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5 Famous Mutinies That Shaped History

Rebellion on land and the high seas.

famous mutinies
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  • "Action Between the Serapis and Bonhomme Richard" by Richard Paton, 1780.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Over the ages, several famous mutinies have emerged. The crew of a ship, or even of a fleet, is a close-knit community. When tempers flare or the safety or desires of the crew are not taken into account, the atmosphere is ripe for a mutiny. These kinds of maritime revolts have shaped the world as we know it. Believe it or not, they have influenced geopolitics, helped advance liberty and equality, and even shaped the types of books we read. Let's explore a few noteworthy mutinies on land and sea from centuries past that have been at the heart of some major developments in world history.

The Opis Mutiny: A Taste of Alexander the Great's Waning Leadership Skills

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  • Alexander the Great on a mosaic from Pompeii, c. 100 BCE.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great stands tall and powerful in the imagination: the youthful warrior-king who raised himself to the level of the divine; who conquered the grand empires of the old world—including the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians; who christened over a dozen cities “Alexandria” after his own humble self. But historians in the centuries that have since unfolded direct our attention to the fact that Alexander was as rash as he was audacious. As a result, one of the militaristic leader's strategic flaws was his failure to bring stable unity to his regularly-expanding empire.

Under Alexander's rule, there were two famed mutinies, the first of which was the Hyphasis Mutiny in 326 BCE. The second took place about two years later. After marrying the Persian king's daughter Barsine, which was meant to be symbolic of a wider union between the two peoples, Alexander introduced Persian customs to his troops. The Macedonians, in turn, viewed this as Alexander's way of transitioning them out of his navy and army, and replacing them with foreign soldiers. These fears escalated at Opis (in the vicinity of modern-day Baghdad), on which occasion the renowned Greek ruler chose to send Macedonian veterans home. This proved to be too much for the Macedonians, and they revolted.

Related: Rediscover Mary Renault, Queen of Ancient Historical Fiction

In his book The Outline of History, English author H.G. Wells wrote the following: "Was [the training of foreign troops] also to assimilate Europe and Asia, or was it to make himself independent of his Macedonians? They thought the latter at any rate, and mutinied, and it was with some difficulty that he brought them to a penitent mood and induced them to take part in a common feast with the Persians."

However, after this incident, Alexander's wellbeing and the state of his empire quickly deteriorated. Onlookers and historians have questioned whether Alexander was interested more so in his own glory than in the unity of the two continents. Furthermore, he paid heed to conspiracies which led to a string of tortures and assassinations at his decree. H.G. Wells asserts that his extravagance and pitfalls in governing show Alexander to be “a mind ill-balanced and altogether wrapped up in personal things, to whom empire was no more than opportunity for egoistic display.” The year following the Opis Mutiny, the “ill-balanced” emperor fell sick and died.

The Tale of Alexander Selkirk: A Real-Life Robinson Crusoe

It's amazing to see historical events bear striking resemblances to fictional accounts. Fact inspires fiction; fiction inspires fact. It works both ways. For instance, the Jules Verne space fantasy From the Earth to the Moon influenced numerous scientists and engineers who contributed to the technologies that got us to space. In Verne's story, the main spacecraft is launched from a canon dubbed Columbiad; the command module that carried Neil Armstrong and company to the moon had the strikingly similar name of Columbia. On the flip side of this paradigm, Robinson Crusoe exemplifies a work of adventure fiction which was inspired, in part, by a true story. 

Born in Scotland in 1676 to a large family, Alexander Selkirk, the son of a shoemaker, purportedly struggled with an irritable temper. The earliest written record in which his name comes up is a complaint about inappropriate behavior in a church. Adventure on the high seas seemed to be a good outlet, or at least a way of keeping him out of trouble on land. 

In 1703, Selkirk found himself banding together with a crew of privateers. These privateers were men working independent of the British government, yet with the same government's blessing, to pillage and plunder non-British ships and settlements. They were essentially pirates sanctioned by one nation to wreak havoc across the seas, and permitted to keep whatever spoils they could obtain.

Related: These Thrilling Pirate Books Offer High Seas Adventure and Real-Life Treasure

This particular bunch of scallywags was commanded by William Dampier. Selkirk's privateering days were short-lived with this crew. In 1704, during an outing with two ships: the Saint George and the Cinque Ports, Selkirk's boldness and bad temperament got the better of him. The Scotsman, now 28, confronted the captain of the Cinque Ports—21-year-old Thomas Stradling—claiming their vessel was barely seaworthy. They stopped at an island to resupply, but Selkirk wasn't satisfied, and he worried about the possibility of sinking. The sailor refused to rejoin the crew and agreed to be marooned.

The Cinque Ports set sail, and as she moved farther away, it dawned on Selkirk that no one was going to take part in his little mutiny. Luckily, he was left with a chest filled with helpful paraphernalia including: a firearm, tobacco, cutting implements, a kettle, a Bible, and some mathematical books and instruments. He survived on the island for four years and four months.

Selkirk's survival story had a direct influence on Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, ever since he had met Woodes Rogers, the man responsible for Selkirk's rescue. Defoe's classic tale kickstarted a new genre of writing known as "robinsonade", consisting of stories where the main characters must survive rough conditions in a strange or desolate land. (The Swiss Family Robinson would be another example.) Depending on who you talk to, some even consider Robinson Crusoe the first English novel.

John Paul Jones: A Story of Mutiny, Flight, and Fight

John Paul Jones was one of the most effective captains of the Continental Navy during the American Revolutionary War. As with many patriots of the newly-christened country, however, his backstory has its beginnings across the pond in Europe.

John Paul was born in Scotland and, from an early age, felt called to the sea, to a life of sailing. His early career saw him making a living as a British merchant. Soon he became involved in the slave trade, a business that did not sit well with him and which prompted him to leave that same industry. In 1773, Paul found himself in a touchy situation: the aftermath of a mutiny. 

While in the West Indies, he killed the leader of a group of rebellious sailors, a move he claimed was done in self-defense. Nevertheless, he feared he would not receive a just trial and chose to run away to America. Still considered a fugitive, it's here that Paul added Jones to the end of his name. But a name change wasn't the only transformation he underwent when he came to the New World.

Fast forward to 1775, when war broke out. The Revolution was a defining moment for the fledgling nation, but it also happened to be a defining moment for John Paul Jones. He decided to take his naval experience in a new direction. Having no fondness for the British himself, Jones resolved to fight with the colonists against the King's military. He began by attacking British vessels around the American coastline and found himself climbing through the ranks of the Continental Navy. He was made a captain the next year, in 1776.

Related: Revolutionary War Battles: The Key Conflicts

In September 1779, Jones engaged in his most daunting military exploit. Aboard his vessel the Bonhomme Richard (or "Good Man Richard", Benjamin Franklin's French nickname), Jones took on the Serapis, a well-armed British frigate. It is on this occasion that Jones purportedly shouted the now-famous line, “I have not yet begun to fight!,” in response to the Brits asking if he would surrender.

Nicknamed the Father of the American Navy, Jones remains a well-known figure of the Revolution, and the victories of the Continental Navy wouldn't have been what they were without Jones. And we wouldn't have even had Jones on the Patriot side if it hadn't been for a mutiny some years earlier.

The Kiel Mutiny: From Anxious Sailors to Revolutionary Trailblazers

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  • Sailors demonstrating at Wilhelmshaven.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

If you visit the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois, you will undoubtedly make your way toward the massive U-boat on display there, the WWII German submarine U-505. Apart from being a military vessel, it carries with it a tragic backstory. Her captain Peter Zschech committed suicide while in command. Any number of factors could have contributed: from the tension of close quarters and failed attempts at sinking enemy ships, to the fact that the U-505 was, at the time, being bombarded by depth charges. Though a sad story in itself, this incident exemplifies the immense amount of stress experienced by U-boat captains and their crews in the first half of the 20th century.

The submarine has been hailed as “the absolute weapon of World War I,” and Germany was the first nation to widely utilize the underwater craft for military attacks during the war. U-boat crews had not only the ordinary anxieties of war to deal with, but often lived in cramped conditions too. As it turns out, it did not matter what vessel you were on, mutinies weren't altogether rare in WWI-era Germany. In August 1917, sailors of the Prinzregent Luitpold battleship mutinied at Wilhelmshaven. 

Jump now to 1918, at which point Germany found itself floundering, with the war on the brink of its conclusion. In January, The New York Times covered a purported U-boat mutiny at Kiel resulting in the execution of 38 officers.

Related: That Time the German Navy Accidentally Fought Itself During WWII

Later that same year, the Kaiserlich Marine, Germany's fleet, remained lodged at its Kiel and Wilhelmshaven harbors, immobilized by the British as it had been for the past two years. In a flare of nationalistic pride, Germany's naval command made one final attempt at attacking British forces in the North Sea—a maneuver that many German sailors viewed to be a fruitless and fatal endeavor. Naval command informed members of the fleet to embark on this new offensive on October 28.

Clusters of seamen, taking a few cues from Bolshevism, gathered in secrecy and grew a network of like-minded individuals. “But this was no overtly socialist revolution,” suggests Martin Hannan at Scotland's The National, “this was just sailors preserving themselves from madness and death.” These men refused to follow the order. 

Hundreds of sailors rebelled at Wilhelmshaven. By early November, at least 3,000 German sailors revolted at Kiel, seized control of several ships, and flew Communist flags. They also established a German Workers and Soldiers Council. Meanwhile, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany's ally, surrendered. A severely weakened Germany also admitted defeat soon after. This bold display of force, which was openly compared to the actions of the rebelling Russians, led to the end of the German Empire and the beginning of the Weimar Republic. In this way, the Kiel Mutiny brought about a new political structure in Germany.

The Port Chicago Disaster: An Example of Racism in the U.S. Navy

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  • Sailors preparing 5-inch shells for packing at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine, 1943.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

During WWII, the Allies were fighting valiantly against tyrants like Adolf Hitler. But the United States wasn't perfect. It struggled with its own injustices. A big part of this was the systemic racism permeating the nation's institutions and the attitudes of its populace.

At that time, segregation was frequently implemented in the Navy during training and in the majority of service units. Most units given dangerous munitions assignments were comprised of Black service members, who hadn't been given proper training.

On the evening of July 17, 1944, munitions exploded at Port Chicago when 4,600 tons of explosive material were in the midst of being transferred. The resulting blast extended almost two miles up into the night sky, resulting in the deaths of 320 men and about 400 additional injuries. Black service members made up close to two-thirds of the fatalities in the disaster.

The survivors from the Black Navy units were speedily moved to Mare Island. But only a few weeks later, they were reassigned to begin loading other munitions—despite having been given no further training pertinent to this task that, as the Port Chicago incident showed, carried some level of risk. As a result, 258 Black sailors decided not to comply with orders. Among them, 50 men were convicted of mutiny. This response shed light on the unjust labor and the deficiency of proper care allotted to African American service members. The rebellion on the part of the Port Chicago survivors, however, paved the way to some much-needed change in the U.S. Navy, especially in the way of racial equality.