Mutiny on the Bounty – 28 April 1789
On 15 October 1787 a tiny, overcrowded, ninety-feet long, two hundred and thirty-ton feebly armed ex-collier, commanded by a man embittered at not having been granted promotion prior to the undertaking of a two year voyage to the other side of the world, slipped her anchors at Deptford and set sail for Portsmouth to await final Admiralty orders. She was ultimately destined for the Society Islands in the far Pacific Ocean, but her voyage would end in infamy and she would never return to England.
The ship, if she could be called as much, was the Bounty, and her resentful commander was the 33 year-old Lieutenant William Bligh.
At the behest of the eminent botanist and president of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, Bligh had been selected by the Admiralty to round Cape Horn and sail across the Southern Pacific Ocean to Tahiti in order to collect and transport breadfruit plants to the West Indies, where they would be grown as a crop to provide cheap sustenance for the plantation slaves. The planned route necessitated a return voyage via the Cape of Good Hope and thus Bligh, who had served as the sailing master in Captain James Cook’s third voyage of exploration, would be expected to complete a circumnavigation of the globe.
Such was the low level of importance attached to the mission that the selection of the tiny Bounty for the voyage ensured that Lieutenant Bligh could not be allowed any marines to help him maintain order, nor indeed any commissioned officers to support him. Aboard the ship would be forty-six men including two botanists from Kew Gardens, a drunken surgeon by the name of Thomas Huggan, and a sulky sailing-master, 34 year-old John Fryer, who had also been passed over for promotion. The only saving grace for Bligh was that he was able to obtain the services of a reliable old friend, 23 year-old Fletcher Christian, a master’s mate from a respectable family whom the commanding lieutenant could justifiably call his protégé.
Despite frustrating delays incurred by the bureaucracy of the Admiralty and adverse winds which detained the Bounty at Spithead until 23 December, Bligh was soon in good spirits once the voyage began, and in a letter home two months later he confided that his men were ‘active good fellows, tractable and well-disposed.’ He was determined to preserve both his own good humour and that of the crew, despite inner doubts about the worthiness of the Bounty, but by quickly promoting Christian to an acting-lieutenancy at the detriment of Fryer he sowed the first seeds of unpleasantness, and when the men started complaining about the quality of the provisions Bligh’s naturally prickly character began to exhibit itself.
By April the Bounty was battling desperate weather in her attempt to round Cape Horn, yet despite his anxiety to fulfil his orders Bligh’s paramount concern was for his men. Earlier he had eased their watch-keeping duties, and in many respects he made every effort to preserve their welfare as they fought with the ferocious elements. Eventually, when the Bounty sprung a leak and a number of her crew fell sick after two weeks of relentless hardship, he decided to take advantage of a caveat in the Admiralty orders which allowed him to put the helm about and set a calmer passage for the Society Islands via the Cape of Good Hope.
On 24 May the Bounty reached the sanctuary of False Bay near Cape Town where she remained for the next five weeks in order to take on provisions, to rest the crew, and to effect repairs after her ordeal off Cape Horn. When she did set sail again for her winter voyage across the Indian Ocean conditions remained harsh, but the men continued to be attentive to their duty and rarely suffered punishment, indeed they gave little cause for it. Nevertheless trouble was brewing amongst Bligh’s warrant officers.
On 20 August 1788 the Bounty reached Tasmania where once more she anchored to take on water and undertake minor repairs. Here the carpenter, William Purcell, failed to complete his duties and ignored Bligh’s commands, and when the ship put to sea again the incompetence of Huggan caused the death of a seaman, whilst Fryer’s resentment overflowed with his refusal to sign off the ships’ books. Seeking to re-establish order Bligh assembled all the hands on deck and read them the Articles of War, but by now his authority over the men was also weakening by the day, and it must have come as some relief when on 26 October the Bounty anchored in Tahitian waters after her ten-month, twenty-seven thousand mile voyage.
Here the breadfruit was collected within three weeks, but a combination of adverse winds and the need for the plants to mature detained the Bounty at the island until the following April. During these six months fraternisation between the men and the natives became rife, and although Bligh tried to keep his crew busily employed the delights of the island simply overwhelmed them. Once again Purcell refused his duty, and both Christian and Fryer proved indolent when asked to assist their commander in maintaining discipline. The drunken surgeon, Huggan, passed away on 10 December, and early in the new year of 1789 Bligh’s temper with his officers boiled over when three men deserted. The men later returned of their own free will and were duly punished, but by now an increasingly stressed Bligh had become paranoid about the worth of his officers, and he was drifting further away from them as his efforts to impose control descended into tyranny. As an indication of the deterioration in discipline the floggings that had been largely infrequent at sea were now prescribed on a regular basis.
Finally come 4 April, with trade links, coastal charting, scientific observations and breadfruit collections complete, it was time to leave. Many of the Tahitians, both male and female, were distraught at the departure, and this emotion was shared by a good number of the men aboard the Bounty. Once back at sea Bligh, who had given over his cabin to the breadfruits, reasoned that the delights of Tahiti would be forgotten as men remembered their duty, however he had further cause to berate his officers when Christian allowed some valuable tools to be stolen during a visit to the Friendly Islands on 22 April, and then Fryer failed in his task to recover them. Perhaps accepting that his deprecation of his protégé had gone too far Bligh invited Christian to supper, but the young man refused this invite, claiming ill health. To some extent the excuse was true, as Christian was also clearly suffering from stress, as evidenced on 27 April when he was discovered to be contemplating either suicide or desertion. At this stage, crucially, revolt had not yet entered his mind.
There were more sinister elements aboard the Bounty who were prepared to violate Lieutenant Bligh’s authority however, and being aware of Christian’s vulnerable mental state the potential mutineers quickly set about persuading him of their intent. Thus within hours of the acting-lieutenant’s vain attempt to assemble a raft and make good his escape after he had been falsely accused by Bligh of stealing from his personal coconut supply, Christian appeared on deck in the early morning of 28 April with two desperate men at his side. Although he had no particular following on the ship these men did, and they rapidly cowered up to a quarter of their colleagues into taking up arms whilst intimidating the other men into passivity.
At about 5.15, and with five men now at his side, Christian raced aft to Bligh’s cabin where the commander was trussed up and silenced at pain of death. Mr Fryer, despite a brace of pistols to hand, displayed no resistance and was ordered to remain in his cabin whilst armed guards were posted at each hatchway, not that any of the other warrant officers showed any inclination to fight. Bligh was then taken up on deck by Christian to be met by a general confusion as mutineers and loyalists argued over what to do next. Fryer was also brought up on deck, but his denunciation of Christian was so bitter that he was promptly returned at bayonet point to his cabin. A boat was hoisted overboard, yet as more loyalists made it known that they would not remain aboard the mutinous vessel it became clear that a larger boat would be required, and so the large cutter was dropped over the side instead.
Shortly afterwards Fryer was brought back on deck, but rather than join Bligh in the large cutter he demanded to stay aboard in the apparent hope that he and the other loyalists could disarm the increasingly inebriated mutineers. Seeing through the master’s intentions Christian ordered Fryer into the cutter where he joined Purcell, Bligh’s servant, one of the botanists, and fourteen other men. Together with the harassed and vilified Bligh this group amounted to four men more than the cutter’s standard complement, and when a meagre twenty-eight gallons of water and one hundred and fifty pounds of bread were thrown in by the mutineers it became clear that the boat would be left hopelessly overcrowded and under-provisioned. This mattered not to the mutineers who viciously taunted Bligh and the others as they were cast adrift to the ocean at about 10 a.m. Twenty-five men remained aboard the Bounty, including three loyalists who had been ordered out of the launch by Christian, and a number of men who had wished no part in the insurrection but had allowed it to happen.
Once he had regained his wits in the boat Bligh decided to put back to the Friendly Islands in order to seek additional supplies, but in attempting to land on 30 April his motley crew were driven off by hostile natives with one man being killed. Wary of heading back to the Society Islands for fear of falling in with the Bounty or other hostile natives, Bligh decided instead to make for Timor in the Dutch East Indies. A desperate forty-one day, three thousand five hundred mile voyage in the open boat ensued before the men finally landed at Timor on 14 June. Bar a sojourn ashore on the Australian coast towards the end of May to collect oysters, the castaways were forced to subsist on a daily ration of an ounce of bread that was supplemented only when they managed to capture some sea birds. During these fraught six weeks the men argued bitterly amongst themselves, with the disputes between Bligh, Fryer and Purcell reaching new heights, yet despite all their difficulties, and notwithstanding the brutal Antipodean winter weather, their survival only occurred because of a stunning display of seamanship and determination on behalf of their eccentric commander, without whose leadership the men would have surely all perished. Sadly the botanist, David Nelson, did lose his life shortly after the boat reached Timor, and a further five men never lived to see home again.
Back in Britain, after almost two years with no tidings of the Bounty, the newspapers suddenly reported in September 1789 that a Buenos Aires trader had encountered the returning vessel off Rio de Janeiro, that Bligh and his crew were in fine health, and that the breadfruit plants were prospering. Nothing of course could have been further from the truth, and the news of the mutiny only broke when Bligh returned to England on 14 March 1790 aboard the packet Vlydte, with his crew following later in a Dutch man of war. The Admiralty apparently wasted little time in seeking to bring the mutineers to justice, and within the week it was being reported that a 24-gun frigate was undergoing preparations at Portsmouth to sail out to the Pacific in quest of the Bounty. In the meantime Bligh was deservedly acclaimed as a great hero for his brilliant open-boat voyage of survival, he was presented to the King by Commodore Alan Gardner, and at a court martial on 22 October aboard the Royal William 90 at Spithead he was honourably acquitted for the loss of his ship.
As for the Bounty, Christian had sailed her back to Tahiti on 6 June 1789, where, returning to his senses, he realised that the navy would
send a force out to look for her. For several months the Bounty loitered amongst the local islands whilst it was still safe to do so, and the mutineers even attempted to form a settlement on Tubuai with the assistance of some two dozen Tahitians. This proved to be a disastrous venture, as the hostility of the local natives was stirred by the mutineers’ intentions towards their women, resulting in skirmishes that saw many of the former killed. After returning to Tahiti on 22 September sixteen men went ashore from the Bounty and the next day Christian and eight remaining mutineers, together with six Tahitian friends and twelve women, set sail for the Eastern Pacific. The world would not hear of them again for another twenty years.
On 23 March 1791, forty-nine year old Captain Edward Edwards commanding the Pandora 24, landed at Tahiti having finally left Portsmouth in November 1790 to sail around Cape Horn in search of the Bounty. Aboard his small frigate he carried twelve months provisions and enough stores to refit Bligh’s old ship for her expected voyage home. As soon as the Pandora came to anchor a canoe furiously paddled out containing two midshipmen, Peter Heywood and George Stewart, who had been left behind by Bligh when the large cutter had been cast adrift on the day of the mutiny. Although neither midshipman had displayed any overt loyalty to Bligh during the disorder they had probably not been mutinous, but had rather been caught out by events, and both had quickly detached themselves from Christian and his cohorts upon the Bounty’s return to Tahiti. In the eyes of Edwards however, all of the Bounty’s crew were guilty until proven innocent, and so the midshipmen were clapped in irons together with twelve other ‘loyalists’ who had remained behind on the island, the additional two men having been murdered in the interim.
Captain Edwards was ironically every inch the martinet that the unfortunate Bligh has erroneously been portrayed, and his imprisonment of the surviving crew of the Bounty was particularly barbaric, the men being shackled in an iron cage known as the ‘Pandora’s Box’ which was housed on the frigate’s quarterdeck. At just eleven feet long with two nine inch square gratings to provide light and air, it was little surprise that the sweat from the men encased within could soon be seen flowing into the scuppers.
Despite the capture of these fourteen men only part of Edwards’ orders had been fulfilled, for he still had to find the Bounty and Fletcher Christian. Departing Tahiti on 8 May he visited the Cook Islands, Tonga and Samoa with the aid of Bligh’s charts, but was unable to obtain any knowledge as to the Bounty’s destination, and just over three months later he reluctantly came to the decision to return home.
Prior to the Pandora’s departure from England Bligh had expressed doubts over Edwards’ ability to navigate the Great Barrier Reef, and these concerns found justification when at 7 p.m. on 28 August the frigate foundered in the Torres Strait, some sixty miles off what is now known as the Queensland Coast. Four of the alleged mutineers who had been manacled together in Pandora’s Box drowned in the ensuing panic, including George Stewart, as did thirty of the Pandora’s crew, whilst one man was killed by an unleashed gun carriage and another by a tumbling boom. Captain Edwards would have been perfectly happy to let all the prisoners drown, and it was only when the frigate was on the point of sinking that the master-at-arms mercifully pulled the pin on the scuttle and tossed a key through the gratings to release the alleged mutineers from their confinement.
Ninety-nine men managed to escape in the frigate’s boats and pull themselves to nearby land. Even here Heywood and his fellow prisoners were left totally naked, deprived of shelter, and allowed barely any sustenance, and whilst the men of the Pandora spent the hot days under sail-cloth tents the prisoners had to bury themselves in the sand to escape the burning sun. To add to their misery the temperature at night dropped to near freezing.
With supplies soon running low Edwards embarked his men in the four remaining boats and set off for Timor, somewhat redeeming his reputation by reaching the Dutch possession without further loss three weeks later, despite his men being confined to rations of two ounces of biscuit and two wine glasses of water per day. The prisoners’ subsequent treatment at Batavia and aboard a Dutch transport during the voyage to the Cape remained as severe as it had been aboard the Pandora, and it was only after he had been placed aboard the Gorgon 44, Commander John Parker, for the passage from the Cape to England, that young Heywood was allowed to exercise, albeit with one leg still manacled. On 19 June 1792 the Gorgon arrived at Spithead where the midshipman was turned over to the kinder offices of Captain George Montagu of the Hector 74.
By the time of Heywood’s return Captain Bligh had already embarked on a second voyage to the Southern Ocean, and thus he was not on hand to attest to the behaviour of the prisoners on the day of the mutiny. Prior to his departure he had also failed to provide the authorities with a detailed list of those men whom he considered guilty, and so Heywood and the other prisoners, the majority of whom were innocent, were placed on trial for their lives. At the conclusion of their court martial, presided over by Vice-Admiral Lord Hood aboard the Duke 98 at Spithead on 12 September 1792, six men including Heywood were found guilty of mutiny. Of these, three were eventually hung at the yard-arm of the Brunswick 74 on 29 October whilst the remainder were eventually pardoned. In the case of Heywood he was most fortunate that the first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Chatham, and others of the influential elite, including his kinsman, Captain Albemarle Bertie who had sat on his court martial, were able to plead for mercy on his behalf with the King. The reprieved young officer would later become a post captain and serve with distinction in the wars of 1793-1815.
In the meantime, on 15 January 1790, and after an eight thousand mile search for sanctuary, the nine mutineers still aboard the Bounty had finally landed on the uninhabited and remote mile-long Pitcairn Island in the Southern Pacific Ocean, which land had been first discovered on 2 July 1768 by the Swallow, Captain Philip Carteret, and had been named after one of his midshipman, Robert Pitcairn. Upon anchoring anything of use aboard the ship was removed and eight days later she was set on fire. Her violent destruction only portended violent times to follow on land, for five of the Europeans, apparently including Christian, fell victim to the hatred and jealousies amongst the tiny community and were slaughtered during a bloodbath on 20 September 1793. Two weeks later their Tahitian murderers were themselves slain by the womenfolk, and within seven years only one mutineer remained alive, this being John Adams, who became both the leader and father figure of what had mercifully become a pious community. On 28 September 1808 the first apparent contact with the outside world came when the American whaler Topaz, Captain Mayhew Folger, appeared off the island, and six years later the Royal Navy arrived in the shape of the frigates Tagus 38, Captain Philippe Pipon, and the Briton 38, Captain Sir Thomas Staines. Finding a peaceful community of forty-five mixed race inhabitants prospering under his guidance, the captains wisely allowed Adams to remain on the island.
To this day the mutineers’ descendants, many of whom bear the surname Christian, still live on Pitcairn Island. As for Fletcher Christian, although Adams stated categorically that he had been murdered during the events of 20 September 1793 his assertion was regarded by some as an unlikely story furnished by an unreliable source, the more so that a contrary claim had been put forward to the effect that the chief mutineer had actually thrown himself into the sea after becoming insane. Some contemporary conspiracy theorists believed that Christian had in fact fled the island aboard an American whaler, rumours abounded that he had visited relatives in Cumberland during 1808-9, and Captain Heywood, an undoubtedly reliable witness, later declared that he had spotted Christian in a Devonport street some years after the mutiny.
Officers who sat on the court martial of the Bounty Mutineers – 29 September 1792:
Vice Admiral Sir Samuel Hood: Captains Sir Andrew Snape Hamond: John Colpoys: George Montagu: Sir Roger Curtis: John Bazely: Sir Andrew Snape Douglas: John Duckworth: John Inglefield: John Knight: Albemarle Bertie: Richard Keats: