Thursday, October 24, 2013

James Caithness and the Mars

James Caithness came through his first battle unscathed: 90 others on board HMS Mars weren’t so lucky. Paybooks held at TNA list names of men and their next-of-kin who would be sent portions of wages earned: some of these crew members are listed as ‘slain’, and the date given is 21 April 1798. This was the action at Raz de Sein in which James participated.

Admiral Cornwallis

The Mars had seen action before James joined her. She was built in 1794 at Deptford and under Captain Sir Charles Cotton had formed part of Vice Admiral Cornwallis’s squadron – five ships of the line and two frigates -  off Brest in June 1795 when they were hotly pursued by a French fleet of thirteen sail of the line, fourteen frigates, two brigs and a cutter, under Vice Admiral Joyeuse. 

Mars and Triumph formed the rear guard and these two were constantly engaged with the French ships which kept up a long range cannonade. Mars was in a disabled state, her masts and spars badly damaged by shot, by the time reinforcements arrived in the form of Lord Bridport’s squadron whereupon the French hauled to the wind and gave up the chase. Twelve men of HMS Mars were wounded.

Admiral Cornwallis's Retreat from the French Fleet 1795

HMS Mars was one of the vessels involved in the Spithead Mutiny (Plymouth) in 1797 when seamen on 16 ships of the Channel Fleet (under Admiral Lord Bridport) protested against living conditions on Royal Navy ships and demanded better wages. Negotiations between the crews and the Admiralty continued for two weeks but broke down. Eventually the mutineers were given a royal pardon and some improvements in pay were agreed upon. This marked a step forward in the recognition of seamen’s rights and remedies in the brutal discipline as well as better food followed.

Ships at Spithead Anchorage

Regrettably, the contagion spread to The Nore, an anchorage in the Thames Estuary, and this mutiny developed more serious overtones when the ships involved blockaded London, preventing merchant vessels from entering the port. The Admiralty were infuriated and there were also wider concerns about revolutionary ideas from France influencing Britain’s stability. 

Reprisals were severe. The
mutineers’ main leader Richard Parker was convicted of treason and piracy and hanged from the yardarm of the Sandwich, the ship where the mutiny had begun. A further 29 ringleaders were hanged and others sentenced to flogging, prison or transportation.

The traditional five bells rung in the last dog watch ceased on Royal Navy vessels after the affair at Nore, as that had been the signal to begin the mutiny.*

No comments: