Loretta Barnard

Art aside: What really happened with the mutiny on the bounty?

It’s been turned into fiction, it’s worn the faces of Brando and Gibson, but what actually happened on the Bounty?

 

 

It’s a rollicking tale, the mutiny on the Bounty. We’ve seen the movies: dashingly handsome Fletcher Christian (played variously by Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson) and his band of disgruntled sailors overwhelming the unappealing Captain Bligh (played variously by Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard and Anthony Hopkins), but what’s the truth?

His Majesty’s ship Bounty commanded by Captain William Bligh set sail from England in late December 1787 headed for Tahiti on a mission to collect breadfruit seeds and saplings to take to the West Indies, breadfruit being both highly nutritious and, more importantly, cheap, so it was an ideal food for slaves owned by colonists in the Caribbean.

After a long 10-month voyage, the Bounty arrived in Tahiti, a country about as far removed from England as you could get – a tropical paradise, warm, welcoming, sunny, beautiful. For five wonderful months, the crew performed their duties while enjoying the climate and the laid-back lifestyle of this idyllic place. Many men found themselves local girlfriends, including the master’s mate Fletcher Christian who fell in love with one of the women. This new posting was a dream, so when the time came for the Bounty to sail on to the West Indies, many of the men were not best pleased. It’s not unfair to say that the mutiny came about because Fletcher Christian and his followers preferred lolling about on the beach to obeying orders.

On 28 April 1789, three weeks into the voyage and not far from Tonga, Christian and some two dozen men seized the ship, put Bligh and his supporters into a long boat and cast them adrift. Death was almost inevitable. It was only the seamanship of Bligh and his men that allowed them to find landfall. When they landed in Timor almost seven weeks later, they’d sailed over 6,000 kilometres. Bligh then took passage back to England and later returned to Tahiti to complete his original mission. More about him later.

Christian and his fellow mutineers tried to set up their own colony on Tubuai, an island some 600 kilometres from Tahiti but it proved too difficult, so they returned to Tahiti where a number of them decided to stay put. Unfortunately for them, they were later apprehended by British ships, taken back to England and tried for mutiny. A few were hanged for their actions.

But Fletcher Christian and eight of his men, together with 18 Tahitians, didn’t linger. They sailed the South Pacific looking for a new home and in early 1790 settled on remote Pitcairn Island, about 1,000 kilometres from Tahiti. Although the occasional ship passed by, it wasn’t until 1808 that the existence of the colony was discovered when an American ship landed there and heard the remarkable story of what had happened from the only surviving mutineer John Adams.

Bligh and Christian – who was the villain and who the victim? It depends on which accounts you read.

The Bounty had been stripped of anything useful, then scuttled. The new settlers survived by farming, fishing and hunting but there wasn’t much unity among them. Indeed, they were testy, stressed and many succumbed to illness. As for Fletcher Christian, he and his Tahitian wife had three children together – he’d made a new life for himself in the balmy Pacific. So stories suggesting he returned to England at one stage are unlikely, as he was a wanted man and had in fact committed his mutinous crime in order to stay in the tropics. It’s likely that he died either from natural causes or from a gunshot wound. Christian is remembered with a sense of romanticism and derring-do, but the fact remains that he was also a criminal, something that’s largely glossed over in descriptions of his life.

By the way, the people who live on Pitcairn Island today are descendants of the mutineers.

What about Bligh? Some reports say that he took an iron-fisted approach to his command and was unpopular with his men, so the mutineers felt they were ridding themselves of a tyrant, which justified their actions. He may have been hot-headed, but he was also a no-nonsense man who brooked no incompetence. He was able, accomplished and resourceful. To sail in an open boat from Tahiti to Timor without the help of even a compass is evidence of that.

The fact that he was given another command to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies shows the Admiralty trusted him to complete the job. An excellent sailor and competent cartographer, Bligh nevertheless was not very likeable. After the Bounty, he was also involved in another mutiny, known as the Nore Mutiny, when in 1797 his crew rebelled against poor conditions for ordinary sailors. After the Bounty, Bligh never really lost his reputation for being intolerant, unpleasant and overly authoritarian.

Bligh became governor of the colony of New South Wales in 1806 and had big ideas about what needed to be done there. His hard-hitting approach and hot temper didn’t endear him to the colonists, nor to the so-called Rum Corps whose officers were undoubtedly corrupt. In 1808, Bligh was involved in yet another mutiny – this time on land – when soldiers of the New South Wales Corps arrested him, keeping him in confinement until he was finally allowed to return to England in 1810. There’s a great deal more that could be said about Bligh, but space doesn’t permit. Suffice to say he was a man of great ability and organisation – after the trial of those involved in the rebellion that overthrew him, he was promoted to admiral – but his lack of interpersonal skills was a defining personality trait and has given him a notoriety that’s outshone his achievements.

Bligh and Christian – who was the villain and who the victim? It depends on which accounts you read.

As a side note, by the time Bligh reached the West Indies on his second voyage to deliver breadfruit in 1793, slavery was in decline, public sentiment in Britain being very much against the practice. It took until 1833 for the Slavery Abolition Act to be passed and many more years until slavery effectively ceased. Breadfruit, however, remains a popular food in the region.

 

 

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who has authored four non-fiction books, been a contributing writer to a wide range of reference books and whose essays have been published across a number of platforms. A regular contributor to The Big Smoke, she also coordinates the TBS Next Gen program.

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