Mutiny On The Bounty

published  First Published: 30/04/2011
Article written by: Nigel Brookson


The story of Captain Bligh and The Bounty has been retold in Hollywood Movies, TV programs, and in countless books, but many people are unaware of the history behind the Bounty's fateful last journey, the April 28, 1789 'Mutiny aboard The Bounty', or what became of Captain Bligh, Mr. Christian and the mutineers.

This is how history remembers, and as you read on you will see the connection to Australia, and how closely Bligh figures in events of Australian history.

Early in 1787 a group of sugar planters in the West Indies came up with the idea of importing breadfruit from Tahiti as a cheap staple diet for their slaves. They approached Sir Joseph Banks,

(Joseph Banks; born in 1743, the only son of a wealthy land-owning family. From an early age, his declared passion was natural history, and in particular, botany. Shortly after inheriting his family's fortune in the early 1760's he chose to pursue this passion to the full. In 1766 he traveled to Newfoundland and Labrador to collect plants, animals and rocks and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in the same year. When the Royal Society was successful in initiating Captain Cook's 1768 expedition to Tahiti for astronomical observations, Banks obtained permission from the Admiralty to join the venture. For him, this was like a present-day scientist being given the chance of a trip to another planet, a chance to study new plants in unknown lands.)

and with his influence the proposal was approved and the Admiralty was ordered to send a ship to collect the young breadfruit trees from Tahiti.

A transport ship, called the Bethia was bought, renamed the Bounty and refitted for the pending voyage. Through Sir Joseph Banks's influence, again, Lieutenant William Bligh was appointed the Bounty's captain.

Lieutenant Bligh was a well known seaman and navigator, and had already visited Tahiti as master of the 'Resolution' under Captain James Cook.

Unfortunately for Captain Bligh, the Bounty was far too small to take along marines, but if it could have, it is unlikely there would ever have been mutiny.

There were no commissioned officers either; as master he had John Fryer and as senior master's mate his own protégé, Fletcher Christian, and his crew of 45 included four midshipmen. These were essentially the only men on whom Bligh could count to maintain discipline, or so he thought before setting sail.

Captain Bligh's orders were to sail to Tahiti by way of Cape Horn but he had to wait so long for the final instructions from the Admiralty that the Bounty did not leave England until December 23, 1787.

This delay caused the Bounty to encounter extremely bad weather approaching Cape Horn. After weeks of battling against fierce westerly gales Bligh gave up trying to go round it and instead made for Tahiti by the much longer route via the Cape of Good Hope and Van Dieman's Land (now called Australia).

According to Captain Bligh's testimony, all had gone well on this voyage, but several witnesses at the subsequent court-martial stated there had been constant friction between Bligh and his crew.

When the Bounty eventually reached Tahiti on October 25 1788, she had sailed some 27,000 miles and had been at sea for 10 months.

Arriving later than anticipated, the Bounty had missed the season for transplanting, so had to wait five months before the gardeners were able to collect and take aboard a full cargo of more than 1,000 young breadfruit trees. During the long wait, most of the crew had Tahitian mistresses, and reluctant to leave the idyllic life on the island.

When the Bounty set sail for home; back to England on April 4 1789, Bligh was oblivious to the unhappiness and low morale of his crew.

The first incident that perhaps sparked the final act of mutiny came only after three weeks into their return voyage when Fletcher Christian took a shore party to an island for fresh water and wood. While there some natives stole an adze, and Bligh, in non diplomatic language publicly blamed Mr. Christian.

Two days later there was a second incident, again involving Fletcher Christian, as to the ownership of a few coconuts. Bligh, well known as a quick tempered man, was equally quick to forgive. Bligh was to say at the cout marshall later that to him these were passing incidents of such little significance, so much so that he invited Mr. Christian to dine with him that night. Christian declined, saying he was unwell.

Early next morning, April 28 1789, Captain Bligh was woken by Christian, whom with several others, had come into his cabin armed with bayonets.

Bligh was abused and threatened, his hands were tied behind him, and he was forced up on to the deck wearing only a shirt. It wasn't until he saw several others under arrest that he realised a mutiny was taking place.

Demanded to know the reason for the mutiny, Bligh was told to keep quiet or he would be killed. Christian said:

"I have been in hell for the last fortnight, sir - in hell".

The ship's launch; a 23 foot long and 6 foot wide vessel, was hoisted out. Sails, ropes, 32 lb of pork, 150 lb of biscuit, a 28-gallon cask of water, and 6 quarts of wine were loaded into her, and Bligh, Fryer and 17 others including the gunner, boatswain and sail maker were ordered aboard. The vessel was so heavily laden that her gunwales cleared the water by only seven inches, and many personal possessions which had been stowed aboard her had to be thrown overboard. Bligh had asked for arms, but this was denied by the mutineers, instead four cutlasses (swords) were thrown aboard and the launch was cast adrift.

As the Bounty moved away, shouts from the mutineers of "Hurrah for Tahiti!? were heard by Bligh, and it was then he realised, what later he said; was the real cause of the mutiny.

Bligh and his remaining crew agreed that their only chance was to reach Timor, 3,600 miles away, with stops at various islands on he way to replenish food and water supplies. Their first stop was Tofoa, the morning after they had been cast adrift. The natives however did not welcome them, bombarding them with rocks, killing one man, forcing the launch back out to sea.

Without firearms the same situation could happen again, so a direct course was set for Timor and the remaining food and water was strictly rationed.

Bligh's dogged determination kept them going during the next three weeks. They encounter heavy rainstorms, gale-force winds and mountainous seas. With limited sleep, and days of being wet, they survived on a daily ration of two ounces of ship's biscuits and a little water each. Occasionally a mouthful of pork was added, and now and then Bligh issued a shot of rum.

On May 24 the Great Barrier Reef was in sight, and they knew they were near the north-eastern coast of New South Wales (now Queensland). They had decided to bypass Botany Bay, the expected site of the new colony, because at this time Bligh was unaware of whether the First Fleet had yet arrived and how successful the landing had been.

Four days later, inside the reef they landed on an uninhabited island where they found water and a good supply of shellfish. Several days were spent on various islands recouping their strength, and on June 3 they rounded Cape York and sailed west for Timor.

Eleven days later they rounded the Dutch port of Koepang so exhausted and starving that they could barely crawl ashore. Since being set adrift as a result of the mutiny, they had covered 3,618 miles in 41 sailing days, a feat without parallel, considering the equipment of the day, and testimony to Bligh's tenacity, navigational skill and seamanship.

The entire voyage had claimed only one life, and that as a result of native hostility.

Bligh arrived back in England in March 1790. Word of the open-boat voyage had preceded him and he was almost a national hero, and after a routine court-marshal into the loss of the Bounty Bligh was honorably acquitted.

Soon afterwards the Government dispatched the frigate Pandora, under Captain Edward Edwards, to Tahiti to hunt down the mutineers. As soon as she arrived in March 1791 two of the Bounty's midshipmen, George Stewart and Peter Haywood, came aboard and gave themselves up, and in the next few days another 12 men, all those remaining on the island, either surrendered or were rounded up. They told Edwards that under Christian's leadership the mutineers had attempted to settle on the island of Tubuai, but after several clashes with the natives they had given up the idea and returned to Tahiti.

It was learnt that the mutineers had split into two groups. One group of 16 had decided to stay at Tahiti and the other nine, including Christian, had decided to look for another island, this time uninhabited, where they could live in peace, safe from pursuit.

Of these who remained on Tahiti one had killed another in a quarrel, and in turn he had been killed by natives.

Edwards treated the mutineers he had arrested with brutality, confining them in a cage 18 feet by 11 feet, built on the quarter-deck of the Pandora. When it rained, the roof leaked badly, and when the Sun came out in fine weather it became unbearably hot. Escape was impossible, but even so the the prisoners were kept in handcuffs and leg irons. They remained in this box for several months while the Pandora cruised around in a vain search for the rest of the mutineers.

Edwards finally gave up and headed back to England.

As the Pandora entered the entrance to Torres Strait it ran aground on a coral reef and began to break apart. Some of the mutineers were released to help work the pumps but the rest stayed locked in their cage, still in irons. Next day the Pandora sank and four of them, including Midshipman Stewart, went down with her. Of the Pandora's crew, 31 drowned. The survivors reached Koepang in open boats after an arduous voyage of a fortnight.

When the mutineers reached England in June 1792 Bligh had been 10 months away on a second voyage to transport breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies.

Four were acquitted and six found guilty and sentenced to death, of whom two, Midshipman Heywood and James Morrison (boatswain's mate), were recommended for mercy and were pardoned. A third was pardoned on the eve of execution and the remaining three were hanged from the yardarm as a warning to other would-be mutineers.

Another 15 years passed before the world learned of the fate of Christian and his companions.

In 1808 the American sealer Topaz put in to Pitcairn Island, about 1,400 miles south-east of Tahiti, which was supposedly uninhabited and found there a small community who spoke English and were devout Christians. Their leader John Adams (also known as Alexander Smith) was the only surviving mutineer but most of the Tahitian women who had sailed in the Bounty were still alive and between them they had about 35 children. As other ships called the story was gradually pieced together. After landing at Pitcairn the mutineers had stripped the Bounty and burned her so that her presence could not give them away. The native men had been reduced to slave status and in time they had revolted and killed five of their masters, including Christian. Of the four survivors one had fallen over a cliff, one had been killed by his companions and one died of consumption. Adams, the last of them, had turned to religion and had become the spiritual father of the little community.

Today some descendants of the mutineers still live on Pitcairn and others on Norfolk Island.

As for Captain Bligh, read what was in store for him in Australia.

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Tags: Mutiny, Bounty, Captain Bligh, Mr Christian, Fletcher Christian, Christian, Bligh, HMS Bounty, the Bounty, Australian History


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