Thursday, May 07, 2009


Edmund Fuller's edited collection Mutiny! The Most Dramatic Accounts of the Great Mutinies--On Land and Sea--of All Times was published in 1953, and you can tell. In fact, most of the individual contributions were written in the 1920s and 1930s (1907 in the case of the account of the mutiny against Henry Hudson). Hence there is much talk of "tittle-tattle" muttered by dastardly "curs" against "true-hearted Englishmen." We are in most cases to sympathize with the beleaguered authorities and to despise the knaves who conspire against them.

Still, Fuller's introduction, "The Nature of Mutiny," is of some interest, and undercuts (perhaps better, explains) the fierce dichotomies that will follow. For in Fuller's view, "mutiny is apt to have an intimate, familial quality about it" (xii). In other words, the opprobrium heaped on mutineers comes from the trauma of discovering yourself betrayed by your most intimate companions.

Hence there is an affective distinction between mutiny and revolution:
A man seldom knows personally, or is associated with, the people against whom he is moving in revolution. In most cases of mutiny a man not only is acquainted with, but is in some manner of working relationship with the persons against whom the mutiny is directed. (xii)
Moreover, this is why the shipboard mutiny is paradigmatic: at sea, men are confined together in close quarters for months or even years. And this forced intimacy is two-sided: "It can increase tensions by the inability of people to separate from each other. At the same time it offers a closeness well adapted to conference and conspiracy" (xiii).

Fuller makes a couple of other points. First, he wants to distinguish mutiny from labor disputes. Mere refusal to serve is not mutiny; it is a strike. I think the point here is that a labor dispute is not a wholesale assault on constituted power. Myself, I wonder how far this distinction can be upheld. And second, he argues that the days of mutiny are in effect over: "To all intents and purposes the traditional mutiny at sea has gone out of existence. It died with sails. Technology ended the era of mutiny" (xi). By this he means that mutiny can no longer be sustained, as there is no place to hide: "it just is not practical any longer to try to seize a ship and take it over on an impromptu basis. There's no future in it" (xi). And indeed its striking that may of the mutinies described took place so far from home that the mutineers could either try to disappear (as in the case of the Bounty) or could spend the long homeward voyage perfecting the stories they would tell before the coming courts martial (as in the case of the mutiny against Henry Hudson).

More importantly, however, Fuller suggests that it is the massification and division of labor that makes mutiny impossible on a modern ship: a few renegades may be able to take hold of a sailship, but "to seize a steamship is another story. It would take a full complement capable of the necessary engineering skills involved" (xi).

In short, for Fuller at least, mutiny is pre-industrial. It involves betrayal within the family (or the gang, the tribe) rather than insubordination from the masses within the workplace.

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