because their ship was close to port at the time of the mutiny.
What happened when a ship was far out at sea? If the sailors did not have an officer to lead them, then they might be required to “work for their lives” pumping a sinking ship, being unjustly beaten, or half starved.
If they did have means of navigating the ship, then they might take over the vessel once and for all. During the Hanover Succession’s mutiny, Jacob Key did threaten to take the ship’s row boats for the crew, leaving Captain Clipperton alone on his sinking ship.
But if the ship had been sound, and the disagreement with the captain only brutality, drunkenness, spoiled food, or withholding pay, the angry crew might have put the captain off in the rowboat, keeping a sound ship for themselves. This would have been the final level of 18th century labor dispute… Taking the ship and turning pirate.