Today in 1789, Royal Navy Commanding Lieutenant William Bligh and 17 other crewmembers from the HMS Bounty reached the island of Timor after a 3,600 nautical mile journey in a 23 foot open boat. Their 47-day voyage marked the end of a long trial for those who had remained loyal to their captain during what would become one of the most famous mutinies in recorded history.
HMS Bounty was not a warship; she began life as a collier named Bethia. The Royal Navy purchased the ship in 1787, renamed her, and refitted her for one purpose: to travel to Tahiti in order to transfer breadfruit plants from there to the West Indies, where it was hoped the fruit could be used as food for the large slave population there. The man chosen to lead this expedition was Lieutenant William Bligh, a 33-year old career officer who had experience with navigation near the area of Tahiti and was familiar with the local customs, a familiarity that was crucial for the success of the mission.
Bounty’s complement was 46 in total, but Bligh was the only commissioned officer aboard. Space was tight since much of the space below decks was reserved for use by the breadfruit trees on the return trip. The trip to Tahiti was rough, with the ship attempting to round Cape Horn for a month because of bad weather. She eventually turned east and sailed round the Cape of Good Hope and across the entire width of the Indian Ocean. Bounty had been at sea for 10 straight months by the time she reached Tahiti in October, 1788.
Bounty’s crew spent five months on Tahiti, working to prepare more than one thousand breadfruit plants for transport. Captain Bligh allowed the men to live onshore during this time, and they came to know the native population of the island rather well. Some received tattoos in the native fashion, while others formed romantic relationships with native women. Master’s Mate and Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian went so far as to marry a Tahitian woman. Bligh was not surprised by his crew’s behavior nor was he apparently bothered by it because it helped to maintain good relations between the sailors and the native population.
HMS Bounty left paradise on April 4th, 1789 with her compliment of men and breadfruit aboard. 24 days later and 1,300 miles from Tahiti, a mutiny broke out aboard the ship. Fletcher Christian and several other men entered Bligh’s cabin, woke him up and pushed him to the deck. Except for an exchange of threats, the mutiny occurred without bloodshed. Eighteen men joined Christian in the mutiny, two were non-committal, and 22 remained loyal to Bligh. Four of the loyalists were forced to remain on the ship while the remaining 18 and Bligh were forced into the ship’s launch and set adrift with limited rations.
Much has been made in the past 220 years of Lieutenant William Bligh’s behavior as ship’s captain. It is important to remember that in the Royal Navy of the late 18th century, discipline was harsh. Even the smallest infraction could result in a sailor receiving a flogging; other penalties could result in death. By the standards of the day, Bligh was not a hard master. For example, while the Bounty was still anchored at Tahiti, three crewmen deserted from their work party, presumably to remain on the island when the ship left. All three were recaptured, whereupon Bligh ordered the men flogged instead of hanged, which was the usual punishment for such a transgression. It can be argued that the men were needed to help sail the Bounty to the West Indies, but other documents show Bligh to be no harsher than other commanders of this period.
Bligh and his 18 men found themselves in a 23-foot long open boat in the South Pacific. Their only navigation instruments were a sextant and a pocket watch. Initially, the boat was only 30 nautical miles from the island of Tofua, but landing there to acquire more rations only resulted in the death of one of the crewmen, who was stoned to death by a group of natives.
The 18 remaining men and their small launch encountered other difficulties on their journey, which by Bligh’s reckoning was 3,618 nautical miles. They arrived at Timor in the Dutch East Indies on June 14th, 1789. Shortly after landing, two of the men died. Three others would die in the following months, all due to their long open ocean journey.
The Bounty and the mutineers who now commanded her had their own difficulties, which we will discuss in part two of this podcast.