Wednesday April 28, 2021’s Smile of the Day: Mutiny on the Bounty
On this Day:
In 1789, Fletcher Christian led a mutiny on HMS Bounty against its captain William Bligh in the South Pacific.
The mutiny on the Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty occurred in the South Pacific Ocean on 28 April 1789. Disaffected crewmen, led by acting-Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, seized control of the ship from their captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, and set him and 18 loyalists adrift in the ship’s open launch. The mutineers variously settled on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island. Bligh navigated more than 3,500 nautical miles (6,500 km; 4,000 mi) in the launch to reach safety, and began the process of bringing the mutineers to justice.
Bounty had left England in 1787 on a mission to collect and transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies. A five-month layover in Tahiti, during which many of the men lived ashore and formed relationships with native Polynesians, led many men to be less amenable to military discipline. Relations between Bligh and his crew deteriorated after he began handing out increasingly harsh punishments, criticism and abuse, Christian being a particular target. After three weeks back at sea, Christian and others forced Bligh from the ship. Twenty-five men remained on board afterwards, including loyalists held against their will and others for whom there was no room in the launch.
After Bligh reached England in April 1790, the Admiralty despatched HMS Pandora to apprehend the mutineers. Fourteen were captured in Tahiti and imprisoned on board Pandora, which then searched without success for Christian’s party that had hidden on Pitcairn Island. After turning back towards England, Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, with the loss of 31 crew and four prisoners from Bounty. The 10 surviving detainees reached England in June 1792 and were court martialed; four were acquitted, three were pardoned and three were hanged.
Christian’s group remained undiscovered on Pitcairn until 1808, by which time only one mutineer, John Adams, remained alive. Almost all of his fellow mutineers, including Christian, had been killed, either by each other or by their Polynesian companions. No action was taken against Adams; descendants of the mutineers and their Tahitian captives live on Pitcairn into the 21st century.
His Majesty’s Armed Vessel (HMAV) Bounty, or HMS Bounty, was built in 1784 at the Blaydes shipyard in Hull, Yorkshire as a collier named Bethia. It was renamed after being purchased by the Royal Navy for £1,950 in May 1787. It was three-masted, 91 feet (28 m) long overall and 25 feet (7.6 m) across at its widest point, and registered at 230 tons burthen. Its armament was four short four-pounder carriage guns and ten half-pounder swivel guns, supplemented by small arms such as muskets. As it was rated by the Admiralty as a cutter, the smallest category of warship, its commander would be a lieutenant rather than a post-captain and would be the only commissioned officer on board. Nor did a cutter warrant the usual detachment of Marines that naval commanders could use to enforce their authority.
Bounty had been acquired to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti (then rendered “Otaheite”), a Polynesian island in the south Pacific, to the British colonies in the West Indies. The expedition was promoted by the Royal Society and organised by its president Sir Joseph Banks, who shared the view of Caribbean plantation owners that breadfruit might grow well there and provide cheap food for the slaves. Bounty was refitted under Banks’ supervision at Deptford Dockyard on the River Thames. The great cabin, normally the ship’s captain’s quarters, was converted into a greenhouse for over a thousand potted breadfruit plants, with glazed windows, skylights, and a lead-covered deck and drainage system to prevent the waste of fresh water. The space required for these arrangements in the small ship meant that the crew and officers would endure severe overcrowding for the duration of the long voyage.
With Banks’ agreement, command of the expedition was given to Lieutenant William Bligh, whose experiences included Captain James Cook’s third and final voyage (1776–80) in which he had served as sailing master, or chief navigator, on HMS Resolution. Bligh was born in Plymouth in 1754 into a family of naval and military tradition—Admiral Sir Richard Rodney Bligh was his third cousin. Appointment to Cook’s ship at the age of 21 had been a considerable honour, although Bligh believed that his contribution was not properly acknowledged in the expedition’s official account. With the 1783 ending of the eight-year American War of Independence and subsequent renewal of conflict with France—which had recognised and allied with the new United States in 1778—the vast Royal Navy was reduced in size, and Bligh found himself ashore on half-pay.
After a period of idleness, Bligh took temporary employment in the mercantile service and in 1785 was captain of the Britannia, a vessel owned by his wife’s uncle Duncan Campbell. Bligh assumed the prestigious Bounty appointment on 16 August 1787, at a considerable financial cost; his lieutenant’s pay of four shillings a day (£70 a year) contrasted with the £500 a year he had earned as captain of Britannia. Because of the limited number of warrant officers allowed on Bounty, Bligh was also required to act as the ship’s purser. In order to survey an important but under-explored passage, Bligh’s sailing orders stated that he was to enter the Pacific via Cape Horn around South America and then, after collecting the breadfruit plants, sail westward through the Endeavour Strait. He was then to cross the Indian and South Atlantic Oceans to the West Indies islands in the Caribbean. Bounty would thus complete a circumnavigation of the Earth in the Southern Hemisphere.
Bounty’s complement was 46 men, comprising 44 Royal Navy seamen (including Bligh) and two civilian botanists. Directly beneath Bligh were his warrant officers, appointed by the Navy Board and headed by the sailing master John Fryer. The other warrant officers were the boatswain, the surgeon, the carpenter and the gunner. To the two master’s mates and two midshipmen were added several honorary midshipmen—so-called “young gentlemen” who were aspirant naval officers. These signed the ship’s roster as able seamen, but were quartered with the midshipmen and treated on equal terms with them.
Most of Bounty’s crew were chosen by Bligh or were recommended to him by influential patrons. William Peckover the gunner and Joseph Coleman the armourer had been with Cook and Bligh on HMS Resolution; several others had sailed under Bligh more recently on the Britannia. Among these was 23-year-old Fletcher Christian, who came from a wealthy Cumberland family descended from Manx gentry. Christian had chosen a life at sea rather than the legal career envisaged by his family. He had twice voyaged with Bligh to the West Indies, and the two had formed a master-pupil relationship through which Christian had become a skilled navigator. Christian was willing to serve on Bounty without pay as one of the “young gentlemen”; Bligh gave him one of the salaried master’s mate’s berths. Another of the young gentlemen recommended to Bligh was 15-year-old Peter Heywood, also from a Manx family and a distant relation of Christian’s. Heywood had left school at 14 to spend a year on HMS Powerful, a harbour-bound training vessel at Plymouth. His recommendation to Bligh came from Richard Betham, a Heywood family friend who was Bligh’s father-in-law.
The two botanists, or “gardeners”, were chosen by Banks. The chief botanist, David Nelson, was a veteran of Cook’s third expedition who had been to Tahiti and had learned some of the natives’ language. Nelson’s assistant William Brown was a former midshipman who had seen naval action against the French. Banks also helped to secure the official midshipmen’s berths for two of his protégés, Thomas Hayward and John Hallett. Overall, Bounty’s crew was relatively youthful, the majority being under 30; at the time of departure, Bligh was 33 years old. Among the older crew members were the 39-year-old Peckover, who had sailed on all three of Cook’s voyages, and Lawrence Lebogue, a year older and formerly sailmaker on the Britannia. The youngest aboard were Hallett and Heywood, both 15 when they left England.
Living space on the ship was allocated on the basis of rank. Bligh, having yielded the great cabin, occupied private sleeping quarters with an adjacent dining area or pantry on the starboard side of the ship, and Fryer a small cabin on the opposite side. The surgeon Thomas Huggan, the other warrant officers, and Nelson the botanist had tiny cabins on the lower deck, while the master’s mates and the midshipmen, together with the young gentlemen, berthed together in an area behind the captain’s dining room known as the cockpit; as junior or prospective officers, they were allowed use of the quarterdeck. The other ranks had their quarters in the forecastle, a windowless unventilated area measuring 36 by 22 feet (11.0 by 6.7 m) with headroom of 5 feet 7 inches (1.70 m).
Bligh’s first action on arrival on Tahiti was to secure the cooperation of the local chieftains, as well as the King of Tahiti Pōmare I. The paramount chief Tynah remembered Bligh from Cook’s voyage 15 years previously, and greeted him warmly. Bligh presented the chiefs with gifts and informed them that their own “King George” wished in return only breadfruit plants. They happily agreed with this simple request. Bligh assigned Christian to lead a shore party charged with establishing a compound in which the plants would be nurtured.
Whether based ashore or on board, the men’s duties during Bounty’s five-month stay in Tahiti were relatively light. Many led promiscuous lives among the native women—altogether, 18 officers and men, including Christian, received treatment for venereal infections—while others took regular partners. Christian formed a close relationship with a Polynesian woman named Mauatua, to whom he gave the name “Isabella” after a former sweetheart from Cumberland. Bligh remained chaste himself, but was tolerant of his men’s activities, unsurprised that they should succumb to temptation when “the allurements of dissipation are beyond any thing that can be conceived”. Nevertheless, he expected them to do their duty efficiently, and was disappointed to find increasing instances of neglect and slackness on the part of his officers. Infuriated, he wrote: “Such neglectful and worthless petty officers I believe were never in a ship such as are in this”.
Huggan died on 10 December. Bligh attributed this to “the effects of intemperance and indolence … he never would be prevailed on to take half a dozen turns upon deck at a time, through the whole course of the voyage”. For all his earlier favoured status, Christian did not escape Bligh’s wrath. He was often humiliated by the captain—sometimes in front of the crew and the Tahitians—for real or imagined slackness, while severe punishments were handed out to men whose carelessness had led to the loss or theft of equipment. Floggings, rarely administered during the outward voyage, now became increasingly common. On 5 January 1789 three members of the crew—Charles Churchill, John Millward and William Muspratt—deserted, taking a small boat, arms and ammunition. Muspratt had recently been flogged for neglect. Among the belongings Churchill left on the ship was a list of names that Bligh interpreted as possible accomplices in a desertion plot—the captain later asserted that the names included those of Christian and Heywood. Bligh was persuaded that his protégé was not planning to desert, and the matter was dropped. Churchill, Millward and Muspratt were found after three weeks and, on their return to the ship, were flogged.
From February onwards, the pace of work increased; more than 1,000 breadfruit plants were potted and carried into the ship, where they filled the great cabin. The ship was overhauled for the long homeward voyage, in many cases by men who regretted the forthcoming departure and loss of their easy life with the Tahitians. Bligh was impatient to be away, but as Richard Hough observes in his account, he “failed to anticipate how his company would react to the severity and austerity of life at sea … after five dissolute, hedonistic months at Tahiti”. The work was done by 1 April 1789, and four days later, after an affectionate farewell from Tynah and his queen, Bounty left the harbour.
In the early hours of 28 April 1789, Bounty lay about 30 nautical miles (56 km; 35 mi) south of the island of Tofua. After a largely sleepless night, Christian had decided to act. He understood from his discussions with Young and Stewart which crewmen were his most likely supporters and, after approaching Quintal and Isaac Martin, he learned the names of several more. With the help of these men, Christian rapidly gained control of the upper deck; those who questioned his actions were ordered to keep quiet. At about 05:15, Christian went below, dismissed Hallett (who was sleeping on the chest containing the ship’s muskets), and distributed arms to his followers before making for Bligh’s cabin. Three men took hold of the captain and tied his hands, threatening to kill him if he raised the alarm; Bligh “called as loudly as [he] could in hopes of assistance”. The commotion woke Fryer, who saw, from his cabin opposite, the mutineers frogmarching Bligh away. The mutineers ordered Fryer to “lay down again, and hold my tongue or I was a dead man”.
Bligh was brought to the quarterdeck, his hands bound by a cord held by Christian, who was brandishing a bayonet; some reports maintained that Christian had a sounding plummet hanging from his neck so that he could jump overboard and drown himself if the mutiny failed. Others who had been awakened by the noise left their berths and joined in the general pandemonium. It was unclear at this stage who were and who were not active mutineers. Hough describes the scene: “Everyone was, more or less, making a noise, either cursing, jeering or just shouting for the reassurance it gave them to do so”. Bligh shouted continually, demanding to be set free, sometimes addressing individuals by name, and otherwise exhorting the company generally to “knock Christian down!” Fryer was briefly permitted on deck to speak to Christian, but was then forced below at bayonet-point; according to Fryer, Christian told him: “I have been in hell for weeks past. Captain Bligh has brought this on himself.”
Christian originally thought to cast Bligh adrift in Bounty’s small jolly boat, together with his clerk John Samuel and the loyalist midshipmen Hayward and Hallett. This boat proved unseaworthy, so Christian ordered the launching of a larger ship’s boat, with a capacity of around ten. However, Christian and his allies had overestimated the extent of the mutiny—at least half on board were determined to leave with Bligh. Thus the ship’s largest boat, a 23-foot (7.0 m) launch, was put into the water. During the following hours the loyalists collected their possessions and entered the boat. Among these was Fryer, who with Bligh’s approval sought to stay on board—in the hope, he later claimed, that he would be able to retake the ship—but Christian ordered him into the launch. Soon, the vessel was badly overloaded, with more than 20 persons and others still vying for places. Christian ordered the two carpenter’s mates, Norman and McIntosh, and the armourer, Joseph Coleman, to return to the ship, considering their presence essential if he were to navigate Bounty with a reduced crew. Reluctantly they obeyed, beseeching Bligh to remember that they had remained with the ship against their will. Bligh assured them: “Never fear, lads, I’ll do you justice if ever I reach England”.
Samuel saved the captain’s journal, commission papers and purser’s documents, a compass and quadrant, but was forced to leave behind Bligh’s maps and charts—15 years of navigational work. With the eighteen men who had remained loyal to Bligh, the launch was supplied with about five days’ food and water and Purcell’s tool chest. Bligh mentions in his journals that a sextant and any time-keeper was refused by the mutineers, but boatswain’s mate James Morrison stated Christian handed over his personal sextant saying “there, Captain Bligh, this is sufficient for every purpose and you know the sextant to be a good one.” The ships’ K2 chronometer was left on the Bounty, but Peckover had his own pocket watch that Bligh used to keep time. At the last minute the mutineers threw four cutlasses down into the boat. Of Bounty’s complement—44 after the deaths of Huggan and Valentine—19 men were crowded into the launch, leaving it dangerously low in the water with only seven inches of freeboard. The 25 men remaining on Bounty included the committed mutineers who had taken up arms, the loyalists detained against their will, and others for whom there was no room in the launch. At around 10:00 the line holding the launch to the ship was cut; a little later, Bligh ordered a sail to be raised. Their immediate destination was the nearby island of Tofua, clearly marked on the horizon by the plume of smoke rising from its volcano.
When Bligh landed in England on 14 March 1790, news of the mutiny had preceded him and he was fêted as a hero. In October 1790 at a formal court-martial for the loss of Bounty, he was honourably acquitted of responsibility for the loss and was promoted to post-captain. As an adjunct to the court martial, Bligh brought charges against Purcell for misconduct and insubordination; the former carpenter received a reprimand.
In November 1790, the Admiralty despatched the frigate HMS Pandora under Captain Edward Edwards to capture the mutineers and return them to England to stand trial. Pandora arrived at Tahiti on 23 March 1791 and, within a few days, all 14 surviving Bounty men had either surrendered or been captured. Edwards made no distinction between mutineers and those who claimed they had been detained on Bounty unwillingly; all were incarcerated in a specially constructed prison erected on Pandora’s quarterdeck, dubbed “Pandora’s Box”. Pandora remained at Tahiti for five weeks while Captain Edwards unsuccessfully sought information on Bounty’s whereabouts. The ship finally sailed on 8 May, to search for Christian and Bounty among the thousands of southern Pacific islands. Apart from a few spars discovered at Palmerston Island, no traces of the fugitive vessel were found. Edwards continued the search until August, when he turned west and headed for the Dutch East Indies.
On 29 August 1791, Pandora ran aground on the outer Great Barrier Reef. The men in “Pandora’s Box” were ignored as the regular crew attempted to prevent the ship from foundering. When Edwards gave the order to abandon ship, Pandora’s armourer began to remove the prisoners’ shackles, but the ship sank before he had finished. Heywood and nine other prisoners escaped; four Bounty men—George Stewart, Henry Hillbrant, Richard Skinner and John Sumner—drowned, along with 31 of Pandora’s crew. The survivors, including the ten remaining prisoners, then embarked on an open-boat journey that largely followed Bligh’s course of two years earlier. The prisoners were mostly kept bound hand and foot until they reached Kupang on 17 September.
The prisoners were confined for seven weeks, at first in prison and later on a Dutch East India Company ship, before being transported to Cape Town. On 5 April 1792, they embarked for England on a British warship, HMS Gorgon, and arrived at Portsmouth on 19 June. There they were transferred to the guardship HMS Hector to await trial. The prisoners included the three detained loyalists—Coleman, McIntosh and Norman—to whom Bligh had promised justice, the blind fiddler Michael Byrne (or “Byrn”), Heywood, Morrison, and four active mutineers: Thomas Burkett, John Millward, Thomas Ellison and William Muspratt. Bligh, who had been given command of HMS Providence for a second breadfruit expedition, had left England in August 1791, and thus would be absent from the pending court martial proceedings.
The court martial opened on 12 September 1792 on HMS Duke in Portsmouth harbour, with Vice-Admiral Lord Hood, Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, presiding. Heywood’s family secured him competent legal advisers; of the other defendants, only Muspratt employed legal counsel. The survivors of Bligh’s open-boat journey gave evidence against their former comrades—the testimonies from Thomas Hayward and John Hallett were particularly damaging to Heywood and Morrison, who each maintained their innocence of any mutinous intention and had surrendered voluntarily to Pandora. The court did not challenge the statements of Coleman, McIntosh, Norman and Byrne, all of whom were acquitted. On 18 September the six remaining defendants were found guilty of mutiny and were sentenced to death by hanging, with recommendations of mercy for Heywood and Morrison “in consideration of various circumstances”.
On 26 October 1792 Heywood and Morrison received royal pardons from King George III and were released. Muspratt, through his lawyer, won a stay of execution by filing a petition protesting that court martial rules had prevented his calling Norman and Byrne as witnesses in his defence. He was still awaiting the outcome when Burkett, Ellison and Millward were hanged from the yardarm of HMS Brunswick in Portsmouth dock on 28 October. Some accounts claim that the condemned trio continued to protest their innocence until the last moment, while others speak of their “manly firmness that … was the admiration of all”. There was some unease expressed in the press—a suspicion that “money had bought the lives of some, and others fell sacrifice to their poverty.” A report that Heywood was heir to a large fortune was unfounded; nevertheless, Dening asserts that “in the end it was class or relations or patronage that made the difference.” In December Muspratt heard that he was reprieved, and on 11 February 1793 he, too, was pardoned and freed.
Much of the court martial testimony was critical of Bligh’s conduct—by the time of his return to England in August 1793, following his successful conveyance of breadfruit to the West Indies aboard Providence, professional and public opinion had turned against him. He was snubbed at the Admiralty when he went to present his report, and was left on half pay for 19 months before receiving his next appointment. In late 1794 the jurist Edward Christian, brother of Fletcher, published his Appendix to the court martial proceedings, which was said by the press to “palliate the behaviour of Christian and the Mutineers, and to criminate Captain Bligh”. Bligh’s position was further undermined when the loyalist gunner Peckover confirmed that much of what was alleged in the Appendix was true.
After leaving Tahiti on 22 September 1789, Christian sailed Bounty west in search of a safe haven. He then formed the idea of settling on Pitcairn Island, far to the east of Tahiti; the island had been reported in 1767, but its exact location was never verified. After months of searching, Christian rediscovered the island on 15 January 1790, 188 nautical miles (348 km; 216 mi) east of its recorded position. This longitudinal error contributed to the mutineers’ decision to settle on Pitcairn.
On arrival the ship was unloaded and stripped of most of its masts and spars, for use on the island. It was set ablaze and destroyed on 23 January, either as an agreed upon precaution against discovery or as an unauthorised act by Quintal—in either case, there was now no means of escape.
The island proved an ideal haven for the mutineers—uninhabited and virtually inaccessible, with plenty of food, water, and fertile land. For a while, the mutineers and Tahitians existed peaceably. Christian settled down with Isabella; a son, Thursday October Christian, was born, as were other children. Christian’s authority as leader gradually diminished, and he became prone to long periods of brooding and introspection.
Gradually, tensions and rivalries arose over the increasing extent to which the Europeans regarded the Tahitians as their property, in particular the women who, according to Alexander, were “passed around from one ‘husband’ to the other”. In September 1793 matters degenerated into extreme violence, when five of the mutineers—Christian, Williams, Martin, Mills, and Brown—were killed by Tahitians in a carefully executed series of murders. Christian was set upon while working in his fields, first shot and then butchered with an axe; his last words, supposedly, were: “Oh, dear!” In-fighting continued thereafter, and by 1794 the six Tahitian men were all dead, killed either by the widows of the murdered mutineers or by each other. Two of the four surviving mutineers, Young and Adams, assumed leadership and secured a tenuous calm, which was disrupted by the drunkenness of McCoy and Quintal after the former distilled an alcoholic beverage from a local plant.
Some of the women attempted to leave the island in a makeshift boat but could not launch it successfully. Life continued uneasily until McCoy’s suicide in 1798. A year later, after Quintal threatened fresh murder and mayhem, Adams and Young killed him and were able to restore peace.
After Young succumbed to asthma in 1800, Adams took responsibility for the education and well-being of the nine remaining women and 19 children. Using the ship’s Bible from Bounty, he taught literacy and Christianity, and kept peace on the island. This was the situation in February 1808, when the American sealer Topaz came unexpectedly upon Pitcairn, landed, and discovered the, by then, thriving community. News of Topaz’s discovery did not reach Britain until 1810, when it was overlooked by an Admiralty preoccupied by war with France.
In 1814, two British warships, HMS Briton and HMS Tagus, chanced upon Pitcairn. Among those who greeted them were Thursday October Christian and George Young (Edward Young’s son). The captains, Sir Thomas Staines and Philip Pipon, reported that Christian’s son displayed “in his benevolent countenance, all the features of an honest English face”. On shore they found a population of 46 mainly young islanders led by Adams, upon whom the islanders’ welfare was wholly dependent, according to the captains’ report. After receiving Staines’s and Pipon’s report, the Admiralty decided to take no action.
In the following years, many ships called at Pitcairn Island and heard Adams’s various stories of the foundation of the Pitcairn settlement. Adams died in 1829, honoured as the founder and father of a community that became celebrated over the next century as an exemplar of Victorian morality. Over the years, many recovered Bounty artefacts have been sold by islanders as souvenirs; in 1999, the Pitcairn Project was established by a consortium of Australian academic and historical bodies, to survey and document all the remaining material, as part of a detailed study of the settlement’s development (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
What’s the sentence for mutiny in the sub-atomic realm? Walking the Planck.
Second, a Song:
Mutiny on the Bounty is a 1962 American Technicolor epic historical drama film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard and Richard Harris. The screenplay was written by Charles Lederer (with uncredited input from Eric Ambler, William L. Driscoll, Borden Chase, John Gay and Ben Hecht), based on the novel Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Bronisław Kaper composed the score.
The film tells a fictionalized story of the real-life mutiny led by Fletcher Christian against William Bligh, captain of HMAV Bounty, in 1789. It is the second American film to be based on the novel, the first being Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), also produced by MGM.
Mutiny on the Bounty was the first motion picture filmed in the Ultra Panavision 70 widescreen process. It was partly shot on location in the South Pacific. Panned by critics, the film was a box-office bomb, losing more than $6 million.
Brando personally selected a local Tahitian, Tarita, to play his love interest. They married in 1962 and divorced in 1972. Here is a dance scene set in Tahiti featuring Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian and Tarita Teriipaia as Princess Maimiti. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“I auditioned for soap operas and commercials; I remember auditioning for Lays potato chips. It was a sort of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ sketch, where Captain Bligh was torturing the crew by saying, ‘You can only have one Lays potato chip,’ and they all rise up.” – John Lithgow
And from the Mutiny on the Bounty movie:
Lt. Fletcher Christian: “He [Captain Bligh] doesn’t punish men for discipline. He likes to see men crawl.”
Further to the Paradise Lost Smile, Gayle Myers of Vancouver, BC, Canada says:
“Thanks to both of you”
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky