With 5 movie productions, hundreds of books and thesis written on the subject, the Bounty mutiny is certainly one of the most famous sea story. But it is also perhaps because it tells about the friendship and at the same time very conflictual relationship between Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian, Bligh's unbelievable epic journey in a canoe, the mutineers' adventures as they tried to escape both British Law and their fate when they settled in some lost island, and at the end, the killings motivated by their lust for women, that this story still fascinates us. As if Fletcher Christian had met in Tahiti some captivating forcethat gave him the energy to destroy everything and leave everything behind to create his own true paradise. A successful bet, but with a tragic ending.
It should be noted that he made many disciples who also dropped out for love of Tahiti. Mainly actor Marlon Brando who, while playing Fletcher Christian in the shooting of the 1962 movie " Mutiny on the Bounty", fell in love with his co-star Tarita, married her and bought the island of Tetiaroa, a dreamlike atoll a few miles North of Tahiti. The 1984 Australian movie " The Bounty" with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins in the role of Captain Bligh is definitely the most accurate from a historical viewpoint.
The BOUNTY file
A journey with economic considerations
In December 1787, HMS Bounty leaves England with a mission to bring back breadfruit from Tahiti (the Uru) and transplant it to be grown in the British Carribeans, in order to feed the slaves in the plantations. The American revolution had indeed banned flour deliveries from the ports of New York and Philadelphia, and the British Government then considered growing breadfruit trees, which had beed discovered by Joseph Banks, the botanist who, 20 years earlier participated in Cook's first trip to Tahiti. He had observed that, when cooked, this starchy fruit behaved slightly like bread dough. It should be known that Sir Joseph Banks (who was knighted after his expedition with Cook), was himself the owner of a big plantation in the Carribeans, that he was President of the Academy of Science, and that he was the great motivator for the Bounty expedition. One of his good navigator friends, whom he defended all the time and during his trial, was named Bligh...
The ship selected for the expedition was smaller than Cook's Endeavour (215 tons instead of 370 tons) and it was re-fitted for 6 months, under Banks' supervision, in order to accomodate many greenhouses for its future freight. A system of pipes and double floors was even added to water the plants without flooding the ship. As a result, there was very little space aboard the Bounty: Officers did not have cabins, only the Captain did.
An experienced Captain
Lieutenant Bligh, an officicer and an experienced navigator, who was already in James Cook's 3rd trip aboard the "Resolution",was chosen to command the expedition. He called Fletcher Christian to be his Master's Mate. He had sailed with him several times and they got along. Bligh was a remarkable seaman, but his character was rather ascetic and irritable while his friend Christian knew how to " sugar coat the pills " with his friendly approach with the crew.
10 months of hell
After leaving England on December 23, 1787, the Bounty's planned itinerary was to sail around Cape Horn, South of the American Continent, then after gathering quantities of young breadfruit tree shoots in Tahiti, to bring back the merchandise to the Carribeans while sailing Westward. But after facing terrible storms (with icy blizzards for nearly a month!) while trying to sail around the Horn, Bligh turned around and finally took the longest route Eastward around Africa and the South of Australia and, after an exhausting10-month journey, arrived in Tahiti's Matavai Bay on October 26, 1788.
The ship was then forced to stay almost 6 months in Tahiti in order to pick the thousands of shoots from the breadfruit trees, during which life in Tahiti seemed quite pleasant for the sailors compared to the trip they just made, marked by the angry temper of Captain Bligh who too often whipped and humiliated anyone found guilty of breaking his rules. During this wonderful and relaxing Tahitian stay, the sailors took part of great feasts and in the village life. Many of them found themselves one or several female companions among the local population. At the time in Tahiti, there was no sexual taboos and women easily offered themselves to respond to men's desires. It is certain that at the time, Tahiti's easy living and uninhibited conduc greatly made their marks on the sailors' subconscious. As everyone said, Fletcher Christian turned into a " true native" and even had his buttocks tattooed according to the Tahitian fashion of the time. Discipline seemed to have been given a serious blow!
The return to humiliations triggered the mutiny
While the Bounty left Tahiti, its nonchalant tropical life, its vahines, and its luxury, the sailors returned to their confined quarters and on the ship, Bligh imposed an even stricter and more humiliating discipline as well as water rationing in order to water the transported plants. Near the Samoa Islands, the atmosphere became very tense, especially between Bligh and Christian who kept receiving repeated public humiliations, perhaps because Bligh was taking advantage of the ship's isolation to re-affirm his excessive domination.
And it was only 24 days after the Bounty left Tahiti that Fletcher Christian, helped by 8 crewmen took over the ship early in the morning of April 28, 1789. In fact, to run away from Bligh, he had first considered leaving the ship alone on a long boat, but he let himself be convinced by his friend Edward Young, another sailor, to start a mutiny. After the mutineers' first euphoria when they thought they could get rid of their Captain (and even kill him, which Christian strongly opposed), a few hours of intense quarelling and bickering followed before a full fledge tragedy blew up between Bligh and Christian. Tempers flared but Christian had reached the point of no return and this is when he changed thefate of all the sailors present who had to choose which side to be on. Despite the drama's intensity, it should be noted that nobody got killed and finally Bligh and his loyal crew, i.e. a total of 19 men were set out at sea in a long boat with some food, 100 liters of water and a sextant. Bligh later succeeded in one the greatest sailing feat ever recorded to this day: in his 8-meter (22 ft) long boat he reached Timor Island in Indonesis after a nearly 6,500 Km journey in 42 days (and losing only one man killed by some islanders). There he alerted the British Admiralty. In order not to let a mutiny unpunished, regardless of the price to be paid, the British Navy sent a military ship with 24 canons especially dedicated to finding the mutineers in the South Pacific: the Pandora. Bligh returned to England, where he had to face Court Martial for losing his ship and at the end was found not guilty.
A few years later, he was to return to Tahiti to complete his mission to transport Tahitian breadfruits to the Carribeans, unfortunately the slaves didn't want to eat them!... Bligh and his bad temper caused two other mutinies later: one on the "Director" and then as commander of a British Army Corps based in Australia. He was cleared twice by Court Martial... did anybody say "psychopath" ?
The aborted mutineers's colony
As to the mutineers, once they controled the Bounty, they knew too well that the Admiralty would probably send a ship to catch them and that they had to find an island that was not shown on navigation charts. On May 28, they reached Tubuai in the Austral Islands 450 Km South of Tahiti, but they met with the ferocious hostility of the islanders who forced them to use the Bounty's canons: 12 Tahitians were killed. In spite of this, Fletcher decided to settle there and returned to Tahiti to get some cattle that he brought back in quantity on June 23 to Tubuai to establish his new colony.
With this in mind, back on the island of Tubuai, the mutineers began to build a square-shaped fort 100 meters on each side, but problems with the islanders continued and finally, after a vote by the mutineers regarding the future of the colony, the majority decided that they should all return to Tahiti.
On September 22 1789, the Bounty was back again in Tahiti and each man back with his woman and the familiy with whom they had spent the previous 6 months. But in the night of the 23rd, the 9 sailors who initiated the mutiny (and knew that time was running out for them) secretely boarded on the Bounty with food, 19 women, 6 Polynesian men and 1 baby and for ever left Matavai Bay in search of a lost and safe island. The 14 sailors who stayed in Tahiti were indeed easily caught, two years after the mutiny, by the Pandora, a ship specially sent from England to find them. The ship left Tahiti with its prisoners on May 8, 1791 (the 14 sailors were kept in the ship's hold under atrocious conditions in a cage nicknamed " Pandora's box") and for 3 months, looked for signs of the Bounty and its mutineers in the neighboring islands. The unsuccessful Captain decided to return to England, but the ship suffered a cracked hull in a storm near Australia while trying to sail across the long coral barrier reef along the coast (It should be noted that Cook's Endeavour almost met with the same fate at the same place). At the time of the shipwreck, Captain Edwards refused to free the prisoners, but at the last minute, the Warden gave the keys to the prisoners who set themselves free and boarded the life boats. Four of them drowned when they failed to free themselves from their chains. The same way as Bligh, the survivors reached Timor in Indonesia in their long boats and were then brought back to England to face the Law. Among the 10 remaining prisoners, 4 were acquited, 3 were pardoned and 3 were pronounced guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.
Their tragic destiny on the Island of Pitcairn,
What happened then to Fletcher Christian and his accomplices aboard the Bounty? Did they find a paradise island to establish their new colony? In fact, their fate emained unknown for 19 years. But in 1808, an American Captain was surprised to discover, on the small island of Pitcairn, located 2,500 Km Southeast of Tahiti, a community of English-speaking women and children. That is when he realized that he had jsut solved the Bounty mutineers' mystery when he met the only surviving mutineer: John Adams, who lived there with several Polynesian women, all descendants of the original group, and a great number of children.
Adams told him how, while looking for a desert island and after 4 months of wandering around, the Bounty arrived in Pitcairn with its 9 mutineers, 6 Polynesian men, 12 Polynesian women, and a baby (7 women decided after all to stay in Moorea, next to Tahiti). They took from the ship everything that could be useful and burned it in an immense bondfire on January 23, 1790. At first, the community functioned well for 3 years. Each mutineer had his woman and 3 other women were left for the 6 Polynesian men, who had been turned into slaves. Then when the woman who lived with Jack Williams died, it was decided to find him a replacement among the 3 women left for the Polynesian men. Ferocious jealousy scenes exploded among the Polynesian men, who secretely planned a terrible massacre during which they killed 5 sailors, among whom was Fletcher Christian.
The 4 remaining sailors owed their survival only to fleeing in the mountain. But a little later, the Polynesians fought again for women and started to kill each other and even the women took part in the killing to avenge their departed Bounty husbands. Finally only 4 mutineers, 10 women and the children survived peacefully for 5 years. Then McCoy, uder the influence of alcohol, committed suicide by jumping from the top of a cliff, Quintal went totally insane when his wife died and threatened to kill all of Christian's children if his window was not given to him. He was killed in a fight with his companions who claimed legitimate defense. Young, one of the main actors in the mutiny, died from asthma on Christmas Day 1800, Adams then became the only surviving mutineers, he started to teach religion to the island's 14 children with a Bible saved from the Bounty. He died on March 5, 1829, at the age of 62, after 39 years spent on the island of Pitcairn.
Today, Pitcairn's population is about 50 persons. They all depend mainlyt on supply ships: for diesel fuel, frozen food and everything that is not manufactured or raised on Pitcairn. And even while it is ironical to point out that this tiny island is British today thanks to mutineers once sought by the Law, it nevertheless remains that each year on January 23, Fletcher Christian's descendant sets a small boat on fire to commemorate the burning of the Bounty by his ancestor. Several anchors have been found on the site where the ship was burnt, one of which is displayed in front of the local post office.
What if it had to be done again?
Some saw in this bloody and tragical ending, some sort of moral punishment for their quest for paradise, as if while trying to control their fate and fighting for women, the mutineers finally only succeed in exacerbating the murderous violence of human nature. But once should not dismiss the violent temper of sailors at the time, who for most came from British prisons (Often only 20% of the men enlisted willfully, the others were generally recruited by force to go to sea in often very difficult, if not atrocious, conditions). Under such conditions, it was like sailing with muzzled tigers just waiting for an opportunity to use their claws, especially that all the Commanding Officers, transformed as tamers with their famous right of life or death, apllied an iron fist discipline in order to prevent mutinies. This caused a very tense atmosphere that could easily turn insanity on either side. The moral of the story is: beware, Tahiti captivates her visitors, but if you want to make it your paradise, you better be careful how you pick your partners...