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The Mutiny on HMS Bounty

HMS BOUNTY, THE MUTINY, HMS PANDORA AND THE PITCAIRN ISLANDS

HMS Bounty was originally a merchant ship called the Bethia and it was built at Hull in 1784. In 1787, the ship was purchased by the Admiralty for a voyage into the deep Pacific. The order for this expedition had been prompted by an interest of the British authorities in the West Indies of a proposal to introduce the Tahitian breadfruit to the colonies. It was argued that this crop would be suitable for the slave workers on the sugar plantations as it was cheap to produce and could grow throughout the year. In May 1787, after a consultation with Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, King George III issued an order to the Admiralty to pursue the challenge of transporting breadfruit seedlings to the Caribbean.

The Admiralty were concerned with not placing too much expenditure on the task and after the inspection of several vessels, the Bethia was eventually chosen and purchased for £1,950, as the most suitable. On 16 August 1787, with the support and recommendation of Joseph Banks, Lieutenant William Bligh RN was appointed to command the ship. Bligh had become renowned for both his skills in navigation and his knowledge of the islands in the Pacific, which he had shown from accompanying Captain Cook on his third and final voyage of circumnavigation from 1775 to 1779. To sail through the Pacific successfully, Bligh was aware that the ship he was now assigned to would need some alterations and he immediately ensured that these were performed. The Bethia was restructured to hold the forthcoming cargo of breadfruit. The sail area was shortened to withstand the expected strong winds and cannons were placed for possible conflict. She was renamed HMS Bounty to honour the patronage of the King.

On 23 December 1787, HMS Bounty departed from Portsmouth and made its way to Tenerife. Bligh was concerned for the welfare of his crew and he began to introduce plans to ensure that they remained in good health. He introduced a new and humane watch system, which would give the men four hours on and eight hours off. The man whom Bligh gave the command of this watch was Fletcher Christian. Christian had come from an influential and aristocratic Manx family and had sailed with Bligh on two previous voyages. They are said to have been firm friends and Christian's promotion to Acting Lieutenant from Bligh had effectively made him the second in command of the Bounty. However, this caused the ship's Master, John Fryer, to become resentful towards Bligh.

After stopping at Tenerife, HMS Bounty sailed towards Cape Horn, only to be faced with violent storms. After an uncomfortable journey, she then made for the Cape of Good Hope. It is to the credit of Bligh that none of his crew suffered from ill health but throughout the journey, tensions were beginning to grow. Bligh dealt with a heated quarrel between Fryer and Seaman Matthew Quintal with twenty-four lashes, which would encourage more hostility towards him. Many crew members were unable to appreciate the health regime of nutrition and exercise that Bligh had encouraged or the fact that he was now serving as the ship's doctor, after the discovery of the qualified Surgeon's alcoholism.

On 26 October 1788, HMS Bounty dropped anchor at Matavai Bay, Tahiti. Whilst the accumulation of breadfruit seedlings had only taken six weeks to complete, the departure of the Bounty was delayed by five months. The crew had succumbed to the climate and beauty of the area, as well as the hospitality of the native people. Bligh became engrossed in his study of the island, its people and their culture. The Bounty finally departed on 5 April 1789 but tensions were becoming heightened again. The climate was humid and the ship had become more cramped as the breadfruit had taken up the space. Bligh believed that it had been from having to leave the paradise of Tahiti that had caused a fragmentation of order among his crew.

The eventual mutiny is said to have been provoked over a trivial matter regarding the theft of some coconuts. Bligh was already becoming enraged by the growing indifference of some of the crew to their duties. Christian, in particular, was becoming increasingly agitated from receiving the brunt of Bligh's verbal attacks. The strain reached its peak when Bligh publicly accused him of stealing some coconuts from the ship's store. Humiliated, Christian decided to make an honourable escape from the ship to a nearby island. After learning of the sympathy of other discontented crew members to his situation, Christian then decided it was Bligh who should leave the Bounty. On the morning of 28 April 1789, the mutineers dragged up Bligh to the deck of the ship and despite his pleas to Christian for mutual forgiveness, he was cast adrift in the launch. Nineteen other crew members who decided to remain loyal to Bligh were sent into the launch to join him. 

Now under the command of Christian, HMS Bounty returned to Tahiti to collect livestock, men and women. Christian had intended to found a settlement on Tubuai but after finding himself involved in the local conflicts there, he sailed back to Tahiti. Christian now found sixteen of the mutineers deserting him but with eight loyal followers and a group of Tahitian men and women, he departed Tahiti on the Bounty, for the last time on 23 September 1789. Realizing that the populated islands could not guarantee safety, Christian placed his attention on a remote uninhabited island that he had found from studying Bligh's charts, known as Pitcairn's Island. Christian displayed his own qualities of navigation and leadership in taking the Bounty over nearly 2000 miles to the incorrectly chartered territory.     

HMS Bounty reached Pitcairn's Island on 15 January 1790 and her crew began to build a settlement once it was clear that the land was inhabitable. The Bounty was stripped of all that could be put to use, and then set on fire and destroyed. The optimistic founding of the Pitcairn settlement would eventually lead to discontent and bloodshed. In 1793, conflict erupted from the resentment of the Tahitian men towards the white mutineers’ assumptions of supremacy and privilege. Many were killed in the resulting violence including, it is commonly believed, Fletcher Christian.

After being cast off HMS Bounty, Bligh and his nineteen loyalists began their epic journey to the nearby Dutch colony of Timor in an overcrowded launch for nearly forty-seven days and 3,600 miles. Bligh's great achievement in this predicament was that he navigated the launch without the aid of a chart or any means of obtaining the longitude. Whilst struggling to survive, Bligh produced highly accurate charts and surveys of the seas and of the terrain, such as the Fijian Islands and the north east coast of Australia. On 17 June 1789, the launch finally reached Coupang in Timor. On the 14th March 1790, Bligh returned to Portsmouth and he went on to publish his account of the mutiny and of his voyage to Timor in the July of that year. Bligh was hailed as a hero.

The Admiralty was determined to make an example of the mutineers and sent out HMS Pandora, under the command of Captain Edward Edwards, to apprehend them. Bligh had to face a court-martial to answer for his loss of HMS Bounty but other crew members were required to attend the trial. HMS Pandora reached Matavai Bay on 23 March 1791 and fourteen of the sixteen mutineers there were arrested (the other two had been killed earlier). Unable to find Christian and his eight followers, Edwards departed from Tahiti. Unfortunately, the Pandora struck rocks on Australia's Great Barrier Reef and four more mutineers lost their lives. Finally returning to England on 19 June 1792, the surviving mutineers began their trial in the following September on the HMS Duke. Three were publicly hanged on board HMS Brunswick whilst the remainders were acquitted.

The remaining mutineers, notably Peter Heywood and James Morrison, attracted much publicity during the court-martial and subsequently published their own accounts of the mutiny, which portrayed William Bligh as an appalling commander, whose abuse of power had driven the crew to revolt. Edward Christian, a Professor of Law at Cambridge, sought to protect the reputation of his brother Fletcher, and he produced a damning account of Bligh's leadership in an appendix of the published minutes of the court-martial's proceedings. Hence, when the newly promoted Captain Bligh returned to England in August 1793 after a successful second attempt in transporting the breadfruit to the Caribbean, he found a less enthusiastic reception.

In February 1808, nearly twenty years after the mutiny, Captain Folger of the American vessel, the Topaz, landed at Pitcairn's Island, with the surprise of finding it inhabited. There, he met Alexander Smith (who was also known by the alias John Adams) the sole survivor of the mutineers, who was now the head of the community of the remote island. It was decided to leave the settlement in peace.    

Reading lists for further information on the mutiny and the voyage of HMS Pandora are available.

©Royal Naval Museum Library, 2002

The information contained in this information sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available

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