In episode 406 of this podcast, we discussed the mutiny which took place aboard HMS Bounty on April, 28th, 1789 and the ensuing journey by commanding Lieutenant William Bligh and 18 loyal crewmen across 3,600 miles of open ocean in a 23 foot open launch. If you have not yet listened to that episode, please go back and do so now, because it contains much of the back story you'll need for this second part of our story.
While Bligh and his party worked their way to Timor in the Dutch East Indies, Fletcher Christian and the mutineers aboard Bounty sailed for Tubuai, one of the Austral Islands that is today part of French Polynesia. After three months of fighting with the native population, however, the crew decided to head back to Tahiti. Christian and the rest of the mutineers knew they could not stay long in Tahiti since that was likely the first place the Royal Navy would look for them. However, twelve of the men who had participated in the mutiny and four who had remained loyal to Bligh but were forced to help crew the Bounty anyway decided to stay on the island and risk capture by the Royal Navy. Two of the mutineers who remained on Tahiti died during the next two years; one a victim of murder and the other murdered as an act of vendetta by the first man’s family.
It was not until March, 15th, 1790 that Lieutenant Bligh returned to London and reported the mutiny to the Admiralty. On November 7th of that year, HMS Pandora set sail with orders to search for Bounty and the mutineers. The ship carried almost twice her normal crew complement as it was assumed that a crew would be needed to bring Bounty home once she was captured. Pandora reached Tahiti in March, 1791, whereupon the four men loyal to Bligh immediately presented themselves to the ship’s crew. The remaining ten men were soon arrested and all of them, mutineers and loyal crew alike, were imprisoned inside a make shift cell on Pandora’s main deck, a small compartment which soon earned the nickname “Pandora’s Box.”
Pandora left Tahiti in May, 1791 and spent the next few months searching islands in the vicinity for signs of the Bounty. Passing through the Torres straight, the ship ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. She sank the next day, August 30th, taking 31 crew and four of the prisoners with her. The remaining 99 men (including prisoners) set sail in four small launches and made way for Timor in the same way Bligh had done two years before. They arrived there on September 16th, 1791.
After arriving back in Britain, the ten surviving prisoners were placed on trial in front of a naval court. It is important to remember that at this time in the Royal Navy, failure to attempt to stop a mutiny was seen as being no different than being an actual mutineer. On September 18th, 1792, the ten men learned of their fate. Four of them, being designated by Bligh as loyal and innocent, were acquitted. Two more were found guilty, but pardoned; both continued in the naval service and had successful careers. One man was acquitted due to a legal technicality. The remaining three men were convicted and hanged. Both Bligh and the captain of the Pandora faced courts-martial for the loss of their ships, an automatic proceeding under naval law at the time; both were acquitted.
Half a world away and nearly three years earlier, Fletcher Christian and eight other crewmen left Tahiti hoping to stay one step ahead of the Royal Navy. With them were six Tahitian men, eleven women and one baby. Their goal was to find an island where they might begin a new life, but this was a tall order given the Royal Navy’s extensive knowledge of the area.
In January, 1790, Bounty’s crew had an incredible run of good fortune when they “rediscovered” Pitcairn Island, which was misplaced on the Royal Navy’s charts by a significant distance. The decision was taken to settle there permanently. To ensure that the Royal Navy would not find the Bounty, the ship was burned on January 23rd, 1790 in what is now called Bounty Bay.
The settlers on Pitcairn Island had high hopes for their new life. The Tahitians were homesick and the British sailors knew they would never see their homes again, but the island provided plenty of food, water and land for everyone. Fletcher Christian became the leader of the small community and was, by all reports, fair and moderate. He wanted the Tahitians to have equal say in all affairs, but some of the British resented this, which led to tension between the two groups.
In 1793, the resentment and outright hatred between some of the British and Tahitian men came to blows. Five of the mutineers, including Fletcher Christian, were killed in the fighting while all six of the Tahitian men died. The community continued to exist, with various men holding the title of leader. Babies were born and became young men and women, many of them carrying the names of their British fathers. The first ship to visit the island was the American vessel Topaz, which only made a ten-hour stop. Topaz’s captain, Mayhew Folger, reported finding Europeans living on the island, a report which eventually made its way to the British Admiralty. The island was visited by two Royal Navy vessels in 1814, which sent a party ashore but otherwise took no action for by this time, only one mutineer, John Adams, was still alive. In 1825, he was granted amnesty for his part in the mutiny. Pitcairn’s capital, Adamstown, is named in his honor.
By 1856, the community on Pitcairn island had grown such that the island was becoming uninhabitable. The British government, which now owned several islands in the area, granted the citizens Norfolk Island as a place to live.
Lieutenant William Bligh, now a full Captain, eventually made a second journey to Tahiti and collected the breadfruit plants wanted for transplant in the West Indies. It was found, however, that the slaves on Jamaica refused to eat the fruit and so the entire venture was a failure. Bligh eventually achieved the rank of Vice Admiral and was appointed the governor of New South Wales in Australia. His purpose in this appointment was to stop the illegal rum trade going on there. This ultimately led to the Rum Rebellion, a topic for another episode of this podcast. Bligh died in 1817 back at home in London.