Britain ruled the waves. Here is the British warship HMS Victory
When revolution broke out in France in 1779, many in Britain saw anything that weakened France as good for their country, and there was expectation that France's monarch would be reduced in power. When France's National Assembly proclaimed the Rights of Man and Citizen, some in Britain who were looking forward to reforms in their own country were pleased. In towns through much of Britain a few people formed what they called the Society for Constitutional Information, and they called one another "citizen." And some blue-collar workers formed what they called the London Corresponding Society. Members of Parliament in these times were elected by only a small fraction of the population, and admirers of the revolution in France desired wider representation for Britain's parliament.
After the French Revolution executed Louis XVI and Britain joined others in a war against France, opposition to the French Revolution grew, and the conservative notion spread that wider representation in parliament meant giving more voice to the irrational mob. Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger applied war-time hostility toward the Britain's pro-French reformers. Spies for the government reported on the activities of reformist groups. One of those arrested was the Scottish reformer Thomas Muir, who was convicted of sedition and sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment. Those few who resisted the government by taking up arms were sentenced to death, hanged, drawn and quartered.
In 1794, Pitt suspended habeas corpus, making it possible to detain prisoners without trial. Nevertheless, dissenters gathered at protest rallies. Hunger in 1795 had risen in much of Europe including Britain. There, bread riots occurred and crowds shouted not only for peace but "Down with Pitt" and down with King George III. The crackdown against dissent continued. In 1795, parliament passed a law against meetings of more than 40 people. In 1797, sailors at anchorages at Spithead (near Portsmouth) and Nore (in the Thames estuary) took over their ships and put their officers ashore. The sailors wanted better pay, better living conditions and removal of some of their officers. The mutineers passed a resolution among themselves to hand over the fleet to the French – the only country they claimed that understood the "Rights of Man." The government's response was both to improve the conditions that had helped create the rebellion and to crackdown. The most outstanding ringleader, Richard Parker, was hanged. Representations of sailors from every ship were obliged to witness the execution in order to see what became of mutineers.
Copyright © 2002 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.