HMS Bounty was a small and rather unremarkable ship that was bought and re-fitted for the Royal Navy for a not particularly exciting mission but little did anyone onboard realise their names would go down in maritime history.
It started off as an experiment, to carry Breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies in the Caribbean to see if they could be grown there to provide food for slaves. The entire ship was re-designed for this mission with Captain Bligh losing his comfortable quarters for more cramped accommodation next to his fellow officers and crew.
On 23rd December 1787, Her Majesty’s Ship Bounty set sail from Spithead to Tahiti carrying 46 officers and men. Her attempts to round Cape Horn were confounded by bad weather for over a month and so Captain Bligh ordered they turn around and go round the Cape of Good Hope and across the entire Indian Ocean instead. It was a long a voyage that saw Fletcher Christian promoted to the position of Sailing Master.
Once in Tahiti, the ship and her crew stayed anchored there for over 5 months, collecting and preparing 1,015 Breadfruit plants. Kindly, Captain Bligh permitted the men to stay on Tahiti itself where they took up the practice of native tattoo’s and imitating relationships with the locals.
In his official logbook Captain Bligh wrote of the locals…
The women are handsome … and have sufficient delicacy to make them admired and beloved – The chiefs have taken such a liking to our people that they have rather encouraged their stay among them than otherwise, and even made promises of large possessions. Under these and many other attendant circumstances equally desirable it is therefore now not to be wondered at … that a set of sailors led by officers and void of connections … should be governed by such powerful inducement … to fix themselves in the midst of plenty in the finest island in the world where they need not labour, and where the allurements of dissipation are more than equal to anything that can be conceived.
Despite these heavenly surroundings, tensions arose between Bligh and his men, particularly Fletcher Christian who was often tormented and disciplined by the Captain infant of the men and the locals for offences both real and imagined. Punishments such as floggings which had been rare became commonplace to the degree that three men deserted. However they were soon recaptured and interrogation soon led the Captain to Fletcher Christian and being one of the plotters of the break-out. However there was not enough evidence for the Captain to act and so the relationship continued to fester.
Captain Bligh was an experienced Navy man who had served with the legendary Captain Cook on this Third Voyage of Discovery through the Pacific but he failed to take into account how reluctant the men would be to return to the confinements of a small wooden sailing vessel and a journey through uncharted waters after months of sensory overload in Tahiti. The men were treated harshly for their slackness and Fletcher Christian in particular was blamed for just about everything.
On the 5th April 1788 HMS Bounty finally departed Tahiti but soon things came to a head. Fletcher Christian had been contemplating making a wooden raft and jumping overboard to head to a tropical island when on 28th April at over 1,300 miles west of Tahiti, he led a mutiny and he took a number of men into the Captains cabin and dragged the captain in his night-clothes to the deck.
Captain Bligh pleaded for the men to come to their senses but Fletcher Christian wouldn’t listen pleading that “I am in hell, I am in hell”. The ship was taken without any loss of life with 22 of the 46 opting to remain loyal to the Captain. Bligh and his men were ordered down into the ocean on a small wooden rowing boat with others volunteering to join their deposed Captain as otherwise they could later be judged to have committed mutiny as well.
After briefly stopping off at the nearby island of Tofua for supplies and seeing one of their number stoned to death by the local inhabitants, Captain Bligh set off on one of the most remarkable journeys of all time. With no map or compass but just a pock watch, quadrant and his knowledge of navigating with the sun and the stars, Captain Bligh took their tiny 23 foot (7 metre) rowing boat on a 47 day voyage which Bligh calculated as being 4,164 miles / 6,701 km in length. It was a journey of the most unimaginable hardships with no guarantees at all of arriving in one piece even assuming that the winds and seas were favourable and the Captain could make precise calculations in his head. There were instances of unexpected terror such as being attacked by cannibals at Fiji but on the 14th June 1788, they made it to Kupang in Timur. Promptly two men died and three others followed very shortly afterwards. On the 15th March 1790, 2 years and 11 months after leaving England, Captain Bligh managed to return to the Admiralty in London and report the mutiny.
Meanwhile Fletcher Christian and the mutineers had tried to make a home for themselves on the island of Tubuai but after being attacked by the natives for three months they decided to return to the infinitely more friendly island of Tahiti where they weighed up the advantages of living in paradise and the risk that if against all the odds Captain Bligh had made it home then the Royal Navy might come looking for them. Some of them stayed in Tahiti whilst Fletcher Christian and others sailed on.
It was Captain Edwards of HMS Pandora who was tasked with visiting Tahiti where four of the crew of HMS Bounty immediately handed themselves in and a further ten soon being tracked down. Two others had died when Matthew Thompson shot Charles Churchill with Thompson then being stoned to death by Churchill’s adopted Tahitian family. Both loyal Bounty crew and the mutineers alike were imprisoned in a make-shift cell on the deck of HMS Pandora, they bitterly labelled it Pandora’s Box.
HMS Pandora spent three months searching nearby islands looking for suspects when on 29th August 1791, the vessel ran a ground upon The Great Barrier Reef near Australia. Several of the crew drowned as did four of the mutineers who were only released at the very last-minute. The 99 survivors then set off in four tiny boats and had to make the near identical journey all the back to Timor just as Captain Bligh had, they all made it.
Back in Great Britain, the ten prisoners were put on trial. Great attention was given to which men were armed and which did nothing to resist the mutineers as not resisting was seen as passively accepting and taking part in the mutiny. The four loyal crew of Captain Bligh were acquitted. Two others were found guilty but pardoned and one of these later went on to become a Captain himself. Another was freed on a legal technicality leaving three other men to be hanged on 29th October 1792 on the deck of HMS Brunswick.
Captain Bligh resumed his naval career and eventually managed to sail a new ship of Breadfruit to the West Indies but the mission was a failure as the slaves refused to eat the fruit. Bligh eventually rose to the rank of Vice-Admiral and governor of New South Wales in Australia where his rule faced yet another insurrection.
Fletcher Christian, eight other mutineers, six Tahitian men and 18 women plus one baby ad sailed from Tahiti. A mutineer by the name of Edward Young wrote in his journal that all but 3 of the women had been kidnapped and taken unwilling and by force! They forewent the Cook Islands and Fiji as they were too often visited by the Royal Navy but had a stroke of luck when they re-discovered Pitcairn Island in the middle of the Pacific. It was a known island but it was mis-chartered by the navy and so ‘missing’. All food, supplies and livestock were brought onshore and HMS Bounty itself was set ablaze and destroyed by fire to stop it being spotted by any lost ships and to stop anyone escaping the island. Elements of the ship can still be seen at Bounty Bay.
Despite the Tahitians being homesick and the British knowing they were in effect imprisoned on Pitcairn, the community quickly began to thrive and many children were born. It was not until well into the next century that the island was next visited by an American ship and only one of the original mutineers was still alive. It is reported that Fletcher Christian was killed just four years after landing on the island as disagreements arose between the British and Tahitian men. Fletcher Christian and four other British were killed by the six Tahitian men who themselves were all killed during the battle or soon afterwards by aggrieved widows.
Without Fletcher Christian, the mutineers began to treat their women folk badly, particularly so after they learnt how to make an alcoholic drink from a local plant. The women frequently rebelled and once fled the island on a raft only for it to sink in the bay. Things went on like this for about 7 or 8 years until one of the mutineers died in a drunken fall and another was killed by John Adams and Ned Young after he threatened to kill everyone!
Eventually John Adams took command and he stopped the alcoholic binges, improved the place of and relationships with the women and started educated the island inhabitants as well as teaching them Christianity. His tolerance and innate gentleness allowed the community to finally flourish and he was the sole surviving mutineer when the island was finally contacted by the outside world due to the landing of the American ship Topaz in 1808.
When the British finally found out about all this, John Adams was either unable or unwilling to illustrate where exactly Fletcher Christian was buried. Rumours persisted that somehow Fletcher Christian had managed to escape the island and returned to England. In fact one person who served with Fletcher Christian onboard the Bounty testified that he saw him in Plymouth many years later but his testimony was ignored.
In 1825 John Adams was pardoned and the only settlement on the Pitcairn Islands, Adamstown is named in his honour with the island of mutineers and murderers being formally incorporated into the British Empire on 30th November 1838 where its now reduced population (following emigration) of approximately 48 people remain as a British Overseas Territory.
The Mutiny on the Bounty is remembered as one of the most dramatic events of Naval history and the role of Bligh and his strict regime played in fostering hostility is still debated whilst the descendants of Fletcher Christian still bear the shame of their ancestor who led the most famous ship-borne mutiny of all time. Every year on the 23rd January, the Pitcairn Islanders celebrate Bounty Day and remember the day HMS Bounty was set ablaze.