Social Politics and the Midshipmen’s Mutiny, Portsmouth 1791

By S. A. Cavell, published February 2012


In 1791 Thomas Leonard, a midshipman assigned to duty aboard HMS Saturn, refused to subject himself to the masthead punishment ordered by his First Lieutenant and triggered a series of events that came to be known as the Midshipmen’s Mutiny. The incident involved the young gentlemen of the Channel Fleet and made visible a break down in the Royal Navy’s system of officer recruitment and advancement in the pre-commission ratings. The ‘mutiny’ highlighted a confusion among the young gentlemen involved over which took precedence, social rank or naval rank. It also revealed a high degree of sensitivity to matters of honour among the corps of officer trainees stationed in Portsmouth. Evidence from court martial records shows that conflict over issues of gentlemanly honour and naval subordination, as it related to officer aspirants, was no isolated problem. This article examines the facts of the ‘mutiny’ and the reasons why it has remained in the shadows of naval history.

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Filed under: English Channel | Mutiny & Discipline | Other (Eighteenth C)
Subjects include: Manpower & Life at Sea | Navies

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