The Bloody Flag. Mutiny in the Age of Atlantic Revolution

Frykman, Niklas
California World History Library (30)
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Chris Magra, Department of History, University of Tennessee

Naval histories of mutinies at the turn of the nineteenth century tend to focus on radical events within a particular nation. Such studies typically portray mutinies as the apolitical behavior of brutish naval seamen, or these subversive acts are presented as the result of poor leadership. Yet, the act of mutiny was not restricted to an individual navy. Nor was it apolitical. Niklas Frykman is the first historian to write a transnational history of this type of maritime radicalism. His book sails far beyond national borders and antiquated notions of an unthinking working class.

The Bloody Flag is much more than a comparative account of multiple mutinies. Frykman possesses a rare set of language skills, and he has put them to good use. After more than a decade of careful research in eighteenth and nineteenth-century manuscripts written in English, French, and Dutch, and upon learning multiple naval histories, Frykman has produced something highly original. He has found evidence that across borders “in the latter half of the 1790s overlapping waves of revolt flowed together into a single revolutionary surge, genuinely Atlantic in both origin and scope” (p. 10). This is a largely overlooked revolution within the Age of Revolutions. Building on Marcus Rediker’s analysis of the British navy, Frykman demonstrates that war workers across Europe used mutiny at the end of the eighteenth century to protest a variety of injustices. The red flag that mutineers flew in multiple navies became a “symbol of class struggle, economic justice, and republican liberty worldwide” (p. 11).

This subaltern tale of a working-class revolution unfolds in chronological order from 1789 to 1802. The story starts with the late-eighteenth-century expansion of European navies. 3,200 warships needed 350,000 men to operate. With only so many maritime laborers to go around, European powers developed different methods to man their fleets. Great Britain relied on press gangs and the forcible appropriation of free labor. The Dutch used zielverkopers, or private labor brokers. The French relied on a systéme des classes in which mariners registered with a regional commissioner for military duty. Navies disciplined maritime war workers through various methods, including flogging. Mariners, for their part, resisted the appropriation of their labor and this martial discipline primarily through desertion and mutiny. The next part of the story focuses on mutinies within the French navy at the start of the French Revolution. Frykman notes that seamen stationed in the Windward islands in the Caribbean initially saw themselves as full and active participants in a democratic effort to topple the Ancien Régime. As such, they patriotically worked to preserve the Republic’s overseas assets, but the Republic limited liberty to free people and preserved the institution of slavery. And French leaders refused to listen to mariner’s demands. So, mariners who were swept up in a tidal wave of “democratic plebian republicanism” (p. 81) ultimately mutinied, left French Caribbean islands, and sailed for home. Towards the middle of the story, Frykman discusses a transnational contest between naval seamen and naval administrators in Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands during the 1790s. The two forces, one from below and the other from above, fought over the best way to preserve discipline on a warship. Seamen across European borders were inspired by revolutionary ideals and came to believe that popular sovereignty trumped antiquated and false notions of paternalistic officers who treated seamen like family. Naval administrators, influenced in different ways by the same ideals, believed government regulated conscription and brutal suppression of dissent were the best means to move navies forward into the nineteenth century. The French Republic, for example, revised its Code Pénal Maritime and treated mutiny as a counter-revolutionary crime punishable by death. Frykman includes dramatic instances of mutinies as forms of subaltern resistance to these naval reforms.

The heart of the book is located near the end of the story. Frykman provides the most detailed and informed accounts of the 1797 mutinies at Spithead and the Nore that have ever been written. Democratic British seamen demanded political rights such as collective decision-making, and they wanted material benefits associated with better pay. The mariners embraced the red flag as part of their struggle, which “signaled their understanding that they were now engaged in a conflict between two sides with fundamentally opposing interests, and that a resolution to this conflict could only come by superior force” (p. 163). The British government brutally suppressed the mutinies by executing fifty-nine men and flogging thirty-seven others with 1,000 lashes each. But, this suppression is not the end of the story. Though nearly all the mutinies Frykman discusses concluded in state-sponsored violence, their examples inspired others. They proved that “a more democratic shipboard order was possible, and their example had spread to ships and squadrons around the world, from the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope, and from the Caribbean Sea to the Indian Ocean” (p. 167). Frykman ends his book with more than a dozen violent attempts to seize control of British warships to sail them to the nearest enemy or neutral port. Each of these violent overthrows of established authority, Frykman argues, was inspired by the “sophisticated, transnational radicalism that had flourished below deck in 1797-98” (p. 199).

Frykman is a talented wordsmith. Readers will hear the drums of war beating in the background as the author recounts various naval battles. Likewise, there will be very few dry eyes after the section on Ann Parker trying to reach her husband before he is hung for mutiny.

While there are many things to admire about this book, its staying power will surely rest on the in-depth social history of so many early modern European navies. One would be hard pressed to find a deeper, more sophisticated analysis of the men who fought in such a variety of war machines. Readers interested in naval history may have wondered if seamen were similar across political borders in a variety of instances. This book is a one-stop-shop for answers to those burning questions.

There are moments in the story when the supporting evidence is thin. Frykman tells us that “several European states took steps to systematically transform landsmen into seamen” (p. 24). But, then he only cites Swedish and British examples. He uses Daniel Vickers’ scholarship on mariners in Massachusetts to tell us about “the patriarchal relations” in fishing communities “of old-regime rural Europe” (p. 25). But, these momentary excesses do not seriously detract from the strength of the story, Frykman so brilliantly tells about the rise and fall of a transnational maritime radicalism.

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