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The Voyage of HMAV Bounty

[Crew List] [Bounty Crew Encyclopedia]

--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.

. . . After long delays, first because of the Admiralty’s tardiness in sending Bligh his sailing orders and then because of contrary winds, the Bounty finally got under way on Sunday, December 23, 1787.

The atmosphere on board was permeated by excitement and anticipation among the crew, all of them volunteers. And of course there was a touch of melancholy, and even apprehension, among some of them; who could say when – or if – they would return? But there was nothing like an old shanty to keep such thoughts away. To quote from Alexander McKee’s H.M.S. Bounty (1962):

As the men walked the capstan bars round, and the dripping anchor ropes came inboard, the half-blind Irish fiddler, Michael Byrne, struck up the traditional air, “Drops of Brandy,” and the men hummed the words to themselves.

And Johnny shall have a new bonnet
   And Johnny shall go to the fair,
And Johnny shall have a blue ribbon
   To tie up his bonny brown hair.
And why should I not love Johnny
   And why should not Johnny love me,
And why should I not love Johnny
   As well as another bodie.

The weather was stormy. On the very first afternoon a seaman fell from a yard while unfurling the main t-gallant, but miraculously he managed to grab a stay and break his fall. On Christmas Eve it blew a full gale. By Christmas Day, however, the storm had abated somewhat and Christmas was celebrated with an extra issue of rum in addition to beef and plum pudding.

On Boxing Day the wind increased to full storm and on December 27 the stern windows collapsed under the weight of gale-driven water. The main cabin was flooded and the water broke an azimuth compass. Bligh could barely save the all-important chronometer and other instruments. There was a great deal of damage to the ship, but as far as the crew was concerned the greatest disaster was probably that seven full hogsheads of beer, lashed together on deck, had broken loose and gone overboard. In addition, two casks of rum had split and their contents were lost in the bilge.

The Christmas season was rough on the crew of the Bounty, but it paled by comparison with what awaited them at Cape Horn.


The Bounty was sailing the Atlantic on a south-south-westerly course for Cape Horn. She stopped at Santa Cruz harbor, Tenerife, for five days to water and take on additional supplies; among these were several casks of “very good wine” (Madeira). Despite the additional provisions, Bligh cut the ship’s company’s allowance of bread by one third, justifying his decision by the fact that he planned to sail directly for Tahiti without stopping.

Bligh’s character was an interesting mixture of highly admiral qualities and pernicious flaws. Certainly he was a man of great courage. He was also one of the finest navigators in maritime history and a superb cartographer. He was a man of boundless energy, had a strong sense of duty, and was totally dedicated to his profession. He was diligent and conscientious in the extreme and took every opportunity to add to the knowledge of the seas he traversed and the places he visited. There is no finer testimony to his qualities as a seaman than the fact that Captain Cook had selected him as sailing master of the Resolution on his third voyage.

But Bligh had a disastrous flaw in his character. Although in most respects he showed evidence of superior foresight, he had no understanding of the impact his frequent emotional outbursts and insulting accusations had on other people. He could call someone, even an officer, an “infernal scoundrel” or a “contemptible thief” or an “incompetent mongrel” or a “cowardly rascal” in front of the whole ship’s company, yet a short while later behave as if nothing had happened.

Language in the British Navy was rough. Swearing and cursing were common, even expected, so that was not the problem. The problem was that Bligh was a petty faultfinder who had a special knack of humiliating those with whom he found fault. Yet throughout his life he never realized this fact about himself. Long after the Bounty mutiny, in 1805, he was court-martialed for “oppression and abusive language,” found guilty, and reprimanded. We can only imagine what it would have taken, in the harsh and authoritarian British Navy, for a post captain to be court-martialed for abusive language.

Another problem, seldom mentioned in the Bounty literature, was Bligh’s appearance. He was short, chubby, and small-featured, his lips were of the “Cupid’s bow” variety, his skin is variously described as pallid or like ivory or marble, his hair was short and curly, and his eyes were clear blue. The total impression was that of a doll. Additionally, Bligh’s havit of wild gesticulation was unusual among the normally reserved British officer class. Yet, neither his appearance nor any of his mannerisms might have given him trouble if he had stayed calm. But his frequent and uncontrolled outbursts of temper, often over petty matters, made him look ridiculous rather than installing respect.

Bligh admired and imitated his mentor, Captain James Cook. However, although Cook frequently lost his temper and was also petty at times, he always commanded the respect of those around him because of his commanding presence. Perhaps the most important difference between the two men was pointed out by David Howarth in his book Tahiti: A Paradise Lost (1938); “Cook looked for and brought out the best in men; Bligh looked for and brought out the worst.”

Bligh’s lack of understanding of his impact on others, his pettiness, and his very appearance must be taken into account in any serious attempt to explain the eventual mutiny.


The ceremonies connected with crossing the equator stem back at least to the early 1500s. The custom seems to have originated on French ships (the oldest preserved account is dated 1529) but spread rapidly to other nations and survives in good health to this day. It was certainly firmly entrenched in the British Navy by the time HMS Bounty crossed the Line on her way to Cape Horn on February 7, 1788. Such ceremonies were often cruel procedures, but on the Bounty the event seems to have been all fun. Bligh would not allow the customary ducking (he considered it brutal), but the men were properly tarred and then shaved with a piece of iron hoop. The officers had to pay forfeits of rum to the men (Bligh agreed to reimburse them) and there was a great deal of dancing to the fiddle of Michael Bryne, the almost blind seaman Bligh had signed on just for that purpose.

Undoubtedly all of the crew enjoyed the mildness of the horse latitudes after the cold storms they had just been through. And in his Narrative Bligh portrays the voyage to the Horn as a totally happy one. But the boatswain’s mate, James Morrison, (who also wrote a narrative of the voyage) does not agree that all was well. In fact, according to Morrison, the now famous cheese incident had already taken place.

This incident was related to the fact that Bligh was not only captain of the ship but also purser. The Admiralty apparently expected him to make a profit from this position; they had reduced his salary precisely because he could make an extra income by being purser. To ensure everything would be fair, however, all supplies were to be opened in the presence of the whole ship’s company. One day when a casket of cheese was opened, two cheeses were found to be missing. Instead of blaming this on the supplier (the suppliers were notoriously dishonest) and noting the fact in the log, Bligh for some inscrutable reason asserted that someone on board had stolen the cheeses. When a seaman named Hillbrant then ventured to say that the cheeses had been sent to Bligh’s own residence on the orders of John Samuel, the ship’s clerk and Bligh’s personal servant, the captain flew into a rage and threatened to flog Hillbrant or anyone else making such allegations. . . .


Three significant events occurred on the Bounty in March 1788: Bligh promoted Christian to acting lieutenant, able-bodied seaman Matthew Quintal was flogged, and the attempt to round the Horn had an inauspicious start in heavy gales off Tierra del Fuego.

The subject of punishment on board is important because so much of the popular Bounty literature – and four of the five motion pictures – have portrayed Bligh as a cruel commander, a monster who took pleasure in having his men flogged. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Royal Navy of two hundred years ago was indeed a cruel institution, much more so than the Army. In fact, one of the most feared punishments in the Army was to be transferred to the Navy. Not only were seamen flogged mercilessly for minor infractions, but, as described by Scott Claver in his Under the Lash (1954), individual commanders actually designed their own instruments of torture to keep crews in line.

Floggings of one hundred lashes or more were not unusual. In fact, as late as 1807, George III saw fit to intervene in Navy affairs by setting an upper limit of one thousand lashes! Bligh is not known to ever have punished any member of his crew with more than four dozen lashes – and that was for desertion (for which the sentence was often death by hanging).

The frequently reviled Bligh was actually not as harsh a commander as the widely respected Cook. In the seventeen months that Bligh was in command of the Bounty, he ordered eleven floggings with a total of 229 lashes. Cook flogged at the rate of once or twice a week. (Even when we take into account that Cook had a larger crew, it is still clear that he flogged more frequently than Bligh.)

The two dozen lashes that Matthew Quintal had to endure on March 11, 1788, were for “insolence and mutinous behavior” toward the sailing master, John Fryer. Many captains of the time would have given Quintal an even stiffer punishment.

There are some Bounty researchers who feel that the mutiny, far from being caused by Bligh’s cruelty, was partially due to his softness when it came to corporal punishment. To what extent such an allegation is valid is always debatable. What is not debatable is that, as far as corporal punishment is concerned, Bligh was less harsh than most of the Navy commanders of his time. It was not his physical cruelty but, rather, his humiliating tongue – in an era when a man’s honor was more important than his life – that contributed heavily to the most famous mutiny of all time.


The Bounty was engaged in a desperate attempt to round Cape Horn against prevailing westerly gales. A letter written from Cape Town by midshipman Peter Heywood gives some idea of what it must have been like:

During the 29 days we were beating off the Cape, we had to encounter the most violent storms that I suppose were ever experienced. Is suppose there never were seas, in any part of the known world, to compare with those we met for height, and length of swell; the oldest seamen on board never saw anything equal to them, yet Mr. Peckover (our gunner) was all three voyages with Captain Cook.

A less duty-conscious captain than Bligh would have given up much sooner. When Bligh finally did give up, it was primarily because he simply did not have enough men left to work the rigging. He wrote:

Having maturely considered all circumstances, I determined to bear away for the Cape of Good Hope; and at five o’clock on the evening of the 22d [of April 1788], the wind then blowing strong at W, I ordered the helm to be put aweather, to the great joy of every person on board. Our sick list at this time had increased to eight . . .

One of the eight was the ship’s surgeon, Dr. Huggan; the others were seamen. Since there were only thirteen able-bodied seamen to man the rigging in the first place, this would have left only six men to handle the sails which were so weighted down by snow and ice and so stiff that it was well-nigh impossible to haul them up to be furled. The men were exhausted and weakened and their hands fo bleeding, Bligh, in fact, had no choice but to give up. . . .


The Bounty was now (May 1788) sailing eastward from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope. For almost the whole voyage there was a strong westerly wind which often propelled the ship to her maximum speed of nine knows (although midshipman Heywood tells us that she sometimes went to ten). Everyone on board was happy to get away from the storms of Cape Horn, but there was also a great deal of frustration: the Bounty was as far from Tahiti as when she had first sailed from England, so four months of incredible hardship and effort had been completely futile.

Table Mountain was sighted on May 22 and the next evening the ship anchored in False Bay (now known as Simonstown) for extensive repairs. The Bounty had to be completely recaulked; the leaks she had sprung at Cape Horn were so bad that it had been necessary to man the pumps every hour for the whole voyage to the Cape of Good Hope. The rigging and the sails also needed to be completely overhauled and, since large amounts of supplies had been damaged, there was a lot of reprovisioning to be done. All in all the Bounty spent 38 days refitting, which gives some idea of the damage she had received at the Horn. . . .


On July 1, 1788, Bligh left False Bay and set an east-south-easterly course for Adventure Bay in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). This, the longest leg on the voyage to Tahiti, was well over 6,000 miles. By the end of the month, having had strong westerly winds most the the time, the Bounty sighted St. Paul Island, actually just a little rock which Bligh wanted to reach on his way in order to test his navigational skill (superb as always). . . .


Fifty-one days out of False Bay, on August 20, 1788, Bligh sighted Mewstone Rock outside Adventure Bay in Van Diemen’s Land. This was a remarkable feat of navigation considering the equipment then available.

Bligh wooded and watered in the bay and planted fruit trees and vegetables for the use of aborigines as well as for future ships. The stay would have been uneventful had it not been for an incident which dealt a severe blow to his authority.

William Purcell, the cantankerous and argumentative ship’s carpenter, had been ordered to assist with hoisting water into the hold but refused “in a most insolent and reprehensible manner” on the grounds that, as a warrant officer, he could not be made to do the work of a common seaman. Technically Purcell was within his rights, but refusal to obey and order was still a severe offense, second only to outright mutiny. . . .

Bligh, however, was faced with a dilemma. If Purcell had been an ordinary seaman, he would have been flogged and that would have put an end to the matter. But as a warrant officer Purcell could not be flogged without the authority of a court-martial. He could be put in irons until the ship returned to England where he could be tried, but the Bounty was not due back for another fifteen months and Bligh needed the skills of the carpenter for the successful outcome of his expedition.

In the end Bligh decided to withhold provisions from Purcell until he agreed to obey orders. The carpenter ws “immediately brought to his senses,” but denial of provisions was no punishment for mutinous behavior and everyone on board knew it. . . .


Bligh left Adventure Bay in Van Dieman’s Land on September 4, 1788. He rounded the southern tip of New Zealand and discovered thirteen small rocky islands which to this day are called the Bounty Isles. The Bounty was now heading for Tahiti with no further landfalls. On that beautiful island the main objective of the expedition, the breadfruit, was growing in abundance on countless trees. . . .


The Bounty was sailing eastward in the Roaring Forties on her voyage from Adventure Bay to Tahiti. On October 3, 1788, being at that time south-east of the Society Islands, Bligh changed to a northerly course in order to catch the south-east trades and so sail westward to fetch Tahiti.

On Thursday, October 9, the expedition experienced its first casualty: one of the most robust of the able-bodied seamen, James Valentine, died. The cause of his death was blood poisoning which had set in after he had been bled – for a “slight indisposition” – by the alcoholic ship’s surgeon, Thomas Huggan. Bligh was furious because he had not even been told that Valentine was gravely ill until three days earlier. The incident illustrates how extremely isolated Bligh was, even from his officers, and how little he knew about what happened on board his ship, even though it was small.

The very same day an incident took place which tended to further undermine Bligh’s discipline, already damaged by the carpenter’s open defiance of his captains’s orders while the Bounty was at Adventure Bay. This time it was none other than the sailing master, John Fryer, who openly defied Bligh.

Fryer had not got along with Bligh ever since the latter had promoted Christian to acting lieutenant in March 1788. Christian had not been promoted “over the head” of Fryer, as some students of the Bounty history have claimed. The distinguished Bounty scholar Rolf Du Rietz, has pointed out that masters were promoted by rate, not by rank, and were never expected to become acting lieutenants when at sea. Nevertheless, it may have irked Fryer to be subordinate to Christian because of the latter’s age (Fryer was thirty-three, Christian twenty-three).

Contrary to common Bounty lore, Fryer appears to have been (as Du Rietz has pointed out) a very competent man, and we know that Bligh could not tolerate any rivalry in competency on board his ships. He took every opportunity to “put down” officers who measured up to his own skills and talents. On the other hand, the master, a few years senior to Bligh, was not a man who easily accepted insults to his dignity, and by late September he had declined to continue dining with Bligh. On October 9 he brought matters to a head by refusing to sign the monthly expense books unless Bligh would sign a certificate confirming Fryer’s good behavior during the voyage so far.

Bligh would not stand for any conditional obedience. He had the ship’s company assembled on deck and read the Articles of War. Fryer signed, but not before he had made clear - in a loud voice - that “I sign in obedience to your orders, but this may be canceled hereafter.”

This, then was the second time a warrant officer had openly defied Bligh in front of the whole crew. (The boatswain’s mate, Morrison, says in his narrative that this was only one of many conflicts between Bligh and Fryer before the arrival in Tahiti.)

Another instance of disobedience was recorded ten days later when the gunner’s mate, John Mills, and the botanist’s assistant, William Brown, refused to take part in the daily dancing that Bligh had ordered for exercise. Both had their grog stopped, a punishment second only to flogging in severity.

In the early morning of Saturday, October 25, having altered course to the west, the Bounty sighted the small island of Mehetia (then populated, but now unpopulated), 70 miles east of Tahiti. Tahiti was sighted in the evening, and on Sunday morning, fifty-two days out of Van Diemen’s Land, the ship dropped anchor in Matavai Bay surrounded by hundreds of outrigger canoes filled with wildly shouting and waving Tahitians. They soon climbed on board “in vast numbers,” so that Bligh “could scarce find my own people.” The total distance the Bounty had sailed since leaving England on December 23, 1787, was 27,086 miles by the log (108 miles for each 24 hours). . . .

On New Year’s Day 1789, the Bounty was securely anchored in Toaroa harbor, not far from present-day Papeete. The day was celebrated with the issuance of a double ration of grog to the ship’s complement. It was, however, an ordinary working day, so only two sailors got shore leave in the usual manner of rotation.

The month of January provided an ominous preview of what was to come. Monday, January 5, at the relief of the night watch (4:00 a.m.), it was discovered that the small cutter was missing. Bligh mustered the ship’s company and found that three had deserted. One was Charles Churchill, the ship’s corporal, whose very duty it was to uphold discipline and prevent desertions! Another was William Muspratt, able-bodied seaman and Bligh’s own steward. The third was John Millward, able-bodied seaman. They had taken with them eight stand of arms with ammunition.

The Tahitians informed Bligh that the deserters had left the cutter in Matavai and were now on board a sailing canoe headed for Tetiaroa, an atoll 30 miles north of Tahiti (now owned by Marlon Brando).

Bligh managed to get a contingent of Tahitians – led by Teina’s younger brother, Ari’ipaea, and another chief named Moana – to promise to sail to Tetiaroa and capture the run-aways by pretending to be friendly and then grabbing their arms and binding them. However, before the pursuers could get under way the weather turned bad and the expedition had to be postponed. . . .

The deserters were captured toward the end of the month, an incident during which Bligh showed his bravery: he walked up to them alone, armed only with a cutlass. The men claimed they had given themselves up, but it turned out that their gunpowder was wet, a fact that Bligh did not know. . . .

Bligh sentenced Muspratt and Millward to four dozen lashes, Churchill to two dozen. It remains a mystery why the deserters were dealt with so leniently and especially why Churchill, their leader, received a lesser punishment. (Midshipman Thomas Hayward who was asleep on watch when the desertion took place had earlier been sentenced to eleven weeks’ confinement in irons.) . . .


. . . During the night between February 5 and February 6, the Bounty was subjected to sabotage. In the morning the anchor cable was found almost cut through at the water’s edge; only one strand remaining whole. With any wind at all the cable would have parted and the ship would either have drifted ashore or onto the reef of the lagoon.

Some writers have speculated that there may not have been any sabotage at all and that the cable may simply have chafed against the sharp coral. These writers cannot be sailors themselves, since any sailor would know the difference between a cut and a chafed cable. Bligh himself never mentioned any possibility of the cable being chafed.

Bligh’s original theory was that the cable had been cut by a Tahitian who wanted the ship to remain at the island. After the mutiny it occurred to him that the culprit could have been one of the Bounty’s crew who, like the deserters Churchill, Millward and Muspratt, wanted to stay in Tahiti.

Bligh’s first theory was correct, but for a reason he had not considered. As earlier described, midshipman Hayward had been put in irons for sleeping on duty. Like all on board the Bounty, Hayward had a taio ashore. This special friend was the local chief’s brother, Vaetua, and he wanted Hayward released. It was Vaetua who had ordered the anchor cable cut, expecting the ship to drift ashore with resulting evacuation of the whole crew, including Hayward.

Vaetua divulged his plan long afterwards to those mutineers and loyalists who had remained on Tahiti when Christian sailed away with the Bounty for the last time.

Bligh did not know how close he had come to being killed by Vaetua. At the time Hayward was sentenced, Vaetua had been on board the ship standing directly behind Bligh with a war club, ready to crush the captain’s skull if he had ordered Hayward flogged.

Vaetua despised Bligh. In fact, the Bounty’s boatswain’s mate, Morrison, writes in his narrative that Vaetua had “cursed Mr. Christian for not killing Lieut. Bligh which he said he would do himself if ever he came to Taheite.” Vaetua must have changed his mind, however, because when Bligh did show up again in the Providence on the second breadfruit expedition, Vaetua dined with him occasionally and often told him how superior British spirits were to the Tahitian ‘ava (Oliver 1988, pp. 193 and 200). . . .


The Bounty was coming to the end of its long (over five months) stay in Tahiti, and the loading of the breadfruit plants its crew had gathered now began. The discipline had become extremely lax during these months, not only among the seamen but also among the officers. . . .

On March 2, 1789, there was yet another incident illustrating the lackadaisical attitude of the officers. That morning William Peckover, the gunner, had several articles stolen from him by a Tahitian. If he had been an ordinary seaman, he would have been flogged but, again, since he was a warrant officer Bligh did not feel he could punish him.

The thief was caught and Bligh had him flogged with 100 lashes “severely given.” . . . After the flogging the islander was put in irons as a reminded to his compatriots of what would happen to them if they were to engage in similar pilfering. However, early in the morning of March 7 the prisoner managed to break his irons and escape while George Stewart, acting master’s mate, was on watch. Again Bligh was exasperated but felt he could do nothing more than give Stewart one of his famous tongue lashings. . . .


. . . On Saturday, April 4, 1789, the Bounty weighed anchor and sailed out from Toaroa harbor. On board were 1,015 breadfruit plants in 774 pots, 39 tubs, and 24 boxes. In addition there were numerous samples of other South Seas plants (requested by Sir Joseph Banks), 25 live hogs, 17 goats, and a number of chickens. As if that were not enough, the deck was crowded with last-minute gifts from Tahitian taios: coconuts, plantains, breadfruit, yams, bananas, etc. The Bounty looked like a floating farm. Overcrowded before, it was now “bursting at the seams.”

After briefly stopping at Huahine in the Leeward Islands, Bligh set course for the Friendly Islands (Tonga). On April 11 he discovered Aitutaki (in what is now the Southern Cook Group) but did not land. On April 23, the Bounty arrived at Nomuka in the Tongan (Friendly) Islands, 1,800 miles west of Tahiti, where Bligh had landed once before in 1777, on Cook’s third voyage. The very fact that he stopped here is of interest for two reasons:

First, it shows his extraordinary meticulousness. Bligh stopped at Nomuka primarily to replace one dead and two or three “sickly looking” breadfruit plants out of 1,015! He also wanted to “wood and water,” less than three weeks after leaving Tahiti.

Secondly, it was during and immediately following this stop that the incidents occurred which triggered the mutiny. Would the mutiny have occurred anyway? We will never know. . . .

Bligh was definitely at his worst on the voyage from Tahiti, fault-finding, insulting, petty, and condescending. He seems to have relished humiliating all his officers. Yet it is clear that he went out of his way to torment Christian.

At Nomuka Bligh put Christian in an impossible position. He sent him in command of a watering party with orders not to use any weapons, but to leave them in the boat. When Christian then encountered hostile Tongan warriors who threatened him and his men with spears, clubs and rocks, he had to retreat to the boat, since he had no arms. An adze was stolen from one of his men.

On hearing of the theft, Bligh damned Christian for a “cowardly rascal,” asking if he was afraid of “a set of naked savages while he had arms.” To which Christian replied: “The arms are of no use while your orders prevent them from being used.” Not only was Bligh engaging in crazy-making (damned if you do – use arms – and damned if you don’t), but more important, a gentleman simply did not call another a coward. Back in England the insult could have resulted in a duel.

Only two days later, on Monday, April 27, (the day before the mutiny), Bligh accused Christian – in front of the assembled ship’s company – of stealing some of his coconuts, calling him a thief and a hound.

This incident is extremely important, because it probably triggered the mental breakdown in Christian which would culminate in his decision to take over the ship. Morrison describes the incident in his narrative:

In the Afternoon of the 27th Mr. Bligh Came up, and taking a turn about the Quarter Deck when he missed some of the Cocoa Nuts which were piled up between the Guns upon which he said that they were stolen and Could not go without the knowledge of the Officers, who were all Calld and declared that they had not seen a Man toutch them, to which Mr. Bligh replied then you must have taken them yourselves, and ordered Mr. Elphinstone to go & fetch every Cocoa Nut in the Ship aft, which He obeyd. He then questioned every Officer in turn concerning the Number they had bought, & Coming to Mr. Christian asked Him, Mr. Christian answered “I do not know Sir, but I hope you don’t think me so mean as to be Guilty of Stealing yours.” Mr. Bligh replied “Yes you dam’d Hound I do – You must have stolen them from me or you could give a better account of them – God damn you you Scoundrels you are all thieves alike, and combined with the Men to rob em – 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 Streights” – He then Calld Mr. Samuel and said “Stop these Villans Grog, and Give them but Half a Pound of Yams tomorrow, and if they steal them, I’ll reduce them to a quarter.” The Cocoa Nuts were Carried aft, & He Went below, the officers then got together and were heard to murmur much at such treatment, and it was talked among the Men that the Yams would be next seized, as Lieut. Bligh knew that they had purchased large quantitys of them and set about secreting as many as they Could.

We have to remember that this was a time when a man’s honor was more valuable than his life. (This is why movie makers cannot show what actually happened; there is simply not enough time in a film to recreate the atmosphere of the era. Consequently Bligh must be portrayed as a brutal and physically cruel tyrant, otherwise Christian’s mutiny would simply not seem believable.) Christian came from an unbroken line of twenty-five generations of aristocracy and none of his forefathers would have let themselves be called cowards or thieves without retribution.

Yet Christian’s first reaction was to get awy from Bligh at any cost. At this point he had obviously lost his judgment: he was trying to construct a raft from a few spare spars and planks in order to leave the ship. (He had also torn up his personal papers and given away his curios and mementos.) . . .

Christian’s plan to leave the ship on a flimsy raft was certainly suicidal, even if he at the moment may consciously have believed that he might survive. When Christian mentioned his plan to a friend, midshipman George Stewart, the latter pleaded with him not to leave and then added a phrase which in all probability triggered a total change in Christian’s plans: “The men are ready for anything!” . . . .

Stewart’s statement “The men are ready for anything” was almost certainly not intended to suggest mutiny, as many writers have suggested, but rather to warn Christian that he was needed on the ship in case of problems with the crew. Stewart was a strict disciplinarian and, despite the fact that he eventually remained on the ship, was most probably a loyalist. (Stewart died when the Pandora foundered and what role, if any, he may have played in the mutiny may always remain uncertain.) . . . .

On the night between April 17 and April 28 Christian had probably had very little sleep. There are some indications that he had been drinking. In any case, when he was awakened for his 4:00 to 8:00 a.m. watch he felt his head “was on fire.”

He made the impulsive decision to seize the ship. The fact that the most discontented seamen on board were on his watch probably helped trigger his action. When he approached them, he found little difficulty in getting accomplices. . . .

The actual details of the mutiny have been portrayed with various degrees of accuracy in numerous books and articles and in five feature-length films. Suffice it to say here that Christian and eleven of his shipmates – out of a complement of forty-four – managed to take over the vessel and set Bligh and eighteen loyalists adrift in the Pacific thousands of miles from any European settlement. (Other loyalists had to stay on board so as not to further overload the ship’s launch.) . . . .

. . . The mutiny on the Bounty is one of the few bloodless ones in history. The harshest action, apart from setting the loyalists adrift, was that Bligh’s wrists were bound hard enough to cause him pain. Most of the violence was verbal and much of it came from Bligh, although the mutineers certainly did a good deal of threatening.

Another point illustrates – one could almost say proves – that the mutiny was not planned, and that is that three boats were launched: first the jolly boat which was found to be rotten through with worms and would certainly have sunk, then the cutter which also leaked and simply would not hold the large number of loyalists who preferred to go with Bligh, and finally the launch.

The third point is that the poor condition of the ship’s boats in itself illustrates the slackness of discipline that had prevailed during the stay in Tahiti. Not only had the new sails been allowed to rot, but two of the ship’s boats had not been repaired and were in no condition to be used in an emergency.

When Bligh had been forced into the launch together with eighteen loyalists, the freeboard remaining was less then the length of a man’s hand. The boat was designed for a maximum of fifteen men and for short distances, not for nineteen men with belongings and supplies and destined to sail close to four thousand miles. [Click here to read about the subsequent voyage of Bounty's launch.]


. . . While Bligh and his crew were fighting for their lives (in the Bounty’s launch), Christian (in command of the Bounty) was heading for Tubuai, an island 350 miles south of Tahiti. Cook had sighted the island in 1777 on his third voyage but had not landed. Here Christian planned to found a settlement, since he was reasonably confident that Tubuai would not be visited for a long time; it had poor anchorage and only one narrow passage through the surrounding reef.

Christian reached Tubuai at almost the same time as Bligh arrived at Australia. The Bounty met with a very hostile reception, however, and Christian felt forced to fire into the armade of about 50 attacking canoes carrying close to 1,000 men. Eleven men and one woman were killed.

Nevertheless, Christian was determined to establish a colony on the island. To his astonishment, however, there were no mammals except rats on Tubuai, no pigs or goats, not even dogs. No one on board wanted to lead a vegetarian existence. Furthermore, the Tubuaian women were not as accommodating as their Tahitian counterparts. So Christian decided to sail to Tahiti to pick up women, pigs, goats and chickens. The Bounty sailed on May 31, 1789.


Christian and his mixed crew of mutineers and loyalists were collecting the women (including Christian’s consort Mauatua) and pigs, goats and chickens on Tahiti for their intended colony on Tubuai. During the stay on Tahiti, Christian made it known that any attempt on the part of a loyalist – or a mutineer for that matter – to remain on Tahiti would be severely punished. He did not want to take any risks of his planned refuge becoming known to pursuers.

Christian loaded the Bounty with 312 pigs, 38 goats, eight dozen chickens, and the bull and the cow that had been left by Cook in 1777. Dogs and cats were also taken along and some plants that had not been seen on Tubuai. Christian also took on board nine Tahitian men, eight boys, ten women, and a young girl as passengers. Add to this the Bounty’s remaining crew of twenty-five men and anyone who has been on board a 90-foot vessel can imagine how crowded it must have been.

Maneuvering out from Matavai Bay the Bounty came close to running aground on Dolphin Bank (so named after the ship in which the European discoverer of Tahiti, Samuel Wallis, arrived). In the process, one of the ship’s anchors was lost. (It was later retrieved by Captain Edwards in the Pandora). Had the Bounty sustained major damage, it might still have been in Tahiti when the brig Mercury arrived on August 12; how that would have influenced the fate of Christian and his men is up to speculation.

On arrival at Tubuai on June 23, 1789 (nine days after Bligh reached Timor), . . . Christian now made two fatal mistakes. Even though the Tubuian chief Tamatoa had offered a large piece of beautiful land to the men of the Bounty, Christian – for some reason that will forever remain a mystery – preferred a site to the east of Tamatoa’s chiefdom which belonged to a minor chief, Taaroatohoa. This was a humiliation which Tamatoa could never forget, and from then on he was Christian’s sworn enemy.

Christian’s second mistake was to let the 312 pigs loose on the island. All the Tubuaians had beautiful gardens which, since they had no animals, were not fenced in, and the pigs began to root them up.

Tamatoa and the third chief on the island, Tinarau, now formed an alliance against Christian and Taaroatohoa. Even the latter soon turned against Christian as the damage of the pigs became evident. . . .


. . . The natives of the neighboring districts on Tubuai had become so hostile that it came to outright battles. Although Christian and his men, armed with muskets as they were, emerged the victors (more than sixty natives were killed while the only casulty in Christian’s party was seaman Thomas Burkett who received a slight wound), it was clear to the majority that Tubuai was not the place for them, especially since the native women refused to come and live with them. . . .

(A vote was taken to return to Tahiti.) Christian then made his famous speech, for modern ears quite melodramatic, but very much in character:

Gentlymen, I will carry you, and land you, wherever you please. I desire none to stay with me, but I have one favour to request, that you will grant me the ship, tie the foresail, give me a few gallons of water, and leave me to run before the wind, and I shall land upon the first island the ship drives to. I have done such an act that I cannot stay at Otaheite. I will never live where I may be carried home to be a disgrace to my family.

Considering Christian’s suicidal plan to leave the Bounty on a makeshift rate, there is no doubt that he meant what he said. However, when he was finished, midshipman Edward Young rose and said: “We shall never leave you, Mr. Christian, go where you will!” He was speaking for all who voted against returning to Tahiti.

On September 17, after barely three months on Tubuai, Christian and his crew, together with their Tahitian companions and a few Tubuaians, left for Tahiti and anchored in Matavai on September 22 (the same day Bligh arrived at Samarang). The nine mutineers and seven loyalists who wanted to remain on the island were let ashore while Christian and the eight mutineers who had cast their lot with him prepared to leave.

We now know that the main reason Christian sailed immediately was that his consort, Mauatua, had discovered a plot among the Tahitians to capture the ship (which they could have done, since the Bounty now had a crew of only nine). Christian, in fact, spent only sixteen hours on Tahiti. . . .

. . . In the morning, the women could feel that the ship was outside the reef, and ran on deck. Although the distance to the reef was already a good mile, one woman jumped overboad and swam back but none of the others dared to try it (or perhaps they were hung over). Six of the women were considered “rather ancient” and were sent ashore in Moorea. That left twelve women, which would have been enough for the mutineers and the three Polynesians (two of them from Tubuai) who had been allowed to come along. Soon afterwards, however, three male Polynesian stowaways were discovered, and now Christian made a fateful mistake: instead of landing the stowaways on Moorea or some other island, he let them remain on board. It is entirely possible that the later tragedies on Pitcairn – which were caused partly by the lack of women – could have been avoided if the stowaways had been landed.

As it was, Christian left on his quest for a refuge with a time bomb aboard.


. . . Christian . . . was faced with the problem of where to look for his island of refuge. He first considered the Marquesas but decided against it, because the islands in the group were populated and too vulnerable to discovery. The experience on Tubuai had taught him an important lesson. He needed an island which was uninhabited, fertile, remote, and difficult of access.

Pitcairn fits that description perfectly. Indeed, for many years it was widely assumed that Christian set out for Pitcairn immediately after leaving Tahiti. Not only is that a highly unlikely conjecture (it takes only two to three weeks, not four months, to sail the 1,300 miles from Tahiti to Pitcairn), but we now know with certainty that Christian sailed westward on a voyage of exploration which covered thousands of miles before he arrived at Pitcairn. By then he had sailed approximately 7,800 miles since the day of the mutiny.

How do we know?

In 1956 a discovery was made which created a sensation among Bounty historians. Professor H. E. Maude of the Australian National University found some newspaper articles from the 1820s which contained interviews with Teehuteatuaonoa (also called “Jenny”), consort of the mutineer Isaac Martin and the first of the original settlers to leave Pitcairn (in 1817). [Click here to read a "Jenny" interview.]

From Teehuteatuaonoa’s account it is clear, not only that Christian sailed westward, but that he discovered Rarotonga, the main island in what is now known as the Cook group. Until Professor Maude proved otherwise, it was thought that Rarotonga was discovered by Philip Goodenough in 1814, although island tradition and some statements by John Adams on Pitcairn hinted at the possibility that the Bounty had stopped at Rarotonga after leaving Tahiti for the last time.

Teehuteatuaonoa’s account is also confirmed by a Rarotongan legend written down by the missionary John Williams in 1823. According to this island lore, Rarotonga had, two generations earlier, been visited by a floating garden with two waterfalls. The Bounty did indeed look like a garden and the waterfalls must refer to the pumps on board. A Polynesian generation is usually counted as fifteen to seventeen years, so “two generations ago” fits well with the time of the Bounty’s visit. In any case, even without confirmation of the validity behind the legend, Williams was always convinced that it referred to the Bounty.

Finally, we also know that it was the Bounty which introduced the orange to Rarotonga, the juice of which fruit today accounts for the island’s main export.


Christian’s adventures around this time are known only from Teehuteatuaonoa’s accounts and from the contridictory stories told to various sea captains by John Adams on Pitcairn. Polynesians do not attach much importance to matters involving time, and Adams’ memory was not very reliable, so exact dates are not known. We do know, however, that Christian, after discovering Rarotonga, sailed to the Lau group in the Fijis where he discovered the island Ono-i-Lau. He then sailed for Tongatabu where he stayed for two days and traded with the natives for provisions. Since Tongatabu is less than 100 miles distant from Tofua, the mutineers were now practically back to the place where the mutiny had taken place seven months earlier. .. . .


It must have been around this time (December 16) that Christian decided on Pitcairn as a promising possibility for a permanent settlement. In Bligh’s library he had read Hawkesworth’s Voyages which contained Carteret’s description of the discovery of Pitcairn in 1767:

We continued our course westward till the evening of Thursday, the 2nd of July, when we discovered land to the northward of us. Upon approaching it the next day, it appeared like a giant rock rising out of the sea: it was not more than five miles in circumference, and seemed to be uninhabited; it was, however, covered with trees, and we saw a small stream of fresh water running down one side of it. I would have landed upon it, but the surf, which at this season broke upon it with great violence, rendered it impossible. It lies in latitude 20 degrees 2 minutes south; longitude 133 degrees 21 minutes west. It is so high that we saw it at the distance of more than fifteen leagues, and it having been discovered by a young gentleman, son to Major Pitcairn of the marines, we called it PITCAIRN’S ISLAND.

Pitcairn is one of the most remote islands in the world. It lies “in the middle of nowhere,” 4,650 miles from California, 4,000 miles from Chile, and 3,300 from New Zealand. The closest inhabited island is Mangareva in the Gambier group, 306 miles to the north-west. (Mangareva was not discovered until 1797 and no European is known to have landed there until 1825.)

Here, then, seemed to be the fulfillment of Christian’s dreams, an island that fitted all of his requirements: it was remote, difficult of access, lush with vegetation, and apparently uninhabited. And, although Christian did not know about it at the time, Pitcairn had an extra bonus in store for him: Carteret had given it a position on his chart which was almost 200 miles off! . . .


Christian (in December,1789) was sailing eastward, tacking against the south-east trade winds, on his search for Pitcairn. It was an arduous voyage and voices were heard on board clamoring for a return to Tahiti. Christian, however, knowing that such a destination would mean disaster for himself and the other mutineers, insisted on pressing on to Pitcairn.

It was no easy task, since Carteret had charted the island so far to the west of its true position. But Christian guessed – rightly so – that the latitude would be approximately correct, and in the evening of January 15 Pitcairn appeared on the horizon, 7,800 miles and eight and a half months after the mutiny. Because of heavy weather, it was not until three days later that Christian, with some of his companions (Brown, Williams, McCoy, and three Polynesians), could land on what is now called Tedside on the west coast of Pitcairn. Two days were spent ashore and on January 20 Christian returned to the ship with good news: the island was well suited for a permanent settlement.

The Bounty was run up on the rocks close to the slight indentation in the shore line now known as Bounty Bay, and livestock and goods were shipped ashore. Most students of the Bounty story seem to assume that everything valuable and useful was salvaged from the vessel. This is highly improbable.

The Bounty carried pigs, goats, chickens, cats, dogs, and several varieties of plants. These all had to be ferried ashore (plus the Tahitian baby girl called Sully who was floated ashore in a barrel). Those who have visited Pitcairn know that even on the calmest day there is a heavy surf thundering into Bounty Bay and the waters there are extremely turbulent and dangerous. So it must have taken at least the best part of a day to get the animals and plants ashore.

But the Bounty was burned on January 23, three days after it was beached. In this short time it would simply have been impossible to salvage everything valuable, let alone everything potentially useful.

One can only imagine what the feelings of the settlers may have been as they saw their last link with the outside world destroyed. It is difficult to imagine that anyone was elated, although some or all of the mutineers may have felt relief, while some or all of the Polynesian women who had been forced to come along may have been depressed.

Be that as it may, the fact that everything useful had not been salvaged must have created ill feeling. Tradition has it that Matthew Quintal, in a state of drunkenness, put fire to the ship. Since he was one of the most willful and undisciplined of the mutineers, the story is probably true. An accidental fire is unlikely, and so is a command by Christian to burn the ship before everything useful had been brought ashore. The theory that the ship was burned to prevent dissenters from leaving founders on the fact that it would have been impossible to refloat the Bounty. Even if it had been possible, it would have required the cooperation of everyone. The traditional story is more believable.

But the conclusion that can be drawn is that the very first days of the settlement on Pitcairn was probably marred by disappointment and frustration. It was an ill omen for the future.

--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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