Sunday, October 18, 2020

Niklas Frykman's "The Bloody Flag"

Niklas Frykman is Assistant Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Bloody Flag: Mutiny in the Age of Atlantic Revolution, and reported the following:
Page 99 is concerned with the aftermath of the 1796 mutiny on the Dutch frigate Jason, a mutiny that probably conforms to what most people think mutinies in the age of sail were like: an unruly crew rising up in the middle of the night, seizing the ship, and sailing it to the nearest port in a blaze of alcohol-fueled glory. In this case, there was also a political dimension, or so Captain Donckum claimed when afterwards he was called upon explain how it was that he had lost control of his men, and with that of one of the Dutch navy’s precious few frigates. The answer was simple, Donckum argued, for his men had not only been a bunch of unreliable “runaways and deserters,” they also had counted among them a good number of counter-revolutionary Orangist traitors, who clearly would stop at nothing to hurt the new Batavian regime, including even outright treason.

A reader who stopped at the bottom of page 99 would be left with the impression that Captain Donckum was right, and that the Jason mutineers, like many other malcontents in the Batavian navy, were driven by an intense hatred for the new revolutionary regime. But in the book I suggest that a close reading and careful contextualization of their politics paints a far more complex and complicated picture than simple reaction. Indeed, on the very next page I demonstrate that it was only a minority of primarily petty officers who professed genuine loyalty to the overthrown regime of Stadtholder William V of Orange, mostly because the revolution had brought to an end the upward trajectory of their careers within the service. Most ordinary seamen, by contrast, had initially embraced the promises of social renewal that came with the revolution, but when the conditions of service in the Batavian navy turned out to be as lousy and exploitative as they had been under the old regime, they turned on their new officers with a violent vengeance.

It was a pattern that repeated itself again and again, first in the French, then in the Dutch, and finally in the British navy. As war consumed the north Atlantic world in the mid-1790s, naval seamen in each navy initially rallied to their country’s cause, but anger and disappointment at the conditions of their service soon triggered waves of shipboard revolt that eventually flowed together into a single, genuinely Atlantic, transnational revolutionary movement at sea. Far from expressing a hope of return to the conditions that prevailed onboard European warships under the old regime, the cosmopolitan mutineers of the 1790s brought together elements of contemporary radicalism with the ancient egalitarian customs of the sea to forge a new form of politics we may think of as revolutionary maritime republicanism. Tracing the rise and decline, and lasting legacy of that political tradition lies at the heart of my recently published book, The Bloody Flag. Page 99, I am sad to say, does not quite capture it.
Learn more about The Bloody Flag at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue