On this day, April 28, 1789, the infamous mutiny on the HMS Bounty took place. Between the 1935 cinema classic starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable to the 1962 version starring Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard to the 1984 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson, it’s hard to know what really happened. Too few people read about history and often rely on what they see on the silver screen or at home on cable television or a DVD for their knowledge of historical events. Saying that, I hope to share a brief summary of the events and people involved in the most well-known mutiny of all time.
William Bligh was born in 1754 and at sea by 1762. In 1776, he was appointed master of the Resolution, the ship used on James Cook’s third voyage. By 1783, Bligh was a lieutenant and was involved in the war with France.
From 1783 to 1787, Bligh sailed for Duncan Campbell, a merchant ship owner from Scotland. Most of his duties at the time involved sailing in the West Indies for Duncan’s business. In 1787, Bligh was made commander and purser of the HMS Bounty. His mission was to sail to Tahiti to obtain a cargo of breadfruit saplings that he was then to take to the West Indies where they would be planted to help feed the slave workers.
Bligh was known for having a very volatile temper. He swore like a drunken sailor and would launch into tirades at his men for the slightest things. In fact, his temper was so vile, that the mutiny on the Bounty was one of three mutinies of his career.
Fletcher Christian was born 1764 and like many teens of the day, went to sea young. In 1787, he was appointed to master’s mate on the Bounty, under the command of Capt. Bligh.
On December 23, 1787, the Bounty set sail from Great Britain on its long and treacherous journey to Tahiti. He planned to sail across the Atlantic, around the southern tip – Cape Horn – and across the Pacific to Tahiti. When the Bounty reached the Cape, they encountered huge waves and strong winds. After a number of days of fighting the waves, Bligh decided to turn and set sail for the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. The 10,000 detour added months to the journey.
On October 24, 1788, the Bounty finally reached its destination of Tahiti. The trip took 10 months, traveling a distance of over 28,000 miles.
Tahiti’s rainy season caused another delay, extending their stay in Tahiti to 5 months. While at the island, most everything was going well until January, 1789 when three crew members, along with a number of weapons and munitions turned up missing. Bligh’s temper erupted and he threatened to the make the entire island suffer if the deserters and supplies were not returned. Three weeks later, the three men were discovered at a village 5 miles away. They were returned, given a number of lashings and then placed in irons.
Around the same time, Bligh learned that many of the spare sails that had been placed in storage had rotted due to mildew. This also ignited his violent temper. From that point on, anything and everything set off Bligh’s temper.
On April 5, 1789, the Bounty set sail with a cargo of 1,015 breadfruit saplings. On April 11, the Bounty stopped at one of the Friendly Islands. Master John Fryer later reported that Bligh and Christian often got into bitter arguments. On the night of April 21, Christian was reported of telling Bligh:
“Sir, your abuse is so bad that I cannot do my duty with any pleasure. I have been in hell for weeks with you.”
On April 24, 1789, the Bounty stopped at Anamooka where Bligh and Christian again exchanged bitter words. Bligh accused Christian of being a coward and of allowing the naked savages of interfering with his duties.
On April 27, 1787, Bligh flew into a tirade when he discovered that some coconuts had disappeared from a pile on board ship. He interrogated Christian who said that he hoped the captain did not think him guilty of stealing and Bligh responded by calling him a damned hound who must have stolen the coconuts. Then accusing Christian of planning on stealing the yams, Bligh ordered that rations of yams for the entire crew be cut in half. It was reported that Christian had tears running fast from his eyes as he left the confrontation with Bligh. Strangely, Bligh still invited Christian to dine with him that night as it was his custom of having Christian dine with him every third day.
On this day, April 28, 1789, in the early morning hours, Christian launched his mutiny. According to Bligh’s record of the account:
“Just before sun-rising, Mr. Christian, with the master at arms, gunner’s mate, and Thomas Burket, seaman, came into my cabin while I was asleep, and seizing me, tied my hands with a cord behind my back, and threatened me with instant death, if I spoke or made the least noise.”
Bligh, still in his nightshirt and naked from the waist down, was forced on deck. It didn’t take long for all hands to gather on the deck. The 23-foot-long launch was lowered to the sea, Bligh and 18 others, mostly those loyal to Bligh, were ordered into the boat. They were given provisions of a 20-gallon cask of water, 150 pounds of bread, twine, canvas, sails, a compass and a small tool chest.
Bligh pleaded with Christian reminding him that he had bounced Christian’s kids on his knee, Christian emotionally responded, yelling:
“I am in hell–I am in hell.”
The small boat filled with 19 men and a minimum of supplies was set adrift in the open Pacific. In most cases, such a situation generally ended with the deaths of all in the boat, but Bligh survived. On June 14, 1789, Bligh and his boat arrived at Timor in the East Indies. 10 months after the mutiny, Bligh arrived back in England.
Christian and Bounty first sailed to the island of Tubuai but found life too difficult so they returned to Tahiti. There, 16 members of the crew opted to stay, knowing they would probably end up arrested by the British. When the Bounty left Tahiti, the crew consisted of Christian, 8 crewmen, 6 Tahitian men and 12 Tahitian women and 1 child.
In January 1790, the Bounty arrived at Pitcairn Island. They salvaged everything they could from the Bounty and then set the ship ablaze. In 1808, the survivors on Pitcairn were discovered by an American whaling ship. They found that John Adams was the only surviving mutineer. Adams reported that strife among the mutineers and disease had claimed the lives of the other mutineers, including Fletcher Christian.
In 1825, a British ship arrived at Pitcairn. Adams was relieved to learn that he had been granted amnesty and would be allowed to remain on the island. He served as the patriarch of the small community until his death in 1829.
Sources for the above includes: Bligh, William (1754–1817); William Bligh: English admiral; Fletcher Christian: British seaman and mutineer; Fletcher Christian; Mutiny on the HMS Bounty; The Story of the Court-Martial of the Bounty Mutineers; The true story of the Mutiny on the Bounty; Mutiny on the Bounty: What Happened Next.