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History in Spite of Itself

The Great Mutiny

by James Dugan
Putnam, 511 pp., $6.95

There might seem to be two ways of reviewing this book. One would be to dismiss the idea that history needs to be accurate, that historical judgments require for their formulation not one source but many, that human character is intricate, self-deceiving, subtly moulded by time and circumstance, that style is more than adjective or adverb, that historical reconstruction is not dissimilar from the film scenario. That done, release the rolling periods, praise Mr. Dugan’s panache, his gifts as a story teller, the boldness of his portraits, the lurid flavor of his prose, and finish by calling his book the best historical yarn of the year. The other would be to demolish him chapter by chapter, underlining the gross errors, the fatuous judgments, the sheer lack of historical insight, but above all his wild inaccuracy. A few examples:

You could be hanged for stealing an item worth twopence, for carrying a gun on the squire’s land, for fishing in his pond, or cutting down his tree.

This is England in 1789—four errors here in one sentence: no prize for spotting them.

The King was a blocky, red-faced country squire type with bulging blue eyes and a tiny black “w” moustache. He wore spectacles to read and worried about getting fat. His mother had taught him to eat alone like the Pope.

Fact and fiction cheek by jowl: two monster howlers here.

George III made the first world war.

Think, Mr. Dugan, think of the date on which George III came to the throne, and what he did when he first got there. Have you never heard of The Year of Victories, the Annus Mirabilis, or ever asked where these victories were?

Two hundred thousand people gathered at the Copenhagen Tea House to urge the King [i.e. George III] to disapprove the acts.

The tea-house presumably somewhat larger than the Yankee stadium! And so on. Even a minute’s thought, a moment’s care would have eliminated such ludicrous, such wild, such inane sentences as these. Do Putnam’s editors have a little judgment, as little concern for historical truth as Mr. Dugan? Any professional historian could pulverize this book and reduce it to rubble. Indeed it makes me wince to read it. Before one has started on the story of the great mutiny in the British Navy in 1797, one wants to throw it in the fire.

And yet neither method of reviewing would be fair or just. It is possible to get every historical fact accurate and yet produce a totally false picture of the past and Mr. Dugan has almost convinced me that one can get an alarming number of facts quite wrong yet convey historical truth. This strangely enough he does. Grossly inaccurate in fact and overblown in style he may be, but he has the heart of the matter in him. The condition of the British Navy in 1797 was quite appalling, the presence of pressed men of slightly higher class gave the seamen leaders capable of formulating their grievances. Furthermore, they created a secret, sophisticated system of communication and consultation which for the first time enabled the fleet to act as a unit. Mutinies had been endemic in the Navy owing to its brutal conditions in which semi-starvation was laced with a sadism that would have aroused the Marquis to a frenzy of ecstasy, but they had been largely confined to one or two ships, never before general to whole fleets. And they had been suppressed by a curious mixture of parental tolerance and tyranny.

The mutineers in 1797 were exceptionally moderate. Extremists never obtained control; only one small ship deserted to France; respect was shown to the Crown, to the admirals, to the accepted hierarchy of English life. The mutiny was the act of men desperate for modest decencies: furthermore they possessed such a simple, child-like belief in the honesty and truth of their cause that they could scarcely conceive anything but an amicable outcome. This did not only spring from their own political naiveté but from the curiously open nature of eighteenth-century British society and government. One of the best things in Mr. Dugan’s book is how vivid he makes this although he may not be aware of it, for he pursues truth unconsciously rather than consciously. But there they were, the mutineers strutting about Portsmouth, moving freely about the harbor, never interrupted, never accosted, never threatened, merely watched by hack spies of unusual incompetence.

The mutiny at the Nore was a bit tougher, a little more threatening but still very gentlemanly, very urbane, very loyal, and utterly modest. The mutineers dressed their ships overall and fired a twenty-one gun salute on his Majesty’s birthday. Anyone refusing to parade was threatened with severe discipline. As Mr. Dugan shows, it was all desperately human in a world of selfish inhumanity, in a social system that degraded the majority and led to a gross self-indulgence in the few. The miracle is that the entire country did not revolt and throw the aristocracy and gentry into the North Sea. Or so it might seem if one were to forget the sheer brutality of human existence throughout Europe in the eighteenth century—the hangings, the lashings, the hunger and misery and disease were as commonplace as the weather. That thirty-six should hang and scores more be lashed into insensibility if not death cannot have seemed more than a trivial cost for the modest improvements the mutineers managed to wring from a reluctant Admiralty and Parliament. And the condemned sailors met their ends like Romans, none better than their leader at the Nore, Parker, a man of exceptional nobility of nature and distinction of temperament. Indeed the Great Mutiny was an inspiring event and remains one: it displayed human courage, a sense of the decencies of life and underlined what men should be prepared to rebel for. In a world in which political action is usually reserved entirely for governments and in which very few individuals are prepared to sacrifice their lives in opposition to governments on moral grounds, we needed to be reminded of the rebellious British sailors of 1797. And there are worse guides than Mr. Dugan: slap-dash he may be, very happy-go-lucky in his epithets and opinions, but the heart of the matter is there. And he is never dull.

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