Diana Preston on the real history behind the infamous mutiny on the Bounty.
‘Know then, my own dear Betsy, I have lost the Bounty… On the twenty-eighth of April at daylight in the morning, Christian…with several others came into my cabin while I was asleep, and seizing me, holding naked bayonets at my breast, tied my hands behind my back, and threatened instant destruction if I uttered a word. I demanded of Christian the cause of such a violent act and severely degraded him for his villainy, but he could only answer, ‘Not a word, sir, or you are dead’… My misfortune I trust will be properly considered by all the world – it was a circumstance I could not foresee… My conduct has been free of blame…’
So a characteristically defiant William Bligh wrote to his wife of the mutiny aboard HMS Bounty in the South Pacific. As mutinies go, it was mild – no one killed or even injured – so why does it still fascinate us? Partly because of the clash between the sadistically sarcastic Bligh and the charismatic but emotionally fragile Christian, partly because the story is so well-documented in letters, diaries and official records and partly because of the extraordinary aftermath: Bligh survived a 3600-nautical-mile open-boat journey to Timor while the details of the fate of Christian and those mutineers who settled on remote Pitcairn Island remain bloodily mysterious.
The exotic backdrop adds to the appeal. Bligh blamed the mutiny on the siren allure of Tahiti where he and his men spent five months before the rising. Ever since the first Europeans, Samuel Wallis and the crew of HMS Dolphin arrived in 1767, stories of the islanders’ practice of free love, their indolent lives, and plucking fruit from trees that needed no cultivation created a Utopian image of a Garden of Eden, which subsequent expeditions, such as those of James Cook, did nothing to dispel.
The man responsible for the Bounty voyage was naturalist Joseph Banks who sailed on Cook’s Endeavour voyage, sampling Tahiti’s pleasures for himself, before reaching Australia’s eastern seaboard which Cook named New South Wales. Almost a decade after Cook’s death on Hawaii in 1779, Banks suggested despatching a fleet carrying convicts and their guards to found a penal settlement in New South Wales – after which some ships would sail on to Tahiti to collect breadfruit seedlings. These would be carried to Britain’s Caribbean plantations to provide food for slaves. The catalyst for Banks’ grand scheme was Britain’s recent loss of her American colonies, which had deprived her of places to transport her convicts and to purchase food for the Caribbean slaves.
Wealthy, influential and now President of the Royal Society, Banks won government approval for his plan, but at the last minute decided on practical grounds to disaggregate the convict and breadfruit ventures. On 13 May 1787, Britain’s First (convict) Fleet of eleven ships sailed for New South Wales. Seven months later, Bligh departed to collect breadfruit seedlings from Tahiti.
His ship, renamed the Bounty, was just ninety-one feet long. With the great cabin converted to house a thousand seedlings, living accommodation for all was cramped. With remarkable prescience Bligh protested that the ship’s main boat or launch was too small and had it replaced by one twenty-three feet long.
Bligh chose Fletcher Christian as Master’s Mate, who at twenty-three was ten years his junior. The two had sailed together before, and Bligh regarded Christian as his protégé. Shortly before departing, Christian told his brother that though Bligh was ‘very passionate…I have learned how to humour him.’ Before long Bligh’s relationship with some crewmen, especially the Master John Fryer (who suspected Bligh, in his other role of ship’s purser, of fiddling the books), began to deteriorate. However, such was his continued regard for Christian that he appointed him his second-in-command.
In October 1788, after sailing over 27000 nautical miles, Bligh’s men finally sighted Tahiti’s towering green volcanic peaks. Bligh soon persuaded the island’s rulers to give him breadfruit seedlings, which the expedition’s botanist, David Nelson, transplanted in a nursery ashore. While waiting for the plants to grow strong enough to be transported, Bligh allowed his men freedom to form relationships with the island’s women. Christian, posted ashore to guard the growing breadfruit plants, was soon living with a chief’s daughter, Mauatua, whom he renamed Isabella.
However, as the languorous days passed, Bligh began to fault Christian, publicly criticising and assuring the Tahitians he was not his second-in-command, merely ‘one of the people’. When three crewmen deserted, Bligh, on very flimsy evidence, accused Christian of having abetted them. By late March, as the plants were carried aboard and the Bounty prepared to sail, Christian’s former confidence that he could ‘manage’ Bligh was fading.
On 4 April 1789, with the sailors’ Tahitian ‘wives’ weeping, the Bounty weighed anchor. Though some crewmen found leaving hard, others eagerly anticipated their return home. Insurrection was not inevitable but Bligh’s behaviour fomented it. Compared with other commanders, he was no great flogger of men. However, he had a vicious, ungovernable tongue, seemingly taking pleasure in humiliating others in an age when sailors resented verbal violence as much as physical, and failing to understand the effects of his outbursts on others.
After leaving Tahiti, Bligh frequently accused his men of seeking to undermine him, singling out Christian for particular abuse. On the eve of the mutiny, Bligh accused him of stealing some of his stock of coconuts, reducing him to tears. Christian began giving away his possessions and rumours spread round the ship – first that he planned suicide, and then when he asked the ship’s carpenter for planks and rope, that he intended to make a raft and desert.
At 4 a.m. 28 April, with the Bounty off Tofua in the Friendly Islands, Christian came on watch, seemingly determined to make his getaway until midshipman George Stewart suggested an alternative: seizing the ship from Bligh. Christian agonised, then sounded out others of his watch who agreed to support him. Together they went below, seized Bligh and hauled him on deck.
Bligh yelled abuse at Christian, then sought to appease him, reminding him how he had dandled Bligh’s children on his knee. He even offered to forget the episode if the mutineers would lay down their arms. A distraught Christian, described by eyewitnesses as looking like ‘a madman’, was adamant. He allowed Bligh and those who wished to accompany him to take the largest, strongest boat – the launch Bligh had insisted should be twenty-three feet long. He also gave them provisions, a sextant, some charts and nautical tables.
At 10am, the men in the launch pulled hard at the oars to get beyond range of the Bounty’s guns, while from the deck came taunts of ‘You’ll never reach the shore!’ Christian could be heard calmly ordering the Bounty’s top gallant sails to be unfurled.
Bligh now embarked on his epic open boat journey to Kupang on Timor which he reached in forty-seven days, with the loss of only one crewman killed in a skirmish with islanders – a tribute to his sublime navigational skills. From there he returned home, embarked on a campaign of self-justification, and then led a second – this time successful – breadfruit voyage to Tahiti.
Meanwhile, the Admiralty despatched Captain Edward Edwards in HMS Pandora to hunt down the Bounty mutineers. Reaching Tahiti he seized the crewmen who were still there, confining all in a cage – soon known as ‘Pandora’s Box’ – regardless of whether they were mutineers or men known to be loyal to Bligh for whom there had been no room in the launch. When the Pandora was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, four Bounty men drowned but Edwards brought the remainder to Kupang after his own open boat voyage. He then shipped them to England for court martial, together with the first convicts, including a woman, Mary Broad, to escape from the Australian penal colony and who, after their own 3254-nautical-mile hazardous open boat journey, had reached Kupang where Edwards apprehended them. Of the mutineers, three were hanged and the rest pardoned, as were the escapees at the urging of James Boswell.
Edwards’ captives did not include Fletcher Christian and eight mutineers who, with a small group of Polynesian men and women including Christian’s Isabella, had left Tahiti aboard the Bounty many months earlier. Reaching the tiny, rock-bound uninhabited island of Pitcairn in January 1790, they stripped the Bounty of useful items, burnt her and settled there. No one knew their fate until in 1808 the crew of an American sealer, the Topaz, arrived off Pitcairn and to their astonishment discovered that the young men rowing through the surf towards them and shouting greetings in English were the children of the vanished Bounty mutineers.
By then all the mutineers except one, John Adams, were dead. What had happened on the island is known only from Adams (whose story changed each time he told it), the account of a Tahitian woman known as Jenny and some other second-hand accounts from the island’s children. Though the detail differs, the essentials are that the Bounty men and the Polynesian men soon fell out, largely because of rivalry over the few women. A series of murderous encounters left only two men alive: Ned Young, who died later of illness and Adams. Christian himself either committed suicide or more likely was murdered during the fighting. Adams claimed subsequently to have become a devoted Christian, ruling like a benign patriarch over his little flock of women and children.
Adams’ grave is still tended by the fifty or so Pitcairn islanders, many the direct descendants of Bounty mutineers who owe their existence to the sharp-tongued William Bligh.
Diana Preston is a celebrated historian and author. Her works include Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy and Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima (winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History). Along with her husband Michael, she also writes as the historical fiction author Alex Rutherford. Rutherford is known for the thrilling six-book historical fiction series, Empire of the Mogul. Her latest book, Paradise in Chains, about the mutiny and the founding of the colonies, is published on 11th January 2018.
- Fletcher Christian and the mutineers turn Lieutenant William Bligh and 18 others adrift; 1790 painting by Robert Dodd, National Maritime Museum
- Portrait of Rear Admiral William Bligh by Alexander Huey, 1814
- A 1960 reconstruction of HMS Bounty © Dan Kasberger via Wikicommons
- Grave of John Adams © Jens Bludau via Wikicommons