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HMS Bounty Mutiny

His Majesty's Armed Vessel (HMS) Bounty began her career as the collier Bethia, a relatively small sailing ship built in 1784 at the Blaydes shipyard in Hull. Later, she was purchased by the Royal Navy for £2,600 on May 26, 1787 (JJ Colledge/D Lyon say 23 May), refit, and renamed Bounty. The only two men ever to command her as the Bounty were Lieutenant William Bligh and Fletcher Christian, the latter illegally taking command through mutiny. Lieutenant William Bligh was appointed captain of the HMS Bounty in 1787. Bligh was a logical choice for the job: he was an accomplished navigator and mapmaker, and he had served under Captain James Cook, who had explored the South Pacific a decade earlier.Though Bligh is commonly portrayed as the epitome of abusive sailing captains, this portrayal has recently come into dispute. For historians, the reasons of the mutiny and trial records of the mutineers are still unclear and somewhat frustrating.

The Bounty, originally a merchant vessel, was bought into the British navy and, after suitable fitting out, dispatched to Tahiti in the Society Islands in the South Pacific where she was to take on board a cargo of breadfruit seedlings destined for the West Indies. It was hoped they would there become adapted to the climate and in time serve as a cheap source of food for the slaves working on the sugar plantations. In April 1789, the Bounty—loaded with more than a thousand of the plants—left Tahiti. After collecting and stowing breadfruit seedlings, the Bounty sailed westward, with many of her crew no doubt wallowing in the depths of melancholy at having to leave so splendid a place—or, rather, at having to abandon the extraordinarily compliant women who lived there.

Twenty-four days later, on April 28, Bligh was rudely awakened. “A little before sunrise,” he later wrote, “Fletcher Christian, who was mate of the ship, and officer of the watch, with the ship’s corporal, came into my cabin while I was asleep, and seizing me, tied my hands with a cord, assisted by others who were also in the cabin, all armed with muskets and bayonets. “I was forced on deck in my shirt with my hands tied, and secured by a guard abaft the mizzen-mast,” Bligh continued, “during which the mutineers expressed much joy that they would soon see Ottaheite. I now demanded of Christian the cause of such a violent act, but no other answer was given but ‘Hold your tongue, Sir, or you are dead this instant.’” A little more than two hours later, Bligh found himself, along with eighteen of his crew members, in the Bounty’s launch, an open rowboat that was a mere twenty-three feet long, not even seven feet wide or three feet deep. Twenty-five others remained on board the Bounty, now under Christian’s command. Bligh wrote : “The secrecy of this mutiny is beyond all conception . . . The possibility of such a conspiracy was ever the farthest from my thoughts . . . Christian in particular I was on the most friendly terms with.”

It would appear that the particular incident that precipitated the mutiny had to do with coconuts, though there is little doubt that Bligh’s notorious lack of tact and the ignoble suspicions he harbored concerning the men under his command provided ample fuel for the resentment that boiled over on that fateful day. The fact of the matter is that under very trying conditions of incessant heat, storm, wet, thirst, and hunger, Bligh got himself and his eighteen followers safely to Timor, a distance of nearly four thousand miles, with his crew remaining all the while a disciplined unit. From Timor Bligh returned to England, then lost no time in alerting the British admiralty about what had happened and was embraced as a hero. The British navy then dispatched HMS Pandora to find the mutineers and bring them back to England for trial.

Meanwhile, the mutineers made plans for their escape from admiralty attentions. They sailed the Bounty back to Tahiti, where most of the crew (including the men who had refused to join the uprising) elected to live ashore. Christian realized that the navy would try to hunt them down if Bligh or any of his men had survived, so he and eight of his followers, together with their Tahitian women, and accompanied by six Tahitian men and three more women (making twenty-seven in all) set off in search of a remote and unknown island. Eventually they settled in 1790 on Pitcairn Island, an uncharted island in the southeastern Pacific and, like Tahiti, a veritable paradise.

When the Pandora, Captain Edward Edwards, reached Tahiti in 1791, fourteen of the mutineers (some of whom later proved innocent) were captured and imprisoned in a small cell constructed on the quarterdeck, with each man being placed in irons as well; naval wit immediately christened this holding cell Pandora’s Box. Unhappily, while making her way back to England the ship was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef during a dark and stormy night near the tip of Cape York in far northern Queensland. Some of the prisoners were freed to help man the pumps, one of which then failed, and it soon became clear that the ship was doomed. In the mad scramble to get clear of the foundering vessel, only a few prisoners were freed from the box; one of them was drowned as the ship went down and three others were killed by the gangway that fell on them. Many of the crew perished as well.

Captain Edwards, the surviving hands, and ten prisoners took to the ship’s boats and, in a curious replay of Bligh’s experience two years earlier, followed that man’s route to Timor, reaching Koepang (Kupang or Coupang) on September 18, 1791. They were subsequently taken to Portsmouth, where, notwithstanding their very unpleasant experience in the Pandora, the prisoners were immediately court-martialed, three of their number being found guilty and hanged forthwith.

Edward Christian, brother of the mutineers’ leader wrote: “There is a degree of pressure, beyond which the best formed and principled mind must either break or recoil. And though public justice and the public safety can allow no vindication of any species of Mutiny, yet reason and humanity will . . . deplore the uncertainty of human prospect, when they reflect that a young man is condemned to perpetual infamy, who, if he had served on board any other ship . . .might still have been an honour to his country and comfort to his friends.”

To Edward Christian, the villain was not his brother but Bligh. That’s the image of Bligh that’s lasted, helped along in the twentieth century by three best-selling novels and two movies in which first Charles Laughton and then Trevor Howard flogged and starved and terrorized their cinematic crews. Bligh’s name became a synonym for a sadistic tyrant. Fletcher Christian, meanwhile, was embraced not just by his brother but also by William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge (and Clark Gable and Marlon Brando). Christian became the prototypical romantic hero; pushed beyond his breaking point, he sacrifices a promising future in England to lead his shipmates to freedom.

A journal belonging to James Morrison, the Bounty’s boatswain, was discovered in Australia in 1934; the following quotation from this journal makes an interesting contrast with Bligh’s quotation above:
In the Afternoon of the 27th Mr. Bligh Came up, and taking a turn about the Quarter Deck when he missed some of the Cocoa Nuts (Coconuts) . . . which he said they were stolen and Could not go without the knowledge of the Officers, who were all Called and declared that they had not seen a Man touch them, to which Mr. Bligh replied “then you must have taken them yourselves,” and ordered Mr. Elphinstone to go and fetch every Cocoa nut in the Ship aft . . . He then questioned every Officer in turn concerning the Number they had bought, & Coming to Mr. Christian asked Him, Mr. Christian answered “I do not know Sir, but I hope you don’t think me so mean as to be Guilty of Stealing yours.” Mr. Bligh replied “Yes you dam’d Hound I do—You must have stolen them from me or you could give a better account of them—God dam you, you Scoundrels, you are all thieves alike” [Morrison then describes the officers’ outrage, and the subsequent seizure of the ship and the casting adrift of Bligh and his followers the next day] . . . “No, Captain Bligh [said Christian], if you had any Honor, things had no(t) come to this; and if you Had any regard for your Wife & family, you should Have thought on them before, and not behaved so much like a villain . . . I have been in Hell for this Fortnight passed and am determined to bear it no longer . . . I have been used like a Dog all the Voyage.”

In August 1791, Bligh had left England on another— and more successful—breadfruit expedition. When the court-martial began in September 1792, the captain was again in the South Pacific. The captain had left various written documents, such as his log and a narrative based on it, but there would be no opportunity for the defense to cross-examine him. And since Bligh maintained the mutiny came as a complete surprise, his documents offered few clues as to what led up to it.

About his relationship to Christian prior to the mutiny, Bligh had only good things to say. “This was the third voyage he had made with me,” he wrote in his narrative. “These two [Christian and midshipman and mutineer Peter Heywood] were objects of my particular regard and attention, and I took great pains to instruct them, for they really promised, as professional men, to be a credit to their country.” Indeed, as they forced him into the launch, Bligh asked whether this was a proper return for the kindness he’d shown Christian. “He appeared disturbed at my question,” Bligh wrote, “and answered, with much emotion, ‘That,—captain Bligh,—that is the thing;—I am in hell—I am in hell.”

What drove Christian to hell? Bligh had only this to say: “I can only conjecture that the mutineers had assured themselves of a more happy life among the Otaheiteans, than they could possibly have in England; which, joined to some female connections, have most probably been the principal cause of the whole transaction. . . .They imagined it in their power to fix themselves in the midst of plenty, on the finest island in the world, where they need not labour, and where the allurements of dissipation are beyond any thing that can be conceived. “The women at Otaheite,” Bligh added, “are handsome, mild and cheerful in their manners and conversation.”

As the launch pulled away from the Bounty, Bligh recalled, the mutineers cried out, “Huzza for Otaheite.” If Bligh had little to say about his alleged cruelty, neither did the defendants. Their situation precluded that: to try to justify a mutiny was a sure way to the gallows. Instead, each defendant stressed that he had nothing to do with the mutiny. Some said they were asleep or below deck and had no idea what was going on until it was too late. Others said they had tried to join Bligh but had been restrained. Still others argued, not unreasonably, that there was no more room on the launch, and to have joined Bligh would have been to condemn themselves and everyone else in his boat to certain death.

Many pointed out they’d happily greeted Edwards when the Pandora arrived in Tahiti, since they knew they were innocent. Indeed, they asserted, that’s why Christian and the real mutineers had dropped them off on the island before sailing into the unknown. Still, the court-martial provided some hints that life on the Bounty was no paradise, and not just compared to Tahiti.

John Fryer, the ship’s master (who accompanied Bligh on the launch but clearly disliked the captain), testified about the day of the mutiny. “When I saw Captain Bligh on the ladder,” Fryer recalled, “I asked, what they were going to do with him; when [seaman John] Sumner answered, ‘Damn his eyes, put him into the boat, and let the bugger see if he can live upon [the crew’s allowance of] threequarters of a pound of yams per day.’ I said, For God’s sake for what. Sumner and Quintal replied, ‘Hold your tongue, Mr. Christian is captain of the ship, and recollect, Mr. Bligh has brought all this upon himself.’” A judge asked Fryer what he thought Christian meant when he said he was in hell. “From the frequent quarrels that they had, and the abuse which he had received from Mr. Bligh,” the master answered. “Had there been any very recent quarrel?” the judge asked. “The day before,” Fryer said. “Mr. Bligh challenged all the young gentlemen and people with stealing his cocoa nuts.”

None of this, however, seemed enough to explain a mutiny, and it certainly wasn’t enough to save all the mutineers from the death penalty. After a week-long trial, the court found four of the defendants genuinely hadn’t participated in the mutiny. They were acquitted. Two others were found guilty, but the court found there were enough extenuating circumstances to recommend a royal pardon for those two, and the king granted it. Another got off on a technicality. The remaining three mutineers on trial were found guilty and hanged.

In 1808, after eighteen years of a lonely sojourn, the remaining survivors on Pitcairn Island were discovered by the American sealer Topaz, Captain Mayhew Folger. In about 1830 a British frigate visited the island and found there one Seaman John Adams (aka Alexander Smith), the only mutineer left alive. Curiously, the frigate’s captain did not arrest Adams and take him back to England; perhaps at last the navy was beginning to absorb something of the new and enlightened philosophy of the age.

Sources :
Mysteries In History : “From Prehistory to the Present” by Paul D. Aron;
Seafaring, Lore & Legend : “A Miscellany of Maeaitime Myth, Superstition, Fable, And Fact” by Peter D. Jeans;

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