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Mutiny on the Bounty: a tale retold

A new book re-examines the events leading to the revolt and one of the most famous small-boat voyages

A new book re-examines the events leading to the revolt and one of the most famous small-boat voyages

Historic sea tales as retold in books and remade in films continue to draw us back for more, even though we know the tragic endings. With an old film version of a maritime disaster, we hang on until the bitter end anyway, hoping that somehow it might conclude on a happier note. But the Titanic always hits that iceberg and goes to the bottom on her maiden voyage.

The retelling in a book, however, promises a different slant on events because of new research, even though most of the hard facts remain basically the same. Even so, we read to the finish, hoping at best for enlightenment and a better understanding of the characters we have come to know.

Such a lingering tale involves the 1789 mutiny aboard His Majesty’s armed merchant ship the Bounty, an 85-foot 220-ton cutter on a botanical expedition in the South Pacific. Caroline Alexander’s “The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty” (Viking/Penguin, New York, 2003) is the latest book tackling this enduring chapter of maritime history.

The principal characters, as most of us know, were “Captain” William Bligh and Master’s Mate Fletcher Christian, the tormented-but-popular leader of the historic mutiny. (Bligh’s rank actually was lieutenant. A cutter didn’t rate a captain as commanding officer, so Bligh wasn’t promoted for the expedition as he had hoped. Addressing him as captain would have been out of courtesy.)

The mutiny was a prelude to one of the greatest open-boat sea voyages, with Bligh and 18 loyalists cast adrift on the ocean in a 23-foot launch with supplies for five days. Forty-eight days and 3,618 miles later, against inconceivable odds, all but one of those starving and distressed outcasts reached safety in the Dutch East Indies — thanks to the man who learned navigation from that great navigator, Capt. James Cook, and served under Lord Nelson himself.

Even more astonishing is that every man who survived did so because of Bligh’s indomitable leadership. It was 10-1/2 months after the mutiny before the shocking news reached England, and the messenger was Bligh himself.

From the beginning

The fateful ship, Bethia, was purchased, renamed Bounty, and fitted for a 1787 expedition to cultivate the tropical breadfruit plant as a cheap source of food for slaves in the West Indies. Bligh, who was 33 years old, got the command, perhaps because he had sailed the South Pacific on Capt. Cook’s final voyage — the 1776 expedition during which Cook was stoned to death by island natives — and was familiar with the relatively unknown waters.

Bligh had first gone to sea as a captain’s servant at the age of 7. He entered His Majesty’s Navy, married well at 27, and left the service briefly to run ships in the rum and sugar trade. He returned to service as a promising 32-year-old lieutenant with excellent credentials.

Bligh’s crew for the breadfruit expedition trickled in, among them his future adversary, 23-year-old Fletcher Christian — “dark and very swarthy,” noted Bligh. Others described Christian’s “bright, pleasing countenance and tall, commanding figure.” He was from an ancient and distinguished Isle of Man family and had sailed with Bligh before. They liked one another.

“Every British naval seaman brought certain expectations to each ship he joined,” writes Alexander. “He expected to endure hard labor in raw conditions, and was ever mindful that he was vulnerable to harsh and often arbitrary punishment at the hands of his officers. He expected to eat very specifically measured amounts of rank food, and to drink much liquor. Above all, he expected to exist for the duration of his service in stifling, unhygienic squalor.”

Bligh’s departure was seriously delayed because no sailing orders had arrived. He also was leaving with no marines as his security force — a highly unusual situation for such a long voyage, but he had to save room for his precious cargo of potted plants. Knowing he was weeks too late for a favorable rounding of Cape Horn, he finally headed out to sea Dec. 23, 1787, and met heavy storms and huge, alarming seas. Later, he was proud to note: “My Men all active good fellows & what has given me much pleasure is that I have not yet been obliged to punish anyone.” He soon was pleased to announce to all hands his decision to make Christian an acting lieutenant, in effect the second in command.

But drawing closer to the Horn, the weather changed, as expected, and in late March 1788 they met strong gales with “exceedingly high” seas. Then came sleet and snow and “a sea higher than I had ever seen before,” Bligh wrote.

After 25 days of battling towering seas and head winds, Bligh reluctantly abandoned the hell of the Horn, a detour that added some 10,000 miles to his journey and forced him to approach the South Seas from the opposite side of the globe. All hands were summoned aft to hear his decision, which was met with hearty cheers.

Trouble in paradise

In late October, the Bounty anchored in Matavai Bay, Tahiti. Even the disciplinarian Bligh was entranced with what he called “the Paradise of the World, and if happiness could result from situation and convenience, here it is to be found in the highest perfection. I have seen many parts of the world, but Otaheite [Tahiti] is capable of being preferable to them all.”

The women, wrote Bligh, “were handsome, mild and cheerful in their manners and conversation, possessed of great sensibility, and have sufficient delicacy to make them admired and beloved.”

Adds Alexander: “They were also by European standards not only very beautiful, but sexually uninhibited and experienced in ways that amazed and delighted their English visitors.”

Meanwhile, the collection of breadfruit plants went on in earnest. By early April 1789, after being “treated with the greatest kindness: fed with the best of meat and finest fruits in the world,” wrote Bligh, they took leave of Point Venus and Tahiti, and headed home to England.

On April 21, a crewmember later recalled vividly that hard words were delivered to Bligh from Christian: “Sir, your abuse is so bad that I cannot do my duty with any pleasure. I have been in hell for weeks with you.”

“To everyone looking back,” writes Alexander, “this was where the trouble really began.”

By late April the Bounty was nearing Tofua, the northernmost of the Tonga Islands, where she would meet her destiny. It seems that Bligh had become upset by the shrinking piles of coconuts on deck and began pressing every officer on how many they had eaten. The moody Christian answered, “I do not know sir, but I hope you don’t think me so mean as to be guilty of stealing yours.”

Bligh erupted, according to Boatswain’s Mate James Morrison. “Yes you dam’d Hound I do — You must have stolen them from me or you could give a better account of them — God dam you you scoundrels, you are all thieves alike and combine with the men to rob me — I suppose you’ll steal my yams next, but I’ll sweat you for it you rascals. I’ll make half of you jump overboard before you get through Endeavour Straits.”

As Christian wasn’t immune from flogging because he was still officially a master’s mate, he dreaded that, once having spoken back to Bligh, “He would probably break me, turn me before the mast, and perhaps flog me; and if he did, it would be the death of us both, for I am sure I should take him in my arms and jump overboard with him.”

Bligh made no mention of the coconut incident in his private or official logs. In fact, he resumed his custom of inviting Christian to occasionally dine with him — an offer now declined, which amounted to an insult. Christian had broken with Bligh.

Mutiny on the Bounty

During the predawn hours of the mutiny, “the authority Christian possessed had held in check even those against his desperate scheme,” writes Alexander. “Sleepless and the worse for drink [Bligh’s liquor cabinet was always open to him], he seems to have succeeded with his mutiny in great part because he was the most popular man on board.”

At daybreak April 28, Bligh was “awoken by the weight of hands being pressed on him,” Alexander continues. “In sheer astonishment,” he found Christian and three others under arms in his cabin. They bound his hands behind his back, as Bligh shouted, “Murder!”

Christian called for a boat to be lowered and ordered men into it. Pleas were made. Bligh was hoarse from shouting, and Christian held a bayonet to his chest. “He seemed to be plotting instant destruction on himself and everyone,” Bligh would write later, “for of all diabolical-looking men he exceeded every possible description.” (Asked for a reason for the mutiny at the court-martial, Bligh had one word for it: “Insanity.”)

Bligh later recorded: “When they were forcing me out of the ship, I asked him if this treatment was a proper return for the many instances he had received of my friendship. Consider, Mr. Christian, I have a wife and four children in England, and you have danced my children upon your knee.”

Bligh noted that Christian “appeared disturbed at my question, and answered with much emotion, ‘That! — Captain Bligh, that is the thing — I am in hell — I am in hell.’ ” Those prevented from joining Bligh called out to him to remember them. There was much confusion, but, “One incident was graven into the memory of everyone who saw it,” writes Alexander.

“With his ashen men crowded into the launch, surrounded by the boundless Pacific, with no charts and little food, their captain addressed the loyalists detained on board. In a voice that carried across what seems to have been a sudden silence, Bligh called out, ‘Never fear, my lads; I’ll do you justice if ever I reach England.’ ”

The Bounty turned back for Tahiti, the happy island of plenty. “Huzza for Otaheite!” shouted the men, tossing a thousand potted breadfruit plants into the sea. The ship eventually returned to Tahiti, where they kidnapped women, men and boys then set off for an unsuccessful attempt at settling on the island of Tubai. There they fought with and against one another, and 66 natives were killed in one battle.

The Bounty again returned to Tahiti, for just one day, and the ship’s company divided. Sixteen men stayed behind, and nine went on with Christian (who never even went ashore), looking for an uncharted island with no anchorage where the British Admiralty would never find them.

After two months of searching for refuge, the Bounty eventually reached Pitcairn in January 1790 with nine mutineers, 11 Tahitian women, six men, and one child, finding the remote island despite its wrong position on the charts. They unloaded the ship and set her afire.

The colony prospered for a time, but Christian and all the mutineers except Alexander Smith were to be murdered by their Tahitian slaves. The widows of the mutineers, in turn, took revenge by killing their Tahitian kinsmen.

(It was also reported, however, that Christian committed suicide, went insane, died a natural death, or escaped to England.)

In the launch

After being cast adrift, Bligh and his loyalists headed for Tofua for supplies. After a few days there, however, the once-friendly natives gathered to attack his party with rocks. Bligh knew what the sound of natives clacking rocks together meant because the same thing had happened when he witnessed Capt. Cook’s stoning in Hawaii. They barely escaped, and one of his men was killed when he ran to shore to cast off the launch’s stern line. Shaken after this harrowing ordeal, they would chance no more visits to inhabited islands, and Tahiti, of course, was out of the question.

On May 3 they ran into the first of many severe gales, and despite nonstop bailing, seas threatened to swamp their boat. In an effort to provide more freeboard, clothes, sails and lines were tossed over the side.

“The terrors and discomforts that the men experienced … would be endured for the next 24 days,” writes Alexander. “Downpours of rain and nights of numbing cold, and the small boat continually awash with the onslaught of unremitting waves. … The bailing, bailing without respite took a severe toll on the increasingly exhausted and starving men.”

Bligh had a quadrant, a compass, an unreliable sextant, and the required tables for basic navigation. His passage through the Fiji Islands, the first for any European, would be haunted by the fear of cannibalism.

“As an almost sublime record of extreme suffering and undaunted resolution,” writes Alexander, “few documents can compare with the log William Bligh kept in the Bounty’s launch.”

“Our situation today was perilous,” Bligh wrote. “The least error in the helm would in a moment be our destruction.” While his shipmates sank from hunger and exposure into a deadening lethargy, he retained his wits and navigational acumen, she notes.

The 18 survivors, mortally exhausted, finally walked shakily ashore in Coupang, Timor, their “limbs full of sores and their bodies nothing but skin and bones habitated in rags,” Bligh wrote. They recuperated in Coupang for nearly two months.

By October 1789, Bligh was finally homeward bound for Europe, and in March landed on the Isle of Wight. A few days later, he presented the journal of his South Seas voyage to King George. The news of the shocking mutiny and his ordeal created a sensation.

Searching for the Bounty

HMS Pandora, a 24-gun frigate, was dispatched in November 1790 with 140 armed men to hunt down the mutineers. On board to aid in the search and identify the mutineers was Thomas Hayward, a Bounty midshipman who was with Bligh in the open boat and knew these waters.

Upon reaching Tahiti in March 1791, Pandora’s crew soon began rounding up the loyalists who had split with Christian and put them in irons. On May 8 Pandora sailed in search of the Bounty and the true mutineers — a search area with more than 20,000 islands scattered over some 64 million square miles.

The Pandora discovered many islands, though not the one they sought. In late August it was finally time to head home, through the Endeavour Straits. But the Pandora went up on the Great Barrier Reef and was wrecked. As the ship began taking on water and men climbed into life boats, the 14 prisoners remained locked in the dark pit of Pandora’s jail box below deck. When the ship capsized and the box began to fill with water, a deckhand withdrew the bolt that locked the ceiling grate of the cell. Thirty one of the ship’s company and four prisoners had drowned. But all the officers survived, and the shipwrecked men mustered together on a sandy key.

Their plan was to sail for the Dutch East Indies settlement of Coupang in Timor, the very same port that had received Bligh and his castoffs. “The irony that the Pandora’s boats were to replicate part of Bligh’s famous voyage is unlikely to have escaped anyone — least of all poor Thomas Hayward, who had been with Bligh and was about to embark on his second Pacific open-boat journey in a little more than two years,” writes Alexander. But this time a harrowing voyage of “only” 1,100 miles lay ahead.

Hayward would return to England with the last of Pandora’s crew in September 1792. Incredibly, after joining another ship, he was shipwrecked again, in 1795, this time off Ceylon. His last ship was an 18-gun sloop overtaken by a violent typhoon in the South China Sea the next year.

“The sloop was observed making signals of distress before foundering with all souls lost,” according to Alexander. “Thomas Hayward was 29 years old. In his short life, he had served in 10 ships and survived a mutiny, two historic open-boat voyages and two shipwrecks before succumbing to the sea.”

The fate of Christian

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Pacific had been opened, and in 1808 an American sealer, the Topaz, spied land where there was none indicated on the charts. It was Pitcairn. The mystery of what had become of Fletcher Christian’s mutineers and the Bounty was about to be solved.

The island’s 35 inhabitants were mostly women, youths and children, along with a tall male of 18 with a darkly tanned English face, perfect teeth, and long, plaited hair. This was Fletcher Christian’s son, Thursday October Christian, and the descendants continue to live there today.

Caroline Alexander’s 491-page book also reports on the Portsmouth court-martial and the defense, sentence and judgment, which sheds much light on the mutiny and those involved.

“What caused the mutiny on the Bounty?” she asks. “The seductions of Tahiti, Bligh’s harsh tongue — perhaps. But more compellingly, a night of drinking and a proud man’s pride, a low moment on one gray dawn, a momentary and fatal slip in a gentleman’s code of discipline — and then the rush of consequences to be lived out for a lifetime.”

Fletcher Christian was a romantic, complicated, but weak enigma whose spirit broke under Bligh’s relentless nagging and choice of abandoning paradise. (Hollywood, of course, enshrined him as a heroic figure.)

Bligh would go down in history as a brutal, “unfeeling tyrant [who] induced the mutiny by his harshness and cruelty” — a sadistic bully who bloodied his men with the lash.

But the Bounty’s captain, who knew the truth, ignored it all. A widower living quietly with his daughters at his comfortable estate in Kent, he dropped dead in 1817 at the age of 63. He was buried beside his beloved wife, Betsy, at St. Mary’s churchyard in Lambeth.

By the late 1980s, the cemetery had become an overgrown dump when a renovation was begun and its graves and tombs were uncovered. Excavators looked into the Bligh vault and found two lead coffins, side by side with the wooden lids collapsed and revealing the skeletal remains of Betsy and William Bligh. The inscription on the monument reads, in part: “Sacred to the memory of William Bligh, Esquire, F.R.S., Vice Admiral of the Blue, The celebrated Navigator.” Above it is a simple phrase: “In coelo quies” — there is peace in heaven. n

Editor’s note: In late October, a news report depicted Pitcairn Island, where descendants of the Bounty have lived for 214 years, not as a South Pacific paradise but as an island of depravity with “a shocking culture of pedophilia, incest and secrecy.” Seven of 14 permanent male residents on Pitcairn — the most remote inhabited island in the world — were tried on 55 counts of rape, indecent assault and gross indecency against Pitcairn girls age 5 to 15 years, according to The New York Times. In late October four of the men received jail sentences ranging from two to six years; two others were to perform community service. One man was cleared. All were to remain free pending appeal, according to a United Press report.