The mutiny on the Bounty.
It’s been mythologized, contextualized, and debated for a couple centuries now. The villainous Captain William Bligh versus the tragic victim of circumstances, First Officer Fletcher Christian.
Historians still differ about what actually went down on the infamous ship. And while Bligh has been a lightning rod for criticism, some revisionist scholars have been more sympathetic towards him — and conversely, more harsh in their criticism of the mutinous Christian.
The story has refused to die over the decades and centuries since, as it has been kept alive — first by novelists Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, who penned the initial Mutiny on the Bounty novel, shortly followed by two other novels focusing on the aftermath (Pitcairn’s Island and Men Against the Sea). Several films have been made based on these events as well, two of which launched the careers of Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, and another which starred Marlon Brando in his prime. A fourth film (simply called The Bounty) painted a more sympathetic picture of Bligh and gave both him and Christian a more nuanced portrayal.
By now, the background and essentials of the story are well-documented. But never fear, dear reader. I’ll fill you in just in case.
Part 1: Background
The HMS Bounty was commissioned in 1787 for the purpose of transporting breadfruit plants to Jamaican plantations by way of the South Pacific (more specifically, Tahiti).
William Bligh was a former mentee of the accomplished Captain James Cook (1728-1799), who mapped and chartered much of the Pacific — including Australia and New Zealand — over three separate voyages before getting murdered by Hawaiian warriors on the third journey. Bligh served as Cook’s navigator on those trips and was from a prominent naval family in Britain.
Fletcher Christian was Bligh’s master’s mate, having sailed with the captain on two previous voyages and garnered a reputation as a skilled navigator. Only 23 years old at the time, Christian came from a wealthy family of lawyers, but chose to be a sailor contrary to his parents’ wishes.
The entire journey — from London to Tahiti to the West Indies and back to London — was to take an entire two years. There were 46 men aboard the Bounty during its long journey — 44 midshipmen and two civilians. After making the treacherous journey around Cape Horn, the crew stayed in Tahiti for several months, growing breadfruits in a tropical environment and planning to take them to Jamaica at a later time. However, Bligh grew increasingly irascible and became more and more demanding of his crew. Christian, in particular, became a key whipping boy and discontent grew rapidly among the crew.
The Bounty left Tahiti in April 1789. While the crew may have been slightly disgruntled, none suggested any serious talk of rebellion. After the Bounty made a supply run in the Friendly Islands (modern-day Tonga), the mutiny occurred in the early morning hours of April 28th. Christian overestimated how many men would be behind him during the mutiny; nonetheless, he cast Bligh adrift, along with 18 of his men. In addition to the core group of mutineers, several Bligh loyalists were forced to remain against their will due to a lack of lifeboat space.
Part 2: Initial Analysis
The prevailing narrative of the story is that Bligh was, at best, an unpredictable control freak, or at worst, a wicked tyrant — thereby portraying Christian as either a tragic victim of circumstances or a justifiably pissed-off rebel. This account has been the one that’s been dramatized most frequently, first in the book trilogy and later in most of the film adaptations. However, over the years, academics, historians and analysts alike have begun to be more sympathetic towards Blight and unsympathetic towards Christian.
This was first epitomized in the 1984 film The Bounty, which starred Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Christian. The movie, directed by Australian filmmaker Roger Donaldson, was much more revisionist than previous dramatizations, and Gibson later went on record as saying that the depiction didn’t go far enough — arguing that Christian should’ve been portrayed as the clear villain from the get-go.
(Side note: The 1984 film is not based on the original Mutiny on the Bounty novel, but rather on a different book called Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian, first published in 1972 by historian Richard Hough).
Regardless, what logical conclusion can we take from the Bounty incident? Was the mutiny justified? And more importantly, what happened in between all the pivotal and memorable moments, both before and after the mutiny?
Part 3: Reading between the lines
Truthfully, the roots of the mutiny can be found in Tahiti, where the crew of the Bounty spent five months. Upon their arrival, the Bounty‘s crew were ordered by Bligh to keep a careful eye on the breadfruits’ growth, but overall, their duties were light during their five-month stay. Bligh had a good relationship with the Polynesian natives, as he had made contact with them many years prior while traveling with Captain Cook. Bligh presented gifts to the Tahitian chiefs in exchange for the breadfruit plants; they happily accepted and were, by all accounts, very hospitable.
Maybe too much.
Christian and the rest of the crew were weary of the sea, and were more than content to get some R&R in this tropical paradise. Given that most of the crewmen were 15-25 year old men, they were beyond willing to drink rum, lounge on the beach, and socialize with the Tahitian women — who, back in the day, traditionally went topless.
Bligh continuously stressed discipline, but by that point, the crew (including Christian) weren’t in the mood to be bothered. A frustrated Bligh began to impose greater punishment on those who he deemed lazy, boorish, or worse. However, Bligh had rarely been a strict disciplinarian towards his crew during their long voyage, and was even seen by some as playing favorites with Christian.
Bligh was initially tolerant of his crew’s boozing and womanizing after the first few weeks in Tahiti, so his spurts of fierce discipline seemed to come out of nowhere — be it floggings, forcible rum rationing, or other punishments. In addition, Christian was frequently singled out and humiliated in front of the other crew and the natives. “Such neglectful and worthless, petty officers I believe were never in a ship such as are in this,” Bligh wrote angrily in his diary.
On January 5, 1789, three disgruntled members of the Bounty crew — John Millward, William Muspratt and Charles Churchill — deserted the rest of the crew in a small boat, taking some food, weapons and ammunition with them. Churchill left a list of crew names on a piece of paper on the Bounty that Bligh later found. This list apparently included both Christian and fellow crewman Peter Heywood. Incensed, Bligh soon captured the would-be deserters and had them severely flogged.
An increasingly paranoid Bligh began to rapidly increase the workload as the crew began to fill the lower cabins with the breadfruits; the Bounty finally left Tahiti on the morning of April 5th. Despite being irritated at having to leave, the crew were actually in fairly good spirits for the next few weeks, according to the diary of crewman James Morrison.
However, Blight continued to target Christian for minor offenses and seemed to be completely clueless about how his authoritarian approach was affecting morale. For example, when the Bounty reached the Tongan islands for additional water and supplies, Bligh warned Christian that the natives were unpredictable, having had skirmishes with them during his journeys with Captain Cook. However, he forbade Christian from bringing any muskets ashore with him in case things went awry. Christian was harassed by the Tongans, who stole the ship’s anchor and denied him any further access to the islands. Additionally, Bligh later accused Christian of stealing coconuts from his own private supply, despite Christian denying it. In retaliation, Bligh ordered his crew to ration food and rum.
Then the mutiny happened. It is believed that the mutiny itself was organized by Christian alone, although he had previously grumbled to fellow officers Edward Young and George Stewart. Neither of them encouraged Christian to desert, but suggested that he would likely have the crew’s support if he chose to revolt. Christian definitely didn’t have the foresight to know who would remain loyal to Bligh or not. Nonetheless, he had the leverage, and that’s what mattered in the end. “Never fear, lads, I’ll do you justice if ever I reach England,” Bligh called to his loyalists who remained onboard the Bounty.
Part 4: Bligh’s return and fate
Bligh and his men eventually navigated their way to the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia) while rationing food and supplies. They tangled with the Tongan natives (again) and nearly got cannibalized in Fiji. Six men ultimately died on the return trip home.
Bligh finally arrived in England in 1790, and the news of the mutiny proceeded him. The Royal Navy court-martialed Bligh and then dispatched the HMS Pandora to round up the mutineers and send them back to England to be tried for treason.
In March 1791, the Pandora finally reached Tahiti and found several of the mutineers. Three of them surrendered immediately, and the remainder were rounded up within a week’s time. However, there was no sign of Christian.
Tragically, on the return trip, the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef — 35 men were lost, including four mutineers. In September 1791, they arrived in Kupang, Dutch East Indies, where 16 crewmen also died, mostly from disease. In total, only 78 of the 134 men aboard the Pandora made it back safely to London.
Out of the 10 mutineers that were brought to trial, six were found guilty and four were innocent. Only three out of six were executed, as one got off on a technicality and two others were pardoned.
Bligh was exonerated for his actions in his court-martial and he remained in the Royal Navy. He undertook a second breadfruit expedition to the West Indies in 1793 and later become governor of the colony of New South Wales in 1805. The fledgling Australian penal colony was notorious for its rough conditions, and Bligh’s no-nonsense approach was seen as a perfect fit.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. In a bit of deja vu, the New South Wales army corps rebelled against Bligh, arresting him and declaring martial law in what is now known as the “Rum Rebellion.” To date, it is the only successful armed government takeover in Australian history. Bligh returned to England, where he died in 1817 at the age of 63.
Part 5: Pitcairn Island
Meanwhile, Christian & Co. had unsuccessfully attempted to colonize the island of Tubuai before electing to return to Tahiti. At this point, the party consisted of Christian, 12 mutineers, and four Bligh loyalists. Christian eventually decided to take several men and a handful of Tahitians with him on a journey further east to Pitcairn Island, where they hoped to set up another colony. Many of the other mutineers stayed behind in Tahiti.
Once Christian and the remaining mutineers got to Pitcairn Island, they set the Bounty ablaze. The island itself was prohibitively isolated, filled with lush vegetation and plenty of raw materials in order to help sustain its new population. For awhile, the mutineers and their Tahitian companions coexisted peacefully, and many of them settled down and had children, including Christian.
Eventually, conflict broke out. Many of the Tahitian men were disgruntled at the hard labor they were expected to do, while debate arose among the mutineers about whether or not the Tahitians should be considered their slaves or fellow free settlers. Christian also became increasingly quiet and withdrawn during this time.
The Tahitians revolted against their former allies in September 1793, when they executed six mutineers. But only a few months later, all of the Tahitians who planned the murders were killed themselves, possibly by the mutineers’ wives as revenge. Christian was murdered, too — according to one account, he was shot while working in a field and his body was then dismembered with an axe.
Two of the four surviving mutineers, Ned Young and John Adams, grew weary of the violence and attempted to bring peace to Pitcairn. They reasoned that the copy of the Bible that was on the Bounty would be a good place to start. The two men taught the Tahitians and their children how to read and write, and also preached the Gospel.
In 1808, an American ship, the Topaz, stumbled upon Pitcairn. To their amazement, they found a thriving colony on the island that was filled with friendly, peaceful people, as opposed to drunken, disorderly mutineers and their children.
However, with a potential war against France looming, the Brits weren’t overly concerned with the fate of Christian’s men and word of their whereabouts didn’t reach London until two years later. By that point, Adams was the only surviving mutineer (he didn’t die until 1829) and was later given amnesty. The British officially colonized Pitcairn in 1838.
To this day, the mutineers’ descendants still live on Pitcairn. A large number of descendants also live on Norfolk Island, an external territory of Australia where several settlers temporarily relocated due to overcrowding on Pitcairn in the 1850s. In the latter half of the 19th century, the entirely Anglican population converted to Seventh-day Adventism due to the efforts of American missionary John Tay.
Due to its extreme isolation, Pitcairn has no airport and is classified as a British Overseas Territory, although they use the New Zealand dollar as currency. With a mere 50 inhabitants, Pitcairn is the least populous jurisdiction on the planet. Many of the residents still have surnames such as Young, Adams and Christian.