Mutiny on the Bounty

May 3, 2024

Every day holds so much history that it’s impossible to know it all. This last Sunday, April 28, was the 235 anniversary of the Mutiny on the Bounty!

HMS Bounty was a British Merchant ship built in 1784 and was a private vessel for the first three years of her life. The Royal Navy purchased the ship on May 23, 1787, and converted her for military service with four cannons and ten swivel guns. Her journey was to travel to Tahiti and transport breadfruit plants to the British West Indies. Breadfruit plants are a type of flowering tree similar to mulberry trees, which were to be used as food for slaves in the colony. To complete this journey, the Bounty would have to complete a circumnavigation of the globe. Captain Bligh personally selected most of the 46-person crew.

On October 15, 1787, the Bounty set sail for Tahiti. Bligh introduced strict rules for the crew, which were generally followed but at several points throughout the journey he had to order floggings and threaten members by reading the regulations, otherwise called the “Articles of War”. However, they made it to Tahiti and began transporting breadfruit plants onboard. There, the ship’s surgeon passed away, three crew members deserted, and Bligh began to order floggings commonly for perceived laziness and losing tools.

With the breadfruit plants loaded, HMS Bounty left Tahiti for the long journey back to the United Kingdom. The floggings that were common on Tahiti continued, and Bligh began to lash out at the crew regularly. Chief among these was Bligh’s attacks targeted against his protege Fletcher Christian. Fletcher would become the target of random verbal assaults and was demeaned as a “cowardly rascal” for failing to gather supplies in Tonga after the locals harassed his party. Christian considered deserting but his discontent became known among the ship’s officers. 

Early on April 28, 1789, Christian had had enough. He gathered several crew members who he knew were on his side, dismissed the crew member guarding the ship’s arms, and marched onto Bligh’s cabin. The mutineers ordered Bligh and his loyalists to leave on the ship’s largest boat. Around 10:00 a.m. the loyalists were launched and made haste for Tofua. After traveling from island to island, the loyalists made it to Kupang in modern-day Indonesia, reported the mutiny, and returned to the United Kingdom.

The mutineers, meanwhile, headed to Tubuai in hopes of reaching a defensible position. After repelling a native attack, they went back to Tahiti to reprovision and returned with native Tahitians who were coerced into traveling to build a settlement. After two grueling months though, the mutineers were divided as over half wished to return to Tahiti and take their chances, while eight remained loyal to Christian. The Bounty allowed fifteen of the sixteen crewmembers to return to Tahiti. Onboard the Bounty, Christian directed the mutineers towards Pitcairn Island, arriving there on January 15, 1780, with themselves and several kidnapped Tahitians. They set up a settlement that had plenty of food, water, and shelter, but was full of tensions as the Tahitians were treated as property and leadership devolved.

Their settlement wasn’t discovered until February 1808, as an American sealing ship Topaz stumbled across the community. By the time the British were able to dispatch warships to the island in 1814, the island was led by Christian’s son, Thursday October Christian, and George Young. They greeted the warships, which decided not to pursue action for the now 25-year-old mutiny.

The Bounty herself lives on. Despite being set ablaze shortly after the crew arrived at Pitcairn Island, pieces of the ship have been discovered, the Pitcairn Project is actively researching the settlement’s history, and the Bounty is a piece of our popular culture. A novel and musical have been written about the mutiny, and three moves have been made.

To read more about the Mutiny on the Bounty, click the link below. 

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