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The mutiny on the Bounty was one of the most famous instances of mutiny which took place at sea. Mutiny HMS Bounty.jpg
The mutiny on the Bounty was one of the most famous instances of mutiny which took place at sea.

Mutiny is a revolt among a group of people (typically of a military, of a crew, or of a crew of pirates) to oppose, change, or remove superiors or their orders. The term is commonly used for insubordination by members of the military against an officer or superior, but it can also sometimes mean any type of rebellion against any force. Mutiny does not necessarily need to refer to a military force and can describe a political, economic, or power structure in which subordinates defy superiors.


During the Age of Discovery, mutiny particularly meant open rebellion against a ship's captain. This occurred, for example, during Ferdinand Magellan's journeys around the world, resulting in the killing of one mutineer, the execution of another, and the marooning of others; on Henry Hudson's Discovery, resulting in Hudson and others being set adrift in a boat; and the famous mutiny on the Bounty.


Those convicted of mutiny often faced capital punishment.

United Kingdom

Until 1689, mutiny was regulated in England by Articles of War instituted by the monarch and effective only in a period of war. In 1689, the first Mutiny Act was approved, which passed the responsibility to enforce discipline within the military to Parliament. The Mutiny Act, altered in 1803, and the Articles of War defined the nature and punishment of mutiny until the latter were replaced by the Army Discipline and Regulation Act in 1879. This, in turn, was replaced by the Army Act in 1881.

Today the Army Act 1955 defines mutiny as follows: [1]

Mutiny means a combination between two or more persons subject to service law, or between persons two at least of whom are subject to service law—

(a) to overthrow or resist lawful authority in Her Majesty's forces or any forces co-operating therewith or in any part of any of the said forces,
(b) to disobey such authority in such circumstances as to make the disobedience subversive of discipline, or with the object of avoiding any duty or service against, or in connection with operations against, the enemy, or
(c) to impede the performance of any duty or service in Her Majesty's forces or in any forces co-operating therewith or in any part of any of the said forces.

The same definition applies in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.

The military law of England in early times existed, like the forces to which it applied, in a period of war only. Troops were raised for a particular service and were disbanded upon the cessation of hostilities. The crown, by prerogative, made laws known as Articles of War for the government and discipline of the troops while thus embodied and serving. Except for the punishment of desertion, which was made a felony by statute in the reign of Henry VI, these ordinances or Articles of War remained almost the sole authority for enforcing discipline until 1689. That year, the first Mutiny Act was passed and the military forces of the crown were brought under the direct control of Parliament. Even the Parliamentary forces in the time of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell were governed not by an act of the legislature, but by articles of war similar to those issued by the king and authorized by an ordinance of the Lords and Commons exercising in that respect the sovereign prerogative. This power of law-making by prerogative was however held to be applicable during a state of actual war only, and attempts to exercise it in times of peace were ineffectual. Subject to this limitation, it existed for considerably more than a century after the passing of the first Mutiny Act.

From 1689 to 1803, the Mutiny Act occasionally expired during times of peace. Yet statutory power was given to the crown to make Articles of War that operated in the colonies and elsewhere beyond the seas in the same manner as those made by prerogative in times of war.

In 1715, in consequence of the rebellion, this power was created in respect of the forces in the kingdom, but apart from and in no respect affected the principle acknowledged all this time that the crown of its mere prerogative could make laws for the government of the army in foreign countries in time of war.

The Mutiny Act 1803 effected a great constitutional change in this respect: the power of the Crown to make any Articles of War became altogether statutory, and the prerogative merged in the act of Parliament. The Mutiny Act 1873 was passed in this manner.

Such matters remained until 1879 when the last Mutiny Act was passed and the last Articles of War were promulgated. The Mutiny Act legislated for offences in respect of which death or penal servitude could be awarded. Meanwhile, the Articles of War, while repeating those provisions of the act, constituted the direct authority for dealing with offences for which imprisonment was the maximum punishment, as well as with many matters relating to trial and procedure.

The act and the articles were found not to harmonize in all respects. Their general arrangement was faulty, and their language sometimes obscure. In 1869, a royal commission recommended that both should be recast in a simple and intelligible shape. In 1878, a committee of the House of Commons endorsed this view and made recommendations for performing the task. In 1879, a measure was passed into law consolidating in one act both the Mutiny Act and the Articles of War, and amending their provisions in certain important respects. This measure was called the Army Discipline and Regulation Act 1879.

After one or two years of experience highlighted the need for improvement, it was superseded by the Army Act 1881, which formed the foundation and main portion of the military law of England. The act contained a proviso saving the right of the crown to make Articles of War, but in such a manner as to render the power in effect a nullity by enacting that no crime made punishable by the act shall be otherwise punishable by such articles. As the punishment of every conceivable offence was provided, any articles made under the act could be no more than an empty formality having no practical effect.

Thus the history of English military law up to 1879 may be divided into three periods, each having a distinct constitutional aspect: (I) prior to 1689, the army, being regarded as so many personal retainers of the sovereign rather than servants of the state, was mainly governed by the will of the sovereign; (2) between 1689 and 1803, the army, being recognised as a permanent force, was governed within the realm by statute and without it by the prerogative of the crown; and (3) from 1803 to 1879, it was governed either directly by statute or by the sovereign under an authority derived from and defined and limited by statute. Although in 1879 the power of making Articles of War became in effect inoperative, the sovereign was empowered to make rules of procedure, having the force of law, to regulate the administration of the act in many matters formerly dealt with by the Articles of War. These rules, however, must not be inconsistent with the provisions of the Army Act itself, and must be laid before parliament immediately after they are made. Thus in 1879, the government and discipline of the army became for the first time completely subject either to the direct action or the close supervision of Parliament.

A further notable change took place at the same time. The Mutiny Act had been brought into force on each occasion for one year only, in compliance with the constitutional theory:

that the maintenance of a standing army in time of peace, unless with the consent of parliament, is against law. Each session therefore the text of the act had to be passed through both Houses clause by clause and line by line. The Army Act, on the other hand, is a fixed permanent code. But constitutional traditions are fully respected by the insertion in it of a section providing that it shall come into force only by virtue of an annual act of parliament. This annual act recites the illegality of a standing army in time of peace unless with the consent of parliament, and the necessity nevertheless of maintaining a certain number of land forces (exclusive of those serving in India) and a body of royal marine forces on shore, and of keeping them in exact discipline, and it brings into force the Army Act for one year.


Until 1998, mutiny and another offence of failing to suppress or report a mutiny were each punishable with death. [2] Section 21(5) of the Human Rights Act 1998 completely abolished the death penalty in the United Kingdom. (Prior to this, the death penalty had already been abolished for murder, but it had remained in force for certain military offences and treason, although no executions had been carried out for several decades.) This provision was not required by the European Convention on Human Rights, since Protocol 6 of the Convention permitted the death penalty in time of war, and Protocol 13, which prohibits the death penalty for all circumstances, did not then exist. The UK government introduced section 21(5) as a late amendment in response to parliamentary pressure.

United States

The United States' Uniform Code of Military Justice defines mutiny thus:

Art. 94. (§ 894.) 2004 Mutiny or Sedition.
(a) Any person subject to this code (chapter) who—
(1) with intent to usurp or override lawful military authority, refuses, in concert with any other person, to obey orders or otherwise do his duty or creates any violence or disturbance is guilty of mutiny;
(2) with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of lawful civil authority, creates, in concert with any other person, revolt, violence, or other disturbance against that authority is guilty of sedition;
(3) fails to do his utmost to prevent and suppress a mutiny or sedition being committed in his presence, or fails to take all reasonable means to inform his superior commissioned officer or commanding officer of a mutiny or sedition which he knows or has reason to believe is taking place, is guilty of a failure to suppress or report a mutiny or sedition.
(b) A person who is found guilty of attempted mutiny, mutiny, sedition, or failure to suppress or report a mutiny or sedition shall be punished by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.

U.S. military law requires obedience only to lawful orders. Disobedience to unlawful orders (see Superior orders) is the obligation of every member of the U.S. military, a principle established by the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials following World War II and reaffirmed in the aftermath of the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War. However, a U.S. soldier who disobeys an order after deeming it unlawful will almost certainly be court-martialed to determine whether the disobedience was proper. In addition, simple refusal to obey is not mutiny, which requires collaboration or conspiracy to disobedience.

Famous mutinies in history

16th century

17th century

18th century

19th century

20th century

Artistic impression of the mutiny by the crew of the battleship Potemkin against the ship's officers on 14 June 1905. The Russian Revolution, 1905 Q81546.jpg
Artistic impression of the mutiny by the crew of the battleship Potemkin against the ship's officers on 14 June 1905.

After World War II

21st century

See also

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Further reading