Sir Joseph Banks recommended as commander the 33-year-old lieutenant, William Bligh, a former understudy to Captain Cook. Bligh retained Fletcher Christian, who had become a friend of Bligh’s family after previous voyages together on HMS Eurydice and the Merchant Vessel Britannia, although the navy refused Bligh’s request that Christian be a ship’s Master, appointing John Fryer instead, with Christian being appointed Master’s Mate by Bligh.
Attempting to reach Tahiti via the shortest route, the Bounty was beaten back by adverse weather, after trying to round the Cope Horn of South America for a month, forcing the outward voyage to turn east and proceed by the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope, at the tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean.
Bligh demoted Fryer, during the outward journey and appointed Christian as the acting Lieutenant in his place. Bligh and Christian were clearly still on good terms at this stage and Bligh even lent Christian money during the voyage, an act which perhaps Christian resented later on. (Pictured left; Fletcher Christian)
After ten months at sea, the Bounty finally reached Tahiti, via Van Diemen’s Land and New Zealand, on 26 October 1788 and the crew were allowed by Bligh to live ashore, rather than on the ship, in order to care for the 1015 potted breadfruit plants that had been collected for transportation.
This appears to have been the start of all the trouble, as the crew developed a fondness for the customs and hedonistic culture of the island, the living conditions there for the mainly poor, working-class crew representing a significant and agreeable improvement on their lot, back in England.
Unsurprisingly, the focus of the crew’s newly found idyllic life was the Tahitian women, with whose charms and allurements they became rather enamoured. They were delicate and beautiful and had been taught by Tahitian society that they must please and attend to men, which included various sexual techniques, so salacious that I am forced to bowdlerize the details. With such powerful inducements, is it any wonder the crew didn’t want to leave?
Many of the men went native, obtaining tattoos in the Tahitian fashion and forming relationships with the women; Fletcher Christian married a Tahitian woman, named Maimiti, the daughter of a local chief, on 16 June 1789.
The Bounty left Tahiti on April 4, 1789 and on April 28th, having sailed about 1,300 miles away from Tahiti, near to Tonga, before Fletcher Christian entered the cabin of the sleeping William Bligh to announce the mutiny of 22 men. Bligh was led on board the Bounty in his nightshirt, at the point of a bayonet held by Christian.
Bligh’s anger and exasperation at his crew’s lack of discipline, since the departure from Tahiti had grown and Christian, whom Bligh had accused of stealing from his personal store of coconuts, bore the brunt, despairingly, the entire crew being punished with a reduction in rum and food rations.
Bligh’s appeals by Bligh to Christian’s better nature “you have dandled my children upon your knee”, were met with the response “That, —Captain Bligh, —that is the thing; ——I am in hell—I am in hell.” According to Fryer, Christian said “I have been in hell for weeks past. Captain Bligh has brought this on himself.”
The mutiny, however, was to prove bloodless and Bligh, along with those who remained loyal to him, were bundled into the ship’s open boat with a four cutlasses and about a week’s supply of food and water. As the Bounty pulled away, the mutineers were heard to cry “Huzzah for Otaheite!”
Bligh’s mission logs became increasingly water-stained, as he now detailed the voyage in the open boat and the logs show that they attempted to make a landing in Tofua, 30 nautical away, but he and his crew were met with such hostility and threats from the natives there that they were forced to retreat for their lives, with one crew member being killed during the scramble back to the open boat. They eventually arrived in the Dutch settlement of Coupang, on Timor, 47 days later and some 3,500 nautical miles further on from Tofua, his crew having survived on scraps of food. Weakened by the rigours of the voyage, several crew members died of pestilential sickness while awaiting a return voyage to England.
(Pictured above left; Wm. Bligh’s log from the voyage in the open boat)
Bligh’s naval skills, honed under his service with Captain Cook, were brought to the fore and he managed to chart their course, armed only with a pocket-watch and sextant and without a compass, charts, or marine chronometer, with such accuracy that a map was produced of those regions that would still be in use by the Navy some 200 years, although, to begin with, others at the Navy would take credit for the map.
There is some debate amongst historians regarding William Bligh’s reputation as the brutal and callous tyrant he has so often been portrayed. Although he may have been too dogmatic and temperamental, with an acid tongue, there is evidence that he was one of the most enlightened commanders of the British Navy, taking care to attend to the health and well-being of his crew and he often seems to have been lenient in his punishment of them, facts supported by the log of HMS Bounty.
If anything, Bligh is perhaps guilty of allowing his crew too much of a free-hand in Tahiti for them to later resent the idea of having to leave their paradise and develop notions of a mutiny. The seductions of Tahiti seem to be one of the obvious motivating factors of the mutiny and of a previous act of desertion by three of the crew on the island, following the announcement by Bligh of his intention to begin the homebound journey, after five months in Tahiti. Many of the crew perhaps supported the mutiny in reaction to discipline reapplied and so that they could go back to Tahiti and avoid having to return to their lives of poverty back in England.
In October 1790, a court-martial honourably acquitted Bligh, by then a national hero, in their inquiry into the loss of the Bounty. He would later serve under Admiral Nelson, at the Battle of Copenhagen, on 2 April 1801 and finally complete a successful mission to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies, although he was once again to experience a mutiny, as one of the captains whose crews mutinied, during the Nore mutiny, an event that couldn’t be reasonably attributed to any action taken by him.
As for the mutineers, they returned to Tahiti and 16 of the remaining crew chose to be put ashore, where they would survive as beachcombers, many fathering children with the Tahitian women. Christian and the remainder of his crew left Tahiti on the Bounty with a complement of Tahitian men, women (including Maimiti) and a baby, searching for a place to settle and elude detection by the Royal Navy, who they well knew would come looking for them and take them back to England to stand trial. The mutineers passed through Fiji and Cook Islands, temporary stops only, due to hostility from the inhabitants there and because these would obvious places for the Navy to search.
Their search for a safe haven continued, leading them to the chance discovery that the isolated and deserted Pitcairn Island, 1,350 miles southeast of Tahiti, had, conveniently for them, been incorrectly charted 200 miles wide of the mark by the explorer Carteret, an inaccuracy that would also appear on the Royal Navy’s charts. Christian and the crew decided to settle on Pitcairn, a volcanic island, with natural food sources and water aplenty, whilst often being almost inaccessible as a result of treacherous storms and a dangerous harbour. They set fire to the Bounty, which sank in what would become known as ‘Bounty Bay’, making the mutineers’ decision to settle there a final one.
HMS Pandora, was dispatched by the Navy, commanded by Captain Edward with a crew of 134 men, in November 1790, seven months after Bligh’s return to England, on the Dutch packet SS Vlydtein, via the Cape of Good Hope, in April 1790. Despite spending three months searching for the Bounty and the mutineers, their location on Pitcairn eluded detection. Those, who had been put ashore in Tahiti, were captured and locked in ‘Pandora’s box’, a makeshift prison on the ship’s quarterdeck, but were mostly exonerated after being put on trial, in England, only 3 were hanged.
Christian was born a son called Thursday October Christian and others followed, but despite co-existing peacefully on Pitcairn island to begin with, tensions and rivalries between Christian and the others gradually began to emerge regarding island authority and between the English crew and the Tahitians they largely considered to be their chattels, the Tahitian women being passed around, a fact, amongst others, resented by the Tahitian men and the situation erupted into mortal violence, with many killed, Christian being shot and hacked to death, after which an uneasy peace held life together on the island.
It was not until 1814 that the mystery of the Bounty was solved, when British warships, HMS Briton and HMS Tagus, having wandered somewhat off their course, discovered Pitcairn with 46 inhabitants, being greeted by Christian’s son, Thursday October Christian (pictured left), described as possessing a “benevolent countenance, all the features of an honest English face”
The admiralty decided to take no further action.
Today, Pitcairn island is inhibited by about 50 people, only a few being direct descendants of the mutineers, including a pastor and a schoolteacher and the island receives supply ships 3 times a year. Pitcairn has its own website, they survive on the sale of postage stamps and handicrafts, sold to island visitors, but as the revenue from such does not cover the island’s electricity and cargo expenses, Pitcairn is subsidized by the British government.
The least historically accurate of all the Bounty films, but the cinematography has been praised. Stars Charles Laughton as Bligh and Clark Gable as Christian.
The portrayal, in this film, of Bligh (Trevor Howard) being somewhat put-out by being lumbered with the rather foppish, dandy, Fletcher Christian (Marlon Brando), appointed thanks to his class connections, is not at all accurate.
The script was based on the Nordhoff and Hall novels, although Brando persuaded the producer, Aaron Rosenberg, that the film should focus more on his character and Bligh should feature less than in the script. A replica of the Bounty was built for the film and the scenes were shot on Tahiti.
Marlon Brando and Richard Harris famously fell out, Harris mocking Brando for reading his lines from a card and for being too feeble during the rough scenes. Brando had to strike Harris in one scene, but after two takes Harris thought the blows so feeble that he mock curtsied and asked Brando why he didn’t kiss him instead. Harris kissed Brando and asked him for a dance. Brando stormed off in a foul mood. Trevor Howard, none too impressed, also said of Brando “Look at him! He’d want a million dollars for reading the News at Ten.”
This film is by far the most historically accurate, including on the detail of the friendship between Bligh (Anthony Hopkins) and Christian (Mel Gibson), although the film depicts Bligh trying to make a second attempt to round Cape Horn, but, as said in my article, only one attempt was made, lasting about a month.
The film was shot on location in Moorea, part of French Polynesia, New Zealand, Greenwich Palace and the Reform Club, in Pall Mall, London and also stars Larry Olivier, Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson.
Mel Gibson was a heavy drinker at the time and got involved in a bar fight during filming. They were forced to film some of the scenes showing only one side of his face. His performance was criticized for being a bit dull and lightweight.