Mutiny on the Bounty
The 28th of April 1789 AD
Though mutinies on naval vessels were far from uncommon they were generally minor disputes to protest against a grievance. The mutiny on His Majesty’s Armed Vessel (HMAV) Bounty was a very different affair for several reasons, and has become a part of British folklore and myth.
The Bounty was on a mission to collect breadfruit from Tahiti in order to take it to the West Indies where it was hoped the plant would provide a cheap and nourishing food for slaves. The idea came from the great botanist and plant collector Sir Joseph Banks , who championed Lt William Bligh as the man to carry out the task. Bligh, then 33, had previously distinguished himself as sailing master with Captain Cook on his 1776 – 1779 expedition to Australia .
A rather small ship, of only 215 tons displacement, the Bounty was a converted collier, and the voyage was not a glamorous one. Her crew was just 46 men, including Bligh. The cramped conditions could not have helped morale, but were not unusual for the day.
The voyage began in December 1787, and hit problems early on when the Bounty failed to round Cape Horn despite repeated attempts over a full month. Tahiti was finally reached in October 1788 by going east around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean. During this part of the voyage Bligh demoted John Fryer, the sailing master. In his place Bligh appointed Fletcher Christian , also making him acting lieutenant.
In Tahiti the crew made merry, Christian going so far as to ‘marry’ a local woman called Maimiti. When over 1,000 breadfruit plants had been gathered, Bligh set sail on April 4th 1789 for the West Indies, but leaving Tahiti had been a wrench for many of his men, and this probably sowed the seeds of rebellion in parts of the crew.
Indeed, three sailors had deserted in Tahiti, but were recaptured. Their treatment gives the lie to the view of Bligh as some fanatical functionary - they were flogged when he could have had them hanged.
When the ship reached the islands of Tonga on 28th April Christian and his fellow-mutineers dragged Bligh from his cabin at knife-point. After a brief and acrimonious exchange of words Bligh was put into the ship’s launch along with 18 loyal crewmembers and some basic supplies.
There have been many theories about why Christian mutinied. Was he missing his ‘wife’ on Tahiti? Was the demon drink to blame? Perhaps Christian, scion of a relatively powerful family, was jealous of Bligh, socially inferior to him. Myth has Bligh as driving his men to anger with pettiness and brutality. Fryer’s part in the mutiny may have been as important as Christian’s, spurred on by his demotion.
Having added to their supplies on the island of Tofua, Bligh and his crew sailed on to Timor, a distance of more than 3,500 nautical miles, without benefit of chart or compass, an extraordinary feat. All Bligh had to help him navigate was a sextant and his pocket-watch.
The Bounty sailed to Tahiti, but with pursuit inevitable the mutineers sailed on rather aimlessly, returning at one point to drop 16 of their number at Tahiti. Eventually Christian, eight crewmen, and 17 Tahitians, sighted Pitcairn Island far from the position marked on naval charts. They settled on the island, but were dogged by violent disagreements, drunken fights (after a still was rigged) and illness. When the Topaz, an American vessel, reached Pitcairn in 1808, only one mutineer still lived – accompanied by nine women!
Of the mutineers left at Tahiti ten were captured and returned to England for trial, three hanging for their crime.
Bligh fared better than the mutineers. The breadfruit mission was entrusted to him again in 1791, this time aboard HMS Providence with the rank of Captain. Though Bligh transported more than 2,000 plants to Jamaica, the slaves refused the novel fruit. He had been as a matter of course tried by court martial for the loss of his ship, but was naturally acquitted, going on to become a Vice-Admiral in a distinguished career.
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