Monday, May 18, 2015

Mutiny on the Bounty

Leaving the subject of the Royal Navy and getting back to pirates brings us to the subject of the mutiny on the Bounty. It’s a little out of our time period… The HMS Bounty left England in December of 1787. The Bounty’s mission was related to the Caribbean… the ship was supposed to bring breadfruit trees from Tahiti to England’s Caribbean colonies, where the fruit would provide cheap food for the region’s many slaves. But the ship never made it back. The Bounty’s story takes place in the South Pacific.

A reproduction of the Bounty

HMS Bounty was bought by the Royal Navy just for this mission alone. At 91 feet long and 25 feet at her widest point, she was rated as a cutter, the smallest of the navy’s armed ships. The ship’s crew consisted of 44 sailors, 2 civilian botanists, and Lieutenant William Bligh. Because of the ship’s small size, it was commanded by a lieutenant, who was the only commissioned officer on board.

That’s right. Bligh, one of the most famous British commanders, was called “captain” only as a courtesy.


Cutters like the Bounty also did not have any Royal Marines on board. One of the duties of marines was to support the captain’s authority.

But in the beginning it didn’t seem that marines would be needed. Bligh had assembled many former shipmates for the voyage, including Fletcher Christian, a well-educated young man who had left a potential career as an attorney to join the navy. Christian had served two voyages with Bligh, who had taught the young man the skills of a navigator.

The Bounty had been specially outfitted for the journey, with the stern of the ship, usually the captain’s quarters, converted into a seagoing greenhouse. Bligh shifted his quarters to rooms on the starboard side of the ship. Other officers – the gunner, sailing master, boatswain and surgeon each occupied a tiny, private cabin, and the rest of the crew were crammed into a 36' by 22' foot space at the front of the ship. Headroom was 5’7”.

The voyage was delayed 3 weeks past its originally appointed date, while Bligh waited for the Admiralty to write orders. Contrary winds kept them in port for another month. When they finally sailed in late December, they had lost the window for favorable weather rounding Cape Horn (the tip of South America). Bligh reached Cape Horn in April, and struggled to make the passage for two weeks. Beaten back again and again, Bligh finally gave up, and ran for the Cape of Good Hope (southern tip of Africa).

This route was more successful. Bligh reached Tahiti on October 26, 1788.

The trip had not been uneventful. Bligh had played favorites among his officers, obviously favoring Christian over more experienced men. To cement Christian’s position, Bligh promoted him to acting lieutenant. Originally cheerful and enthusiastic about finding improved ways to keep his crew healthy, Bligh began to suffer from mood swings. He believed he had been passed over for recognition of his previous accomplishments, and may have been disappointed that this voyage was not going especially well.

Also, the surgeon, while treating a member of the crew for asthma, killed him instead.

The Bounty's route to Tahiti
Bligh traded with the Tahitian chief, offering gifts in exchange for the 1,000 breadfruit trees the expedition was supposed to acquire. The chief was happy to comply. But because of the many delays in sailing, no trees were at the correct developmental stage to be transported. The Bounty’s crew would need to wait in Tahiti for 5 months.

The island was a paradise, with moderate temperatures, plentiful food, and women who saw no need to either cover their breasts or remain chaste. Bligh made no effort to control his crew, but expected them to show up for work details as usual. Needless to say, discipline quickly collapsed.

The surgeon drank himself to death in December.

By April 1, 1789, the breadfruit trees were ready. Though unhappy to be leaving paradise and relationships with local women, the sailors packed up the plants, readied the ship to sail, and set sail once again under Bligh’s command.

Bligh’s mood swings were now much worse. Once the captain’s favorite, Christian was now a scapegoat. Bligh sent him ashore on the island of Tonga to collect supplies, failed to give him guns for defense, then called him a coward when Christian was driven off the island by hostile natives. Bligh fell into frequent rages.

A modern painting of Fletcher Christian

The final straw came when Bligh accused Christian of stealing coconuts. Fletcher Christian fell into a state of despair and conceived a mutiny. His position as second-in-command gave him the authority to order other officers off the deck and to hand out weapons to the men he believed would follow him. On April 28th Fletcher Christian mutinied, tied up Captain Bligh, and took command of the ship. Christian was wearing a heavy lead weight around his neck, so if the mutiny failed, he could jump overboard and drown.

The mutineers intended to put Bligh out in the ship’s smallest boat, but fully half the ship’s crew wanted to go with him. Eventually most of these men were crowded into a 23 foot launch and set adrift with a compass, a sextant, and five days’ worth of food and water.

After this the mutineers were divided as to a plan. They had a reliable navigator in Christian, and most men wanted to return to Tahiti. But the Royal Navy hunted mutineers relentlessly. If the authorities learned of the mutiny, they would spare no expense and hunt for years if necessary to bring the rebels to justice.

By rising up against their lawful commander and stealing the ship, the men had become pirates. Piracy, like mutiny, was punishable by death.

Christian brought the boat to the island of Tubai, surveyed the area, decided that it was defensible, and determined to settle there. But they needed women and laborers.

Christian designed a ruse. Returning to Tahiti, he told tales of founding a colony. He secured supplies and took off with several natives, some of whom were kidnapped. They returned to Tubai and tried to set up a colony but the natives of the island drove them off. At this point some of the mutineers wanted to just go back to Tahiti and take their chances.

Location of Pitcairn Island
Christian, his authority floundering, agreed to return. He dropped the men off, and turned the Bounty’s nose to the wind, and settled on the first spot of land he encountered, Pitcairn Island, a spot of land incorrectly located on the charts. Christian burned the Bounty.

The men on Tahiti were picked up by the ship Pandora in 1791, the mutineers taken back to England for trial. Though the Royal Navy continued to search for the rest of the band, the rest of the sailors were never found.

Christian’s group lived peacefully for a while, but insisted on claiming that the Tahitians were property, not people. Fights with the natives, quarrels between the English sailors, and suicide took their toll until only one man remained, the leader of a colony of Polynesian women and mixed race children. Descendants of the group still live on Pitcairn Island.

And Bligh? After encountering cannibals when he tried to put ashore for supplies, Bligh piloted the launch, overloaded with 17 men, for 3,000 nautical miles, using only the sextant and compass. This remains one of the greatest navigational feats of all time. He managed to keep his small company alive on ½ cup of water and 1 ounce of bread a day for 43 days of stormy seas, though several died after finally arriving in the Dutch East Indies, north of Australia.

Bligh's route to the Dutch East Indies

This is a story that has captured the imaginations of generations: Bligh, slowly losing his mind, the sympathetic character of Fletcher Christian, the bloodless mutiny, the years of mystery, the heroic return of the loyal sailors.

It is said that back in the days of sailing, the ships were wood, but the men were iron.

1 comment:

  1. Good a recall as any of the events. The other deep abiding mystery is that the whole truth will never be known. I wonder if the way they lived was the way the tahitains lived. Also it was the women who helped them survive.
    Where they "natural" human beings? Is this the way men and women live on their own. Passionate violent lives of lust, changing partners, and "breaking in the little ones?". Or just bad karma. They were all so young I guess.