When mutiny on a ship is mentioned, there is only one that comes to the public’s mind. Helped by countless books, TV documentaries and films, the popular view of naval mutiny is synonymous with the events that overtook the Bounty in the lonely South Pacific. Naval historians point out, in vain, how unusual this mutiny was, not least because it was led by an officer. Some indication of its continuing fascination can be judged by the £17K paid at auction in June 2017 for a rusty lump of iron reputed to be a cannon from the wreck of the Bounty.
The story of the mutiny began with an expedition organised in 1787 to collect bread fruit plants from Tahiti and take them to the West Indies. The bread fruit is a tree which grows well in the tropics and produces large nutritious pods. It was hoped that these could be cultivated on British islands in the Caribbean as a food source for slaves. A small collier was purchased into the navy, converted into a warship, and renamed Bounty. She was rated as a cutter, the smallest vessel in the navy’s list, and that decision was when the voyage’s problems began.
Because the Bounty was only rated as a “cutter”, despite her three masts and 230 ton displacement, her compliment was a single lieutenant to command her, and no marines to help him keep discipline. Far from the popular image of an unhappy ship captained by a brutal tyrant, she was actually led by a very junior officer with few resources to support his authority. Since the ship was being sent into the largely unexplored Pacific, a talented navigator was required to command her. Lieutenant William Bligh was selected for the trip, even though he had never commanded a warship before. He had sailed with Cook, knew those waters well and was an excellent seaman. The Bounty was sent on a demanding voyage of tens of thousands of miles, which was planned to last almost two years. If Bligh had been a tactful man with sound leadership qualities, all might have been well. Unfortunately he was neither of those things.
The voyage out to Tahiti lasted a year, during which time Bligh followed Cook’s regime of scrupulous hygiene, regular exercise and fresh provisions to maintain the health of his men. Far from being a brutal man, if anything Bligh appears to have been overly lax. Only a single seaman was flogged during this period, and then only at the insistence of one of his warrant officers. His surgeon’s mate was openly drunk, a situation Bligh failed to address until after a sailor was killed by his incompetence. Bligh managed to combine easy-going discipline with an ability to aggravate his officers. He made his friend Fletcher Christian acting lieutenant, over the head of his sailing master, John Fryer, and he publicly criticised his officers in front of the men. By the time the Bounty arrived at its destination he had succeeded in both alienating his officers and persuaded the crew that almost any behaviour would go unpunished.
The Bounty spent five months in Tahiti collecting nearly a thousand breadfruit plants, during which time Bligh allowed the officers and crew to live ashore. It is an island close to paradise at most times, and must have seemed doubly so to men who had spent a year cooped up on a tiny ship. Alcohol and sex were freely available, and most led promiscuous lives with local women, including Christian, who formed a close relationship with one named Mauatua. Having let his sailors live a life of dissipation ashore, Bligh was then enraged when they neglected their duty. As his number two, Christian was a particular recipient of his captain’s anger.
When the Bounty finally left the island, Bligh completely failed to anticipate how a crew who had spent so many hedonistic months on a tropical island would react to a return to their harsh life at sea. His relationship with his officers had largely broken down, and he resorted to increasing draconian methods to try and maintain discipline. To his officers he was angry and intolerant of any lapses in duty. For the crew, he resorted to disproportionate collective punishments, such as stopping everyone’s rum ration and halving their allocation of food after some coconuts were stolen from his store room.
The mutiny occurred in the early hours of 28 April 1789, and was led by Fletcher Christian. He armed a number of followers, seized control of the ship, and dragged the protesting Bligh up on deck. It then became clear that the mutineers were a bare majority of the crew. Christian had planned to set Bligh adrift in the ship’s tiny jolly boat, but so many of the men wanted to accompany him that the Bounty’s 23 foot launch had to be used instead. As his ship sailed away to the east, Bligh started on one of the great journeys in an open boat. He may have had his limitations as a leader, but he was a superb seaman and navigator. He piloted the launch on a 3,500 miles journey across the Pacific to the Dutch East Indies, where he arrived six weeks later and from where the loyal crew could take passage home.
Meanwhile, the mutineers on the Bounty decided to find somewhere they could escape the retribution that would follow once word of what they had done reached home. They attempted to capture the tiny island of Tubuai to live on, but a bloody pitched battle with the island’s inhabitants forced them to leave. Then the mutineers split, with one party returning to the delights of Tahiti, and a hard core of nine mutineers still determined to find sanctuary. This second group, led by Christian, tricked twenty Polynesians on board the ship, most of whom were young women and abducted them when they sailed away. After a lot of searching they found the uninhabited, and previously undiscovered, Pitcairn Island. They arrived here in January 1790, and having emptied the Bounty, of everything useful, they set fire to her.
The retribution that the mutineers feared came in a variety of ways. Those who remained in Tahiti were apprehended by HMS Pandora, a frigate sent to hunt them down. The community on Pitcairn Island escaped capture by the Royal Navy, but soon fell out with each other. Some of the kidnapped women tried to escape, while five of the mutineers, including Fletcher Christian, were set upon and murdered in 1793. For a while the community was split between two factions, but after further fighting and killing, life finally settled down. The descendants of those first colonists still live on Pitcairn to this day, where their economy is largely dependent on ‘Bounty’ tourism and the cruise ships that it brings to visit them.
William Bligh was cleared of responsibility for the loss of his ship and led a second, successful bread fruit voyage to Tahiti in the 1790s. He commanded HMS Director at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797 and HMS Glatton at Copenhagen under Nelson. He died an admiral in 1817. During his subsequent career he was also involved in two subsequent mutinies, but that, as they say, is another story...