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Do the roots of America’s political system lie in a two hundred year old mutiny?

In his new book Mutiny on the Spanish Main, award-wining historian Angus Konstam reveals how a bloody mutiny on a British warship in 1797 helped set into motion a series of seismic political shifts in the United States which led directly to war between the two countries, and the foundation of America’s current adversarial two-party political system.
By Angus Konstam
Published on October 14, 2020

British Sailors Boarding a Man of War British sailors boarding the Hermione. Painting by John Augustus Atkinson (1815). Courtesy National Maritime Museum.

In September 1797 the crew of the British frigate Hermione mutinied when she was cruising off Puerto Rico. Pushed too far by a sadistic captain, the men rose up, murdered him and most of his officers, then handed the ship over to Britain’s Spanish enemies.

The British Admiralty were furious, and vowed to hunt down the mutineers and bring them to justice, whatever the cost. By then though, many of the mutineers had dispersed, and several of them were now serving aboard American ships.

The Royal Navy reserved the right to ”stop and search” neutral ships on the high seas, in an effort to track down the fugitives. In the United States this was seen as harassment, and public indignation against these searches was fuelled by the American press.

Over the next few years, several of the mutineers were caught, tried and hanged. Hundreds of other British seamen were also taken from American ships, to help fuel the Navy’s need for men. So, American resentment continued to increase, and was there to be exploited for political gain.

Then, in 1799, one of the leading mutineers, Thomas Nash, was tracked down to Charleston, SC. Britain and the USA had a newly-penned extradition scheme in place, as part of a recent Trade Agreement. Now the British used it to apprehend their fugitive while he was on American soil. This, led to a high-profile trial in Charleston, which the newspapers used to whip up simmering anti-British feelings into a frenzy. In the end, securing the extradition of Nash involved both President John Adams and the Secretary of State Thomas Pickering. Eventually the British got their man, and Nash was duly hanged from the yardarm of a British ship anchored in Jamaica.

The American public were incensed, and this rage was still felt keenly the following year, when the next US election was held. The involvement of President Adams in the Nash extradition badly tarnished his administration, and his political opponents grasped this great opportunity. As a result, President Adams and his Federalists were soundly defeated, and the Democratic-Republicans were swept into power. Thomas Jefferson became the 3rd US president. He set about reshaping the national landscape, encouraging western expansion and rejecting closer ties with Britain.

Cover of Mutiny on the Spanish Main Mutiny on the Spanish Main by Angus Konstam is published by Osprey Publishing, available in hard back and audio book from October 29.

Continued distrust between the two nations following the Nash incident was fuelled by the continued use of “stop and search”. This eventually led to the hawkish James Madison, another Democratic Republican and the 4th President embarking on a fruitless and indecisive war with Britain (The War of 1812). The spark that led to this wholly unnecessary conflict was the extradition of one of the Hermione mutineers.

After the war, the Democratic-Republican party split into two factions, one developing into the modern-day Democrats, while the other evolved into the Republicans. So, the political party propelled to power on the back of the Nash extradition crisis would eventually morph into the two adversarial political parties that dominate US politics today.

If President Adams had been less willing to reach an accord with the British, or if Captain Pigot of the Hermione had been a less tyrannical captain, then American history might have charted a very different course. Instead, thanks to the chain of events started by the bloodiest mutiny in British naval history, Britain and America went to war, and the American political system we know today emerged from the melting pot of history.

For more on this story, check out Angus' upcoming book, Mutiny on the Spanish Main: HMS Hermione and the Royal Navy’s Revenge, which is out in hard back and audio book October 29, and published Osprey Publishing. Click Here to order your copy.

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Cutting Out of the Hermione. Cutting out of the Hermione. Painting by Nicholas Pocock. Courtesy National Maritime Museum.

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