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

Michael Hechter, Sociology, Arizona State University

Steven Pfaff, Sociology, University of Washington

Research Grant, 2009

Mutinies are part of broader class of rebellion and insurgencies and understanding them sheds light on contentious politics generally. Although there have been many studies of mutiny, for those seeking to understand the causes of naval insurrections, these studies are disappointing. Studies of rebellion are frequently undermined by the tendency to compare instances of rebellion only to one another rather to other cases in which rebellion was possible but did not take place. Unlike every previous study of naval mutiny, ours includes both cases in which documented episodes of mutiny did occur and a larger set of non-mutinous cases randomly selected from the population of all ships at risk during the period 1740 to 1820, the high point of the sailing navy. In addition, our data include observations on thousands of individual seamen who took part in a dozen mutinies, which allow us to assess the individual as well as group-level determinants of mutiny. This design allows us to pinpoint the general causes of mutiny. Some of our findings have been surprising.

Although grievances have largely been disregarded in studies of rebellion, structural grievances—anticipated deprivations imposed on individuals due to their position in the social structure—must be distinguished from incidental ones that arise unexpectedly. In our study, the most important determinant of mutiny was the rate of sickness—an incidental grievance that the crew attributed to poor governance by the ship’s officers.

We show that the failure of governance is the single largest factor that explains the incidence of mutiny in the Royal Navy.

What holds a rebellion together after the situation begins to sour? We find that the rebels’ control over information about the possibility of an amnesty was a critical cause of the resilience of the Nore mass mutiny. Violence was used to maintain order through corporal punishment but only moderate levels of flogging helped to maintain order. At specific thresholds, the frequency and severity of flogging increased the odds of mutiny. Ironically, when commanders perceived insecurity, they punished more harshly. But this harshness provoked resistance.

Finally, social scientists have long debated the role of revolutionary climates as determinants of rebellion. We find that the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror led to a generalized fear on the part of British elites—a group that includes Royal Navy officers—which led to more stringent punishment of sailors for so-called “moral” offenses, rather than those related to performance.

All told, this project has important implications for the study of social order and rebellion in many other settings. We show that the failure of governance is the single largest factor that explains the incidence of mutiny in the Royal Navy. This has a resonance beyond naval history to help us understand why rebellion occurs today in our prisons, in our neighborhoods, and in the outbreak of the radical insurgencies that we face.

  1. “Grievances and the Genesis of Rebellion: Mutiny in the Royal Navy, 1740- 1820,” American Sociological Review 81: 1 (2016): 165-189 (Michael Hechter, Steven Pfaff, and Patrick Underwood).

  2. "The Problem of Solidarity in Insurgent Collective Action: The Nore Mutiny of 1797,” Social Science History 40: 2 (2016): 247-270 (Steven Pfaff, Michael Hechter, and Katie Corcoran).

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