No other tale of the high seas has spawned so many novels, movies, stage plays – even musicals – as the historic mutiny of the Bounty’s crew against her Captain, William Bligh, led by First Mate Fletcher Christian in late April 1789.
HMS Bounty was originally known as the HMS Bethia, employed as a collier, and bought by the British Royal Navy on 26 May 1787 and renamed Bounty. She was a comparatively small ship with a displacement of 215 tons, armed with only four 4-pounder cannon and ten swivel guns. The Royal Navy appointed William Bligh (then 33) as Commanding Lieutenant of Bountyin August 1787.
TheBounty was purchased specifically for the mission to transport breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies, where it was hoped that the trees would thrive and become useful as an inexpensive food supply for slaves. To that end, she was refitted in June of 1787, her great cabin converted to carry the potted breadfruit plants.
Bountyset sail with 46 officers and men in December 1787, with her charted course set toward the west, planning to round Cape Horn. But bad weather stopped her, and after a month of failing to get through, Bligh turned her about and headed east, round the Cape of Good Hope. Bounty crossed the Indian Ocean, reaching Tahiti after ten months at sea. During the voyage, Bligh promoted Fletcher Christian from First Mate to Sailing Master.
The Bountyand her crew spent five months in Tahiti, collecting over 1,000 breadfruit plants and preparing them for the voyage. During this time the crew conducted “cultural exchange” with the Tahitian population. Some of the crew even had themselves tattooed like the native men, and Fletcher Christian married Maimiti, a Tahitian woman. A few of the men even deserted the expedition and rather than hang the offenders, Bligh ordered them flogged.
Bounty set sail from Tahiti in April 1789, and a little over three weeks later, the mutiny was set in motion and completed without shedding blood. Of the 42 surviving seamen, eighteen joined with Christian whereas twenty-two remained loyal to Bligh. Even so, the mutineers forced several of the loyal sailors to remain on board to help sail the ship, and Bligh and eighteen of his loyal men were set adrift in a 23-foot launch. That Bligh managed to navigate the overcrowded boat over a period of 47 days to Timor with only a sextant and his pocket watch is testamentary to his skill. He covered over 3,600 nautical miles, with the only casualty a man who was stoned to death by the natives of Tofua when they put ashore for provisions.
Christian and his fellow mutineers sailed around the southern Pacific, looking for a likely place to land and settle without risking discovery by the British Navy. They put in back at Tahiti released 16 of the crew, and took on several Tahitians. They eventually found Pitcairn Island, and stopped there. Pitcairn had somehow been deleted from the Naval charts, so they decided to settle there. They burned the Bountyin what is now known as Bounty Bay, and it is said that some of the hardware, anchors and guns can still be seen.
Lieutenant Bligh, meanwhile, reached England in March 1790 and reported the mutiny, and an expedition to recover the Bountyand her mutinous crew was launched in November of that year aboard the HMS Pandora, commanded by Captain Edward Edwards. Pandora docked at Tahiti in March of 1791 and captured and imprisoned 14 of the mutineers. Pandora then set sail again in search of Bountyand the remainder of the mutineers. After about three months, she ran aground and sank, and the surviving ten prisoners along with the rest of the crew sailed to Timor in four small launches.
Lieutenant Bligh identified four surviving men who were innocent of the crime and were acquitted; three others were found guilty but pardoned, and the remaining three men were found guilty and hanged. Ironically, Bligh was again later involved in a mutiny and accused of oppressive behavior tends to lend credence to the charges leveled at him by the mutineers, though not justifying their crime.
As for Fletcher Christian and his mutineers, an American whaler rediscovered Pitcairn Island in 1808, the sole survivor of the mutineers was one John Adams, who was eventually granted amnesty.