The true story of the 1789 mutiny on the Bounty is far more complicated than suggested by film versions of the event, which have emphasized the gratuitous cruelty of the ship's captain, William Bligh. The psychological drama that played out in the South Seas starring Bligh, the efficient disciplinarian, and his mate, the sensitive and proud Fletcher Christian, led to, among other things: one of the most amazing navigational feats in maritime history, the founding of a British settlement that continues to exist today, and a court-martial in England that answered the question of which of ten captured mutineers should live--and which should die--for their actions.

The ill-fated voyage of the Bounty would never have happened had it not been for the discovery in 1769 of a botanical curiosity, given the name "breadfruit," on the island of Tahiti. On board the Endeavor, captained by the celebrated James Cook, as it sailed into Tahiti was some of England's best scientific talent, including botanist Joseph Banks. After the American colonies achieved independence, and the reliable supply of fish they had been exporting to England became unavailable, Banks (named in 1778 as the president of the Royal Society) concluded breadfruit might fill the sudden gap in the diet of English slaves working the sugar plantations of Jamaica and the Lesser Antilles. Support built for an expedition to retrieve and transplant breadfruit, thanks to Banks constantly pushing the idea, and in 1787 Banks successfully petitioned the king to sponsor the effort. A vessel was obtained and a commander, William Bligh, selected. The voyage, however, did not rank high in the Admiralty's priorities--the ship was small, and Bligh was denied the status "master and commander" and the other commissioned officers and security force usually given to the captain of a voyage of such length.

William Bligh's career at sea had a remarkable upward trajectory. By age 22, he had been appointed sailing master (the person in charge of day-to-day management of the ship) of the Resolution, captained by James Cook. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the Resolution spent a year exploring the Pacific from the southern islands to the Arctic north. In the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), Bligh witnessed Cook being bludgeoned to death on a beach by natives--a shocking event which might have powerfully shaped his own ideas about discipline.

By 1786, Bligh earned command of his own ship, the Britannia, and brought on as a young able-bodied seaman Fletcher Christian, a twenty-three-year-old man with connections to the extended Bligh family. On August 20, 1787, Lieutenant Bligh took command of the Bounty. When he began to fit-out and man the ship one of the first persons he recruited was Fletcher Christian.

On December 23, 1787, after weeks of delay, the Bounty sailed from Spithead, England, bound for Tahiti by way of Cape Horn. Arriving at the tip of South America in late March, the Bounty encountered day after day of mountainous waves that finally forced Bligh to order a ten thousand mile detour around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. The Bounty reached Cape Town on May 24, where it remained for thirty-eight days as it was completely overhauled and resupplied. Bligh wrote, "Perhaps a Voyage of five Months which I have now performed without touching at any one place but at Tenarif [Canary Islands], has never been accomplished with so few accidents, and such health among Seamen in a like continuance of bad weather." During the difficult months at sea and the layover on the Cape, Bligh and Christian remained on good terms. In Cape Town, in fact, Bligh loaned money to Christian, a not insignificant act of friendship from someone who himself had to watch every penny.

Seven weeks after leaving the Cape, the Bounty anchored off the southern co

ast of Tasmania. At Adventure Bay on Tasmania the first signs of real trouble surfaced. Bligh criticized his carpenter, William Purcell, for cutting poor quality billets of wood. Purcell responded that Bligh just came onshore "to find fault" and became so insolent that Bligh ordered him back to the ship. Bligh lamented that he was so shorthanded he could not afford to confine or to try Purcell for refusing orders (and flogging was not, for a warrant officer, an available option)--a fact Purcell seemed to recognize as he continued a course of studied disobedience. James Morrison, boatswain's mate, wrote that at Adventure Bay "were sown seeds of eternal discord between Lieut. Bligh & the Carpenter, and it will be no more than true to say, with all the Officers in general." Adventure Bay also brought on the voyage's first death. Able seaman James Valentine contracted an ailment there that led to his being bled by the ship's surgeon, Thomas Huggan. Unfortunately, the bleeding resulted in an infection which led to Valentine's delirium and death. Bligh blamed Valentine's death on the incompetence of Huggan and the indifference of officers who, he believed, should have spotted symptoms earlier.


28,086 miles after leaving England, on October 24, 1788, the Bounty rounded a reef on Tahiti's Point Venus. Islanders in throngs of canoes greeted the ship, and "in ten minutes," wrote Bligh, the Bounty was so filled with Tahitians that "I could scarce find my own people." Within a few days, Bligh busied himself gaining the permission of various island chiefs to pull up and carry to the ship breadfruit. Bligh's relations with the natives were cordial, and he loved the place, as this entry in his log makes clear: "[Matavai Bay, Tahiti is] certainly the Paradise of the World, and if happiness could result from situation and convenience, here it is to be found in the highest perfection. I have seen many parts of the World, but Otaheite [Tahiti] is capable of being preferable to them all."

The onset of the rainy season meant that the Bounty would be in Tahiti for five months. Crew members constructed a compound that served as a nursery for breadfruit, and Bligh gave the breadfruit project nearly his full attention. Discipline problems were fairly minor (although Purcell's insolence continued to be an issue) during the first few months of the Bounty's stay on the island, but Bligh's order prohibiting crew members from most trading with natives led to considerable grumbling. Still, crew members couldn't be too unhappy, what with an abundant supply of native women, most of whom seem quite pleased to enjoy frequent sexual relations with their pale-faced visitors for the price of a few nails.

The first serious problem of the Tahitian stay occurred in January, when three crew members (Charles Churchill, John Millward, and William Muspratt) and a considerable amount of arms and ammunition turned up missing. Bligh demanded that his Tahitian friends aid in returning the deserters and their supplies. He warned he would "make the whole Country suffer for it" if they failed to "bring the Deserters back." Bligh's temper erupted a few days after the desertion when he found that spare sails he had ordered out of storage had been left mildewed and rotted. "Scarce any neglect of duty can equal the criminality of this," he fumed in his log. Three weeks after they disappeared, the deserters were tracked down at in a village five miles away from the Bounty. The men were subjected to repeated lashings and placed in irons, but they remained grateful that Bligh had indicated that he would not recommend them for a court-martial, a proceeding that might be expected to result in their executions.

Bligh blamed the desertion in large part on Midshipman Thomas Hayward, who had fallen asleep at his station at the critical time. Bligh

began compiling a long list of complaints in his own mind of misconduct and neglect by his officers. He complained: "Such a neglectful and worthless petty Officers I believe never was in a Ship as are in this. No Orders for a few hours together are Obeyed by them, and their conduct in general is so bad, that no confidence or trust can be reposed in them."

With 1,015 breadfruit safely on board, the Bounty was readied for its departure after twenty-three weeks in Tahiti. Many of the men did not share Bligh's interest in leaving their island pleasures behind. On the early afternoon of April 5, the ship sailed west.


On April 11, the Bounty anchored at an island the natives called Whytootackee, one of the Friendly Islands. Soon after leaving Whytootackee, Master John Fryer later reported, Bligh and Christian argued bitterly. According to Fryer, around midnight on April 21, Christian complained to Bligh, "Sir, your abuse is so bad that I cannot do my duty with any pleasure. I have been in hell for weeks with you." The Bounty continued to sail westward, landing at Anamooka on April 24. Bligh again had words with Christian at Anamooka, calling him a "cowardly rascal" for letting fear, while he was under arms, of "a set of naked savages" interfere with his work of supervising the kegging of water. The captain became further enraged when a native diver was able to slip the grapnel, a small anchor, off its line. Bligh decided to detain some chiefs that were on board the Bounty until the grapnel was returned. In his rage over the lost grapnel, Bligh also chastised officers and crew as "lubberly rascals" who could be easily disarmed by five people "with good sticks." The grapnel never showed up and Bligh, not really anxious to cart the chiefs back to England, returned them to native canoes. The Bounty headed north through calm seas toward the island of Tofua.

On the morning of August 27, Bligh concluded

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