- for other meaning see Mutiny on the Bounty (disambiguation)
The mutineers turning Lt Bligh and some of the officers and crew adrift from HMAV Bounty
, 29 April 1789
The Mutiny on the Bounty was a historical event in the late 18th century, most widely known through fiction, of an officer and part of the crew of a British Royal Navy ship rebelling against their commander.
His Majesty's Armed Vessel (HMAV) Bounty was, before her purchase on May 26, 1787 by the British Royal Navy and renaming, the collier Bethia, a coal-carrying merchant ship. She was a relatively small sailing ship at 215 tons, mounting only four four pounders (2 kg cannon) and ten swivels. By way of comparison, Cook's Endeavour displaced 368 tons, and Resolution 462 tons.
- Displacement: 215 tons
- Length: 91 ft (27.7 m)
- Beam: 24 feet (7.3 m)
- Complement: 46
Her only two commanders were Lieutenant William Bligh, and the mutineer Fletcher Christian. William Bligh, 33-year-old former sailing master of HMS Resolution, was appointed commanding officer of Bounty on 1787 August 16. Though now routinely portrayed as the epitome of abusive sailing captains, Bligh received the appointment because he was considered an exceptionally capable naval officer -- an evaluation he was to prove correct. He had also served under Captain James Cook and was familiar with navigation in the area, as well as local customs.
The ship had been purchased by the Royal Navy for a single mission in support of an experiment: they were to travel to Tahiti, pick up breadfruit plants, and transport them to the West Indies in hopes that they would grow well there and become a cheap source of food for slaves. The experiment was proposed by the wealthy botanist Joseph Banks, who recommended Lieutenant Bligh as the commander.
In June 1787, Bounty was refitted at Deptford. The great cabin was converted to house the potted breadfruit plants, and gratings fitted to the upper deck. Her complement was 46 officers and men.
On December 23, 1787, Bounty sailed from Spithead for Tahiti. For a full month, she attempted to round Cape Horn, but adverse weather blocked her. Bligh ordered her turned about, and proceeded east, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and crossing the width of the Indian Ocean. During the outward voyage, Bligh demoted the ship's Sailing Master, John Fryer, replacing him with Fletcher Christian with appointment as acting Lieutenant. This act seriously damaged the relationship between Bligh and Fryer, and Fryer would later claim Bligh's act was entirely personal.
Bounty raised Tahiti on October 25, 1788, after ten months at sea.
Bligh and his crew spent five months in Tahiti, then called Otaheite, collecting and preparing a total of 1015 breadfruit plants. Bligh allowed the crew to live ashore and care for the potted breadfruit plants, and they became socialised to the customs and culture of the Tahitians. Master's Mate and Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian married Maimiti, a Tahitian woman.
Bligh was not surprised by his crew's reaction to the Tahitians. He recorded his analysis (spelling and capitalisation is retained as in the original):
- The Women are handsome ... and have sufficient delicacy to make them admired and beloved--- The chiefs have taken such a liking to our People that they have rather encouraged their stay among them than otherwise, and even made promises of large possessions. Under these and many other attendant circumstances equally desirable it is therefore now not to be Wondered at ... that a Set of Sailors led by Officers and void of connections ... should be governed by such powerful inducement ... to fix themselves in the midst of plenty in the finest Island in the World where they need not labour, and where the alurements of disipation are more than equal to anything that can be conceived. --A Narrative of the Mutiny, etc., by Lieut. W. Bligh, 1790, p. 9.
Three crewmen deserted and were recaptured. Instead of hanging them, as the crime of desertion was usually punished, Bligh ordered them flogged.
In the 18th century British Navy, rank and position onboard ship was clearly defined in a social hierarchy. At the top were the Wardroom Officers, commissioned by the British crown to lead the vessel. These included the ship's commissioned officers, the sailing master, and the master's mates who were the most experienced men aboard. The midshipmen, that is to say the officers in training, were next in seniority. Warrant officers were skilled specialists who were granted shipboard commissions by the vessel's captain and had rights to access the quarterdeck and, upon invitation, dine in the wardroom. They were assisted by Petty officers, who were apprentices learning the trade of the skilled warrant officer. At the bottom of the social tree were the seamen, divided into Able Seamen and Ordinary Seamen. On board some vessels, an even lower grade existed called Landsmen, who were Seamen in training with very little or no naval skill.
The crew complement of the HMAV Bounty is listed below. (M) indicates a mutineer, (D) indicates death before the mutiny, and (A) indicates those who were formally accused of participating in the mutiny but were later acquitted.
- John Hallett, Midshipman
- Thomas Hayward, Midshipman
- Peter Heywood, Midshipman (A)
- George Steward, Midshipman
- Robert Tinkler, Midshipman
- Edward Young, Midshipman (M)
- John Huggan, Surgeon (D)
- William Cole, Boatswain
- Charles Churchill, Ship's Corporal (M)
- William Peckover, Gunner
- Joseph Coleman, Armourer (A)
- Peter Linklater, Quartermaster
- John Norton, Quartermaster
- Lawrence LeBogue, Sailmaker
- Henry Hillbrandt, Cooper (M)
- Robert Lamb, Butcher
- William Purcell, Carpenter
- William Brown, Gardener (M)
- David Nelson, Botanist
- John Samuel, Clerk
- Richard Skinner, Barber (M)
- William Muspratt, Tailor (M)
- John Smith, Steward
- Thomas Hall, Cook
- Michael Byrne, Fiddler (A)
- James Morrison, Boatswain's Mate (M)
- Thomas Ledward, Surgeon's Mate
- George Simpson, Quartermaster's Mate
- John Williams, Armourer's Mate (M)
- Thomas McIntosh, Carpenter's Mate (A)
- Charles Norman, Carpenter's Mate (A)
- John Mills, Gunner's Mate (M)
- John Adams, Able Seaman (M)
- Thomas Burkitt, Able Seaman (M)
- Thomas Ellison, Able Seaman (M)
- Isaac Martin, Able Seaman (M)
- William McCoy, Able Seaman (M)
- John Millward, Able Seaman (M)
- Matthew Quintal, Able Seaman (M)
- John Sumner, Able Seaman (M)
- Matthew Thompson, Able Seaman (M)
- James Valentine, Able Seaman (D)
Bounty left Tahiti on April 4, 1789. On April 28, in the Friendly Islands, Fletcher Christian led the famous mutiny. Of the 42 men on board aside from Bligh and Christian, 11 joined Christian in mutiny while 31 remained loyal to Bligh. The mutineers ordered Bligh, the ship's master, two midshipmen, and the ship's clerk into Bounty's launch. Several more men voluntarily joined Bligh rather than remaining aboard. In all, 18 of the loyal crew were in the launch with Bligh; the other 13 were forced to stay and man the ship with the mutineers. Equipped only with a sextant and a pocket watch -- no charts or compass -- Bligh navigated the 23-foot launch on an epic 41-day, 3,200-mile open-boat voyage to Timor, passing through the difficult Torres Strait along the way and landing on June 14.1 The only casualty of his voyage was a crewman who was stoned to death by the natives of the first island they tried to land on.
Meanwhile, the mutineers sailed for the island of Tubuai, where they tried to settle. After three months, however, they returned to Tahiti to put 16 of the crew ashore. Christian, eight other crewmen, six Tahitian men, and 11 women, one with a baby, set sail in Bounty hoping to elude the Royal Navy.
The mutineers passed through the Fiji and Cook islands, but feared that they would be found there. Moving on, they rediscovered Pitcairn Island, which had been misplaced on the Royal Navy's charts. On January 23, 1790, they burned the ship in what is now Bounty Bay. Her remains continue to be visible there into the 21st century.
Aftermath of the mutiny
Return to England and court-martial
Lieutenant Bligh returned to England and reported the mutiny to the Admiralty on March 15, 1790. HMS Pandora, under the command of Captain Edward Edwards, was dispatched November 7, 1790 to search for Bounty and the mutineers. Pandora reached Tahiti on March 23, 1791. Four of the men from Bounty came on board Pandora soon after its arrival, and ten more were arrested in a few weeks. These fourteen, mutineers and loyal crew alike, were imprisoned in a makeshift cell on Pandora's deck, which they derisively called "Pandora's Box". On May 8, 1791, Pandora left Tahiti, and spent about three months visiting islands to the west of Tahiti in search of Bounty and the remaining mutineers, without finding anything except flotsam -- some spars and a yard. Heading west through the Torres Strait, Pandora ran aground on a reef (part of the Great Barrier Reef) on August 29, 1791. The ship sank the next day, and 31 of the crew and four of the prisoners were lost. The remaining 89 of the ship's company and ten prisoners (released from their cage at the last moment) assembled in four small boats and sailed for Timor, arriving there on September 16, 1791.
After being repatriated to England, the ten prisoners were tried by a naval court. In the judgement delivered on September 18, 1792, four men whom Bligh had designated as innocent were acquitted. Two were found guilty, but pardoned; one of these was Peter Heywood, who later rose to rank of captain himself. Another was reprieved due to a legal technicality. The other three men were convicted and hanged. In other trials, both Bligh and Edwards were tried for the loss of their ships, and both were acquitted. Bligh resumed his naval career and went on to attain the rank of Vice Admiral.
Even before Edwards had returned from his search for Bounty, HMS Providence and her tender Assistant began a second voyage to collect breadfruit trees on August 3, 1791. This mission was again championed by Joseph Banks and again commanded by Bligh, now promoted to Captain Bligh. The second voyage was a complete success, collecting 2126 breadfruit plants and hundreds of other botanical specimens and delivering them to the West Indies. Departing Tahiti on July 19, 1792, Bligh once again successfully navigated the Torres Strait.
Fate of the mutineers
When the American sailing ship Topaz, commanded by Mayhew Folger, rediscovered Pitcairn Island in 1808, only John Adams, ten women and some children still lived. Murder accounted for most of the deaths, though suicide, accident, and disease played parts. Fletcher Christian was believed to have been one of the murder victims; he was survived by Maimiti and their son Thursday October Christian, the first child born on the island. However, rumours say that Fletcher left the island and made it back to England. In 1825, John Adams was granted amnesty for his mutiny; Pitcairn's capital, Adamstown, is named for him. On November 30, 1838, the Pitcairn Islands (which include the uninhabited islands of Henderson, Ducie, and Oeno) were incorporated into the British Empire.
Motivations behind the mutiny
To this day, there is considerable debate on what caused the mutiny to occur. The true reasons for the mutiny may never be known and what they were might have been lost to time.
Some people blame Captain Bligh for causing the mutiny. They feel that Bligh was a villain and tyrant, who abused the crew to the point that Christian and the crew felt they had no choice but to mutiny.
Other people feel the blame rests entirely with Fletcher Christian and the crew. They feel that Bligh was not an unusually harsh captain, that he was for the most part a man of his times.
For the book Mr. Bligh's Bad Language, Greg Dening analyzed ships' logs for the statistics on floggings at sea between 1765 and 1793. Fleet-wide, 21.5% of sailors received at least one lash, and the average number of lashes per flogging was five. At one extreme, George Vancouver had 45% of his crew flogged, averaging 21 strokes per flogging; Bligh was well below average, with 19 percent of his crew receiving an average of 1.5 lashes; whatever Bligh's faults, unusually harsh discipline was not among them. This is also brought out by the fact that three deserters during the voyage were flogged instead of being hanged. Further, Bligh noted within his official log that he needed every man.
Most ships of the time carried more officers than the Bounty did, and there were no Marines on board. This too was a factor in the success of the mutiny, and would not be a lesson easily forgotten by Bligh. On his second trip to Tahiti, he had both more officers and a complement of Marines.
As mentioned previously, while at Tahiti the men found they liked the place, especially the native women. Those who hold the crew responsible felt that after spending so much time on Tahiti they did not want to return to the ordinary life of a seaman and instead live a life of ease and sexual excess on that island.
The mutiny in literature and cinema
The novel Mutiny on the Bounty, and the movies and television shows based on it, relate fictionalized versions of the mutiny. At least one of the movies has Fletcher Christian dying of burns after attempting to douse the fire aboard the Bounty.
The first movie version was In the Wake of the Bounty (1932), starring Errol Flynn as Fletcher Christian. The next movie was Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), which won the Oscar for Best Picture that year. It starred Charles Laughton as Bligh and Clark Gable as Christian. Another Mutiny on the Bounty was released in 1962, starring Trevor Howard as Bligh and Marlon Brando as Christian. A fourth film, The Bounty (1984), starred Anthony Hopkins as William Bligh and Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian. Of all the films portraying the mutiny, the fourth and final version is generally agreed to hold the most historical accuracy.
When the 1935 film was made sailing vessels were still in use: existing vessels were adapted to play Bounty and Pandora.
The Royal Navy's Bounty was reconstructed twice. MGM had a reconstruction of Bounty built for their 1962 film. This vessel was built, of wood, to the original plans, in a traditional manner in a shipyard in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. However, all the dimensions were increased by approximately one third to accommodate the large cameras in use at that time. MGM kept this vessel in service. When Ted Turner bought MGM he used this vessel for entertaining.
Turner donated the vessel to a charity, and for a time she was available for charter, and for excursions and sail-training. But expensive maintenance caused the vessel to lose her USCG license.
A reconstruction was also built for the 1984 film The Bounty. That vessel was built of steel, clad in wood. She is also still available for charter and excursions.
- Captain Bligh's Portable Nightmare:From the Bounty to safety--4,162 Miles Across the Pacific in a Rowing Boat, by John Toohey, New York ISBN 1875989749, London ISBN 0060195320
- Caroline Alexander, The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, Viking Penguin, 2003, hardcover, 512 pages, ISBN 067003133X
- William Bligh - Meuterei auf der Bounty, Erdmann Verlag Tuebingen . Description of actual travel logs by W. Bligh, published 1791 and 1793 by Georg Forster and his father in Berlin as "Magazin von merkwuerdigen neuen Reisebeschreibungen"