Social Order and the Genesis of Rebellion: A Study of Mutiny in the Royal Navy, 1740-1820

Project: Research project

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Social Order and the Genesis of Rebellion: A Study of Mutiny in the Royal Navy, 1740-1820 Social Order and the Genesis of Rebellion: A Study of Mutiny in the Royal Navy, 1740-1820 This is a study of the causes of mutiny, which is among the most serious and feared challenges to social order. Mutiny defies the state and its agents, imperiling the state's authority and its claim to a monopoly over legitimate violence. This is nowhere clearer than on naval ships, for ships are much like states at a lower scale of organization. Indeed, with their clear social hierarchy and power structure, naval vessels have long been imagined as a microcosm of the state itself. Mutinies are not simply a spontaneous reaction to grievances, for they are quite rare while the poor treatment and difficult lives of seamen are all too common. Historians are clear on this point. James Valle (1980: 16) observes, "A rough equilibrium between sullen defiance and conformity seems to have been the norm in naval ships." Jane Hathaway (2001: xv) contends that "Mutiny almost never results from the spontaneous combustion of a single unhinged sailor or maverick officer." Is each episode of mutiny idiosyncratic? Are episodes of full-fledged mutiny too rare to study systematically? We argue that mutinies, like other rebellions in closed, hierarchical organizations, involve two related problems: the failure to maintain social order by those in command, and the capacity of the ruled to rebel. Mutiny is determined by the quality and competence of commanders and their shipboard control capacity, on the one hand, and the grievances and coordination capacity of the crew, on the other. We seek to understand not just the events that spark uprisings but also the conditions that render contingencies fatal to shipboard order. Using systematic data on Royal Navy (RN) ships, this study seeks to ask why shipboard social order shifts, tipping members of a crew toward mutiny. Generally, systematic data on individuals in pre-industrial societies are scarce, but the RN carefully documented its vessels, shipboard conditions, the conduct of officers and sailors, and the composition of its crews. Naval archives offer the sort of detailed, individual-level data that too often are missing in studies of rebellion and revolution. We request support for data collection that will make possible the first systematic analysis of mutiny in the RN from 1740-1820, that is, the height of the "age of sail". The RN's extensive records are remarkably well preserved and will provide the primary sources for both qualitative and quantitative analysis.
Effective start/end date1/1/0912/31/10


  • Guggenheim (Harry Frank) Foundation: $74,116.00


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