A coal-carrying merchant ship operating on the coast of England, the Bounty was purchased by the admiralty and recommissioned in 1787 for a special mission. She was to sail halfway around the world to Tahiti; collect sapling breadfuit trees and transport them to the West Indies. Owners of the burgeoning British plantations there needed a cheap source of food for the workers.
To lead the mission, the admiralty picked 33 year old Lt. William Bligh, who had just returned from the South Pacific on Capt. Cook’s last voyage of discovery. Though portrayed as an abusive tyrant by Hollywood, Bligh may be one of the greatest seamen who ever lived.
After trying for 30 days to make it westward around Cape Horn, as he had hoped to go, Bligh turned about and followed the course of the Roaring ’40s under the Cape of Good Hope into the Pacific. After arriving in Tahiti, 10 months after leaving England, Bligh and the crew set about collecting the more than 1,000 breadfruit plants they were to take to the Caribbean. They spent five months in Tahiti, during which time Bligh allowed many of the crew to live ashore. Without the discipline and rigid schedules of the sea, the men went native. When the time came to return to England, some were already contemplating staying on the island.
Two weeks out of Tahiti, miserable with having left the Tahitian wife he took while there, First Mate Fletcher Christian took the ship. Of the 44 men on board, 31 sided with Bligh. Of the 31, 18 went over the side to be set adrift in the longboat with Bligh. The mutineers then set off for Tahiti, where they put the rest of the sailors loyal to Bligh ashore, picked up their Tahitian wives, girlfriends and several Tahitian men, and set off to hide forever from the long arm of the British law.
Bligh navigated the longboat 3,600 miles to safety in 41 days using only a sextant and a pocket watch. Only one man died — stoned to death by angry natives on the first island they tried to land on. The voyage was a feat of navigation that is unparalleled to this day.
The mutineers eventually settled on Pitcairn Island, an isolated rock in the South Pacific that was misplaced on British charts. They burned the ship in Bounty Bay and weren’t found for 25 years.
After all but one of the mutineers had been killed by either each other or the Tahitian men they brought with them, the last one, Alexander Smith, began rebuilding a society on the island based on the ship’s bible. Today their descendants still live there in a moralistic society that still only sees one ship every six months.
Izak J H Hough
Member of The Nautical Research Guild