The Bloody Flag: Mutiny in the Age of Atlantic Revolution, Niklas Frykman University of California Press £28
In “the Atlantic’s great age of mutiny”, during the French Revolutionary Wars, between a third and a half of seafarers in all north Atlantic and European navies participated in at least one mutiny. The 1790s were “unrivalled in significance and sophistication until the great sailor revolts at Kiel, Kronstadt and Sevastopol”, according to this highly readable account of warship rebellions. The Bloody Flag identifies the division between the lower deck and the hated officer class implementing government policy, often on unseaworthy ships, in a carefully researched narrative over 210 pages. The decade saw revolution in France, the slave revolt in Haiti and the United Irishmen rebellion in Ireland. In early autumn 1797, of the 16 English warships that sailed into the Battle of Camperdown against the French and Dutch fleets, 10 were involved in mutinies earlier that year.
Frykman notes, “Over 40,000 men on over 100 ships had raised the blood-red flag of mutiny and for two months refused to do the work of war… the largest, best organised, most sustained working-class offensive in 18th-century Britain.” The declaration of a “floating republic” at the Nore — where the Thames Estuary meets the North Sea — represented a major threat to the ruling class. Today that red flag remains a potent symbol of revolution and struggle. The Bloody Flag examines several mutinies and brings into the light of history from below actions of those such as the sailors of British frigate Hermione who, inspired by fleet mutinies at Spithead and the Nore, knew that a more democratic order was possible on a naval vessel.
In an unprecedented, revolutionary move, while sailing between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico in September 1797 — and reminiscent of the 20th-century practice of ‘fragging’ by US troops in Vietnam — they rose against their officers, killing 10 of them after they were tried on deck by representatives of the crew. Central to the uprising was the diverse make-up of the sailors. Only half of Hermione’s crew was English, with 20 percent Irish and another 20 percent from elsewhere in the British Empire. The remaining 10 percent came from 11 countries on the Atlantic rim. Frykman also examines the terrible price of failure, where the officer class managed to lie to and cheat and intimidate mutineers, often resulting in brutal punishment such as “flogging around the fleet”, “keel hauling”, “walking the gauntlet” and hanging from the yardarm (part of the sail). The Bloody Flag is an inspirational read. It exposes the ruthlessness of the ruling class, regardless of country of origin. But it also crucially illustrates revolutionary resistance, based on collective, democratic action from the lower decks. It contains a clear message for present times.