Ranging from Captain Ahab in search of a white whale to Captain Jack Aubrey aboard the HMS Surprise, even two centuries later there continues to be interest in the microcosms of ships during the Age of Sail.
Arizona State University Foundation Professor Michael Hechter and Steven Pfaff, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, take a look at this time period in their book “The Genesis of Rebellion: Governance, Grievance, and Mutiny in the Age of Sail.”
The Social Science History Association recently awarded their book the Allan Sharlin Memorial Book Award for 2021, which is given annually to an outstanding book in social science history to honor the memory of Allan Sharlin.
“The Genesis of Rebellion” explores mutiny, collective action and governance of seamen from 1740 to 1820. Using both quantitative and narrative evidence, the authors were able to determine the factors that led to mutiny. They were able to do this because they created a dataset from Royal Navy records of the 64 ships that had full mutinies in this period along with a sample of other ships that did not. Their findings help us to understand the emergence of rebellion more generally.
Hechter, who is part of ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies, spoke with ASU News about his award-winning book.
Question: What inspired you to explore historical mutinies in the British Royal Navy from a social science lens?
Answer: The idea for this book was born in 1996 in Oxford. As a fellow of New College living in college, I routinely dined at High Table. Like many things at Oxford, High Table has its own ritual. Shortly before the meal, participants gather in the Senior Common Room and then walk into Hall to be seated in a random order. Once seated, the norm at the very long table is to converse with the people both on one’s right and left.
That evening there was a strange face to my right, and I struck up a conversation with him. It turned out that this individual was a postgraduate student in naval history pursuing his DPhil. He was grousing about the long and tedious day he had just spent at the Public Records Office (now the National Archives). I was curious about the nature of the naval records to be found there. The student mentioned that the PRO had records of every sailor who had ever been on every ship since the founding of the Royal Navy in the 17th century. Whereas there is a good deal of information about organizations in the historical record, ordinarily there is very little that identifies every individual in a given organization, especially over the longue duréeFrench for “long duration” or “long term,” an approach to history writing.. I immediately realized that this kind of evidence could be marshaled to create an innovative study of collective action — and of mutiny, in particular.
Q: How did governance during the Age of Sail create the kinds of grievances that led to rebellion?
A: Normal life in the navy in that era was no walk in the park. The ships were very crowded, flogging was frequent and living conditions were so bad that Samuel Johnson famously claimed that being a sailor was a far worse fate than being in prison. Despite this, however, sailors, who had a strong occupational culture, expected to be subject to these difficult conditions and usually accepted them without protest. At the same time, however, they expected their officers to provide ample provisions and grog and generally ensure the safety of the ship and the welfare of the crew. Mutiny was most likely to break out when incidental — unanticipated — events befell the ship for which the officers could be blamed. And the principal cause of mutiny, to our surprise, turned out to be a high incidence of sickness. The sailors attributed these incidental grievances to the poor governance of their captains and warrant officers.
Q: Were mutinies by seaman successful in creating social and structural change in the navy?
A: Mutinies repeatedly revealed problems of governance in the navy. Beyond repression and the redress of specific grievances, sympathetic naval officers, public officials and moral reformers sometimes responded to mutiny by advocating for improvements in naval governance and seamen’s welfare. The connection between mutiny and reform is not always straightforward, however, because the navy was a fundamentally conservative institution in which resistance even to obviously beneficial reforms could be dogged. As one naval historian noted of many necessary reforms, “Every change was grudgingly accepted and sometimes dangerously delayed.” Nevertheless, mutinies inspired reforms in the domains of pay, discipline and punishment, and health and welfare.
Q: Do you think that the mutinies of that time influenced other parts of Western society, or was it restricted to the British Royal Navy?
A: The most dramatic mutinies — like those on the Bounty and Hermione — were well-known the world over and often attributed to a revolutionary spirit that had developed after the American and French revolutions.
Q: How might we apply takeaways from mutinies during the Age of Sail to rebellions that occur today?
A: The genesis of rebellion hinges on the degree to which grievances are shared and considered to be ameliorable. If so, then authorities are at least partly responsible, and thus they should be held accountable for redressing the sources of these grievances. Discontent motivates rebellion when people believe that the authorities should be competent and effective and willing to assist or protect them, but that they have fallen short. The greater the dependence of people on rulers for their well-being, the more they will expect them to be at least minimally concerned with their security and welfare, to be responsive in times of crisis or emergency and to govern in ways that are culturally appropriate.