A Brief History
On February 5, 1933, the crew of the Royal Netherlands Navy ship HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën mutinied while stationed off the coast of Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies. Fed up with harsh working conditions and an announced cut in pay, the crew consisting of both ethnically Dutch and Indonesian sailors seized control of the cruiser sized ship, not relinquishing control until the ship was bombed by Dutch warplanes 6 days later!
The 1930’s was a time of the Great Depression, and Europe was still recovering from the terrible effects of World War I. Austerity was the name of the game for national budgets, and military men world wide were not paid particularly well. Royal Netherlands Navy was no exception. In fact, the British Royal Navy had experienced a similar mutiny among its sailors on ships at Invergordon, a port in Scotland, in 1931, a mutiny that had spread across 4 of the Royal Navy’s battleships and battlecruisers in the form of a strike, refusing to allow the ships to leave port and go to sea. Among the affected ships was the HMS Hood, the pride of the British fleet. In the British case, the sailors actually had gotten together at a meeting ashore and voted to strike, while the Royal Netherlands Navy incident seems to have been a spontaneous event. Some claims that the De Zeven Provinciën mutiny was inspired by a communist insurgency were eagerly espoused by communists as well as Dutch right-wing politicians at the time, but are probably not true. The context of the De Zeven Provinciën must be seen in the colonial rule of Indonesia by the Netherlands, an oppression seen by native Indonesians as unacceptable. Indonesians ashore had also been restive during this time frame, and many among them actually welcomed the Japanese invaders in World War II as liberators from Dutch rule. (The Japanese turned out to be no more magnanimous colonizers than the Dutch.)
The De Zeven Provinciën was rated as a coastal defense ship, with the size and firepower of a cruiser but without the speed of a proper cruiser. Capable of 16 knots speed, the ship displaced 6530 tons and was 333 feet long with a beam of 56 feet. Heavily armed and armored for a ship her size, she also boasted a powerful battery of guns that included 2 X 28 cm guns (equivalent to 11 inch guns), 4 X 15 cm guns (similar to 6 inch guns), and 10 X 75 mm guns (like our 3 inch guns), along with smaller armament. Her crew numbered 452 men.
The mutiny started the evening before February 5, 1933, and was conducted primarily by ethnic Indonesians that had seized small arms and took the officers of the ship hostage. Many of the officers and crew were ashore when the mutiny occurred with the ship at port. About 180 Indonesian sailors took control of the ship, and among the 50 or so ethnic Dutch sailors there was a mixed reaction, with some supporting the mutiny but most remaining apart from the mutineers. The mutineers left port with the ship and sailed toward the main Dutch naval base at Surabaja where they allegedly intended to surrender the ship to Dutch authorities, their point having been made. Some confusion about the intent of the mutineers and the intentions of the authorities resulted in a failure for this particular plan to come to fruition, leaving the mutineers sailing the ship at sea.
After 6 days of frustration at failing to get the mutineers to surrender the ship, the Netherlands’ Defence Minister Laurentius Nicolaas Deckers gave the order for an aerial attack against their own ship! In 1933, there was little history of successful aerial attacks against ships under weigh at sea, and this attack was somewhat of a major event in naval and aeronautical history. A bomb landed on the ship, killing 23 of the mutineers and resulting in the immediate surrender of the ship.
Of course, bombing your own ship is a sure way to inspire controversy and debate among the Dutch people, and the debate about the decision to bomb the De Zeven Provinciën was furious in many countries, but especially the Netherlands. Lost in the accusations and defense of the decision was the extremely important lesson that American aviator General Billy Mitchell was right, airplanes pose an extremely grave threat to ships, even those maneuvering at sea.
Trials for the mutineers resulted in jail sentences for 5 Dutch and 19 Indonesian sailors, with sentences ranging between only 1 year in prison to 18 years in prison. Of course, 23 of the mutineers were de facto sentenced to death by the result of bombing the ship. Normally, navies of the world have no hesitation to execute convicted mutineers, so in this case the punishment seems relatively lenient. The captain and officers of the De Zeven Provinciën were reprimanded for not anticipating unrest over the pay cuts and not taking preventative action to preclude such a mutiny. Dutch authorities conducted a post mutiny purge of the ranks of their sailors, getting rid of any sailor that had shown any indication of being a malcontent and any sailor that had shown any insubordination toward authority. Politics in the Netherlands was driven to the right in the aftermath of this shocking event.
Another interesting result of the De Zeven Provinciën mutiny was the renaming of the ship as the HMLNS Soerabaja in 1936. The saga of the unlucky ship continued to unfold during World War II when she was sunk by Japanese bomber aircraft on February 18, 1942. The ship was reportedly raised by the Japanese and put to use as a battery ship, but was once again sunk, this time by Allied bomber aircraft in 1943!
Mutiny on a warship is a serious and rare occurrence. The United States Navy claims it has never (officially) experienced a mutiny, but this claim is probably a matter of semantics rather than a true statement in the generally accepted meaning of the word “mutiny.” US Navy incidents included the USS Somers (1842) in which apprentice seamen allegedly plotted to seize the ship in order to turn it into a pirate ship (!) but were arrested prior to actually committing the act of mutiny. Another incident occurred ashore at the Port Chicago/Mare Island loading facility where African American sailors on shore mutinied against unsafe conditions while handling ammunition and explosives after a ship had blown up in 1944. In 1970, during the Vietnam War, a pair of sailors plotted to seize a civilian ship called Columbia Eagle but were foiled. Finally, during the Vietnam War the United States was undergoing severe race related problems and the US Navy was a reflection of that unrest, resulting in race riots aboard 2 of our aircraft carriers, the Kitty Hawk and the Constellation. Another bizarre incident concerning the US Navy involved the destroyer USS Vance in 1965, when the captain of the ship seemed to be unbalanced and unfit for command by his officers, those of which contacted naval headquarters to report the erratic behavior of their skipper, resulting in the captain being relieved of command. Though the junior officers were not charged with mutiny, the ranting and raving captain that had been relieved certainly accused them of it!
Questions for Students (and others): What other famous mutinies can you think of? (Both on ships and on land.) Had you previously heard of the Invergordon Mutiny or the De Zeven Provinciën mutiny? Do you believe mutineers should be executed?
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For more information, please see…
Carew,, Anthony. The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy, 1900-39: The Invergordon Mutiny in Perspective. Manchester Univ Press, 1983.
Guttridge, Leonard. Mutiny: A History of Naval Insurrection. Naval Institute Press, 1992.
Sheinkin, Steve. The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights. Roaring Brook Press, 2014.
The featured image in this article, a photograph from 1910 of the armored ship Hr.Ms. De Zeven Provinciën in a port from Maritiem Digital, was published before January 1, 1924 and it is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship. It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 95 years or less since publication.