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Fate of the Guilty Three

 

--Text from Mutiny and Romance in the South Seas: A Companion to the Bounty Adventure by Sven Wahlroos. Used by permission. See Book Recommendations for more information about this book.

The story of the Mutiny on the Bounty that took place in 1789 has been portrayed on screen, in plays and many books. Little is well known about the trial and the outcome in which only three of the accused mutineers were executed.

Courts-martial

Following detainment of ten surviving Mutineers ((Burkett, Byrn, Coleman, Ellison, Heywood, McIntosh, Millward, Morrison, Muspratt, and Norman) the prisoners were tried by a naval court's martial before twelve Post Captains, which took place on September 12, 1792 in the captain's great cabin of Lord Hood's ship, the Duke, moored in Portsmouth Harbour.

During the trial great importance was attached to which men had been seen to be holding weapons during the critical moments of the mutiny, as under the Articles of War, failure to act when able to prevent a mutiny was considered no different from being an active mutineer.

Following a six day trial all ten defendants assembled in the great cabin of the Duke to hear the judgment delivered on 18 September 1792, four men whom Bligh had designated as innocent were acquitted. Two were found guilty, but pardoned; one of these being Peter Heywood, a Bounty midshipman whose family was able to provide a good lawyer for his defence. Heywood later rose to the rank of captain himself; the second was James Morrison who also continued his naval career and eventually died at sea.

Another was reprieved due to a legal technicality, and later received a pardon. Coleman, Norman, McIntosh, and Byrn were acquitted. Muspratt eventually gained his release also. In other trials, both Bligh and Edwards were court-martialed for the loss of their ships (an automatic proceeding under British naval law and not indicative of any particular suspicion of guilt). Both were acquitted.
The other three men were convicted and sentenced to hang, their names were; John Milward (Sailmaker), Thomas Burkett (Gunners Crew) and Thomas Ellison Captains Servant), they were hanged aboard the Brunswick at Portsmouth on 29 October 1792 at 11.26 am.. They were left to hang in the yards of the ship for two hours in the rain and, at 13.30, were cut down and all three bodies were then ferried across to Haslar hospital for interment.

The register of Haslar Hospital Musters held in the National Archives at Kew states:

29th October 1792 Late Bounty – Brunswick Three names Registered Discharge Dead - When brought on shore, having been executed in pursuance of the sentence of a Courts Martial. The cost of 7shillings and 6pence (37new pence) was charged to the Crown for a pine coffin and burial.

All three were then buried in the grounds known as the Paddock at Haslar and now lie amongst some 8 – 12,000 bodies. Many executed men were admitted for burial (brought onshore dead during the 18th and early 19th Century) both from the Dockyard and Spithead. Their names can be found in the Haslar Muster Registers at PRO Kew.

Many think that the Bounty executions a miscarriage of justice as all three were ordinary seaman, as others at the trial were pardoned before execution. One may argue that such executions were needed in order to maintain discipline in the Royal Navy.

Eric C Birbeck MVO - Haslar Heritage Group
November 2011

--Text from Mutiny and Romance in the South Seas: A Companion to the Bounty Adventure by Sven Wahlroos. Used by permission. See Book Recommendations for more information about this book.

 


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