Mutiny on the high seas: Our enduring fascination with the Bounty saga.
Just before my ninth birthday I caught the measles, closely followed by a bout of chicken pox. Inoculations now ensure once common ‘childhood’ ailments have almost disappeared, so it’s easy to forget they often caused serious complications. Feverish, with my temperature rising, I lay in a dimly-lit bedroom, banned from reading to avoid eye-strain and permanently damaged vision. Later, while recuperating and covered in chicken pox sores, I was allowed to read again and began devouring every book and magazine in the house.
Flipping through my mother’s 1950 Radio Fun Annual I found an article about ‘The Mutiny on the Bounty’ – an account of rebellion, survival and grand adventure on the high seas. It told of Fletcher Christian’s desperate stand, Bligh’s miraculous longboat journey and the founding of a new community on lonely Pitcairn Island. It was a tale to fire the imagination, similar to other swashbuckling yarns of pirates, shipwrecks and Robinson Crusoe, but especially fascinating and romantic to me because it was true – these events had really happened long ago. I read the story over and over and, like many others, wanted to know more.
My mum, a history buff, told me what she knew of the Bounty and through the years my interest never waned. I watched the 1960s film, with Marlon Brando as Fletcher, and later saw the 1984 movie featuring Mel Gibson as the famed mutineer. I read books and articles about Bligh and Christian, while taking a Pacific History course at University, and learnt even more about early European-Tahitian contact and this famous rebellion.
Rummaging through the shelves of a dusty bookshop I discovered a facsimile edition of Lieutenant William Bligh’s ‘A Voyage to the South Sea’ and was transfixed by his account of the mutiny: “Tuesday the 28th. Just before sun-rising, while I was yet asleep, Mr Christian, with the master at arms, gunner’s mate, and Thomas Burkitt, seaman, came into my cabin, and seizing me, tied my hands with a cord behind my back, threatening me with instant death, if I spoke or made the least noise…”
Published in 1792 – three years after these turbulent events – Bligh expressed his shock and horror at the assault on his authority: “I was hauled out of bed, and forced on deck in my shirt, suffering great pain from the tightness with which they had tied my hands. I demanded the reason of such violence, but received no other answer than abuse, for not holding my tongue.”
Fletcher Christian left no account, but emotions were certainly running high. Bligh noted: “…I asked him if this treatment was a proper return for the many instances he had received of my friendship? He 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.”
Fletcher and the other mutineers had taken the ship, and Bligh and his supporters were set adrift in a small, overcrowded vessel. All the frustrations, abuses and incidents during the Bounty’s extended expedition to Tahiti finally came to a head. After a long night of indecision, despair and anger Christian and his followers deposed their commander – a hanging offence in late 18th century England.
Bligh, outraged by the uprising, was determined to survive, return to London, and tell the world his story. Christian’s ‘betrayal’, as Bligh saw it, was particularly galling and baffling: “Had their mutiny been occasioned by any grievances, either real or imaginary, I must have discovered symptoms of their discontent, which would have put me on my guard: but the case was far otherwise. Christian, in particular, I was on the most friendly terms with…”
So, what had gone so very, very wrong and why had his protégé turned on him? This question was integral to the affair as Bligh acknowledged in his account:
“It will very naturally be asked, what could be the reason for such a revolt? … I can only conjecture that the mutineers had flattered themselves with the hopes of a more happy life among the Otaheiteans (Tahitians) than they could possibly enjoy in England; and this, joined to some female connections, most probably occasioned the whole transaction.”
Looking back on that momentous April morning even Bligh seems unsure of Fletcher’s true motives, or the mutiny’s exact origins, and the debate continues. As an intriguing mystery – a kind of historical ‘whodunnit’ – our fascination with the Bounty saga has endured for over 230 years. Plays, museum exhibitions, paintings, poems, songs, documentaries, television shows, five movies and hundreds of articles, histories, novels and books have been inspired by the uprising on the Bounty. Even a Simpsons episode and a series of manga comics pay homage to it.
What could have been a relatively minor episode, whether you’re a supporter of Christian or Bligh, between two friends ‘falling out’ after a long and arduous sea voyage, suddenly exploded into armed rebellion and deadly threats. For more than two centuries historians have examined, in great detail, the events preceding the insurrection and the unravelling of Bligh and Christian’s formerly close relationship.
Some have painted William Bligh as a ‘double-dyed’ villain who was tyrannical and cruel, and Fletcher Christian as a noble hero pushed to the brink by his mentor’s ‘dastardly deeds’. Others have cast Bligh as the wronged leader, ousted by Christian and his rebels so they could return to those tempting Tahitian women and a life of plenty. Between these ‘black and white’ portrayals lie many different interpretations of the whole voyage.
Researchers have pored over the few surviving, sometimes contradictory, reports from other crew members and studied Bligh’s desperate journey in the laden longboat across treacherous waters. They’ve eagerly investigated the entirety of Bligh’s brilliant, tumultuous career and his contentious personality, while also tracing the Bounty’s meandering route to Pitcairn, hoping to learn more about the mutineers’ early years and Christian’s ultimate fate. There are hundreds of mysteries, unanswered questions and theories surrounding the takeover and its aftermath.
So, an accident of history had unimagined future consequences. The mutiny irrevocably changed Bligh and Christian’s lives and resulted in the founding of a settlement on remote, mis-charted Pitcairn Island. Christian and his followers brought Tahitian men and women with them to establish a new utopia on the small, tropical isle, but they had to remain hidden. Britain’s navy then meted out the harshest penalties for rebellion, and once Bligh had been overthrown the mutineers knew they could never go home.
Unfortunately paradise soon turned into hell. Fighting over land and women broke out, and in a few years all the Polynesian men and most of the mutineers had been killed.
By 1808, when an American ship discovered the community, only one member of the Bounty’s crew, John Adams, was still alive. After all the bloodshed, chaos and over-indulgence in potent home-brewed spirits, Adams had turned to Christianity and was now sole protector and patriarch to his former companions’ children and wives. Fellow survivor Ned Young had taught Adams to read from the Bounty’s bible, before dying in 1800 of a respiratory illness, and so Pitcairn had become a devoutly religious society.
However, the story didn’t end there. The now pious Pitcairners eventually outgrew their tiny, rocky isle, and in 1856 the entire community of 193 ‘sullun’ (people) moved to Norfolk Island when its brutal penal colony was abolished. By 1863 two disaffected groups had returned to Pitcairn – ancestors of the small population still living there today – but the majority of Bounty descendants remained on Norfolk. Here they established a simple and peaceful life of fishing, farming the fertile land and whaling. After the building of the airstrip in World War II, the Islanders began welcoming more and more tourists, eager to visit convict ruins or learn about links to Fletcher Christian and his shipmates.
So, if you want to feed your Bounty obsession Norfolk Island is the ideal destination. The Pitcairn names of Christian, Quintal, McCoy, Adams, Young, Buffett, Evans and Nobbs can be found everywhere here. Your tour bus driver, café barista or shop assistant are often descendants and they’re always happy to discuss the mutiny. The Bounty’s story is most vividly shown and explained at Fletcher’s Mutiny Cyclorama; a spectacular 360 degree painting and viewing experience which was created on Norfolk Island and unveiled in 2002.
The Norfolk Island Museum also has a wealth of historical material about the Bounty saga and local guides are very willing to share their knowledge. You’ll find precious Bounty artefacts including the kettle, canon and ring exhibited at the Pier Store building, as well as a wide range of books inspired by the famous maritime drama for sale at the REO.
Historical works such as: Alexander’s ‘The Bounty’, Nicolson’s ‘The Pitcairners’ and Clarke’s ‘Hell and Paradise’ and novels like: McDermid’s ‘The Grave Tattoo’ and Boyne’s ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ are available at various outlets around the Island. New publications appear regularly and our local library has a wonderful collection of Bounty related books for those wanting to do more in-depth research.
The Bounty Museum is also worth a visit. Its owners, Dale Parker Anderson and his brother Bevan, are 6th generation descendants of the Bounty’s carpenter, William Purcell – a loyalist who was set adrift with Bligh. Purcell’s handsome drinking tankard is just one of the amazing family heirlooms on display, along with other quirky memorabilia.
The world’s fascination with the Bounty shows no sign of dissipating, although many unanswered questions remain. Those seeking to uncover exactly what happened on the expedition to Tahiti, and which events and misunderstandings turned two friends into mortal enemies and led to insurrection, may never agree. All we do know is that English mutineers and Tahitian wives forged a new community on Pitcairn, and their descendants eventually brought a unique culture and way of life to Norfolk Island.
Image: The mutineers setting Bligh and some of the officers and crew adrift from HMS Bounty, 29 April 1789. By Robert Dodd. (Creative Commons)
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 05 Issue 01, 2021. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.