Royal Navy: Mutiny on the Bounty

Muting on the Bounty
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In the late 1780s, noted botanist Sir Joseph Banks theorized that breadfruit plants which grew on the islands of the Pacific could be brought to the Caribbean where they could be used as a cheap food source for enslaved people forced to work on British plantations. This concept received support from the Royal Society which offered a prize for attempting such an endeavor. As discussions ensued, the Royal Navy offered to provide a ship and crew to transport breadfruit to the Caribbean. To this end, the collier Bethia was purchased in May 1787 and renamed His Majesty's Armed Vessel Bounty.

Mounting four 4-pdr guns and ten swivel guns, command of Bounty was assigned to Lieutenant William Bligh on August 16. Recommended by Banks, Bligh was a gifted sailor and navigator who had previously distinguished himself as sailing master aboard Captain James Cook's HMS Resolution (1776-1779). Through the latter part of 1787, efforts moved forward to prepare the ship for its mission and assemble a crew. This done, Bligh departed Britain in December and set a course for Tahiti.

Outbound Voyage

Bligh initially attempted to enter the Pacific via Cape Horn. After a month of trying and failing due to adverse winds and weather, he turned and sailed east around the Cape of Good Hope. The voyage to Tahiti proved smooth and few punishments were given to the crew. As Bounty was rated as a cutter, Bligh was the only commissioned officer on board. To permit his men longer periods of uninterrupted sleep, he divided the crew into three watches. In addition, he raised Master's Mate Fletcher Christian to the rank of acting lieutenant in March so that he could oversee one of the watches.

Life in Tahiti

This decision angered Bounty's sailing master, John Fryer. Reaching Tahiti on October 26, 1788, Bligh and his men collected 1,015 breadfruit plants. The delay off Cape Horn led to a five-month delay in Tahiti as they had to wait for the breadfruit trees to mature enough to transport. During this time, Bligh allowed the men to live ashore among the Native Tahitian islanders. Some of the men, including Christian, forced Tahitian women into marriage. As a result of this environment, naval discipline began to break down.

Attempting to control the situation, Bligh was increasingly forced to punish his men and floggings became more routine. Unwilling to submit to this treatment after enjoying the island's warm hospitality, three sailors, John Millward, William Muspratt, and Charles Churchill deserted. They were quickly recaptured and though they were punished, it was less severe than recommended. In the course of events, a search of their belongings produced a list of names including Christian and Midshipman Peter Heywood. Lacking additional evidence, Bligh could not charge the two men as aiding in the desertion plot.


Though unable to take action against Christian, Bligh's relationship with him continued to deteriorate and he began to relentlessly ride his acting lieutenant. On April 4, 1789, Bounty departed Tahiti, much to the displeasure of many of the crew. On the night of April 28, Christian and 18 of the crew surprised and bound Bligh in his cabin. Dragging him on deck, Christian bloodlessly took control of the ship despite the fact that the most of the crew (22) sided with the captain. Bligh and 18 loyalists were forced over the side into Bounty's cutter and given a sextant, four cutlasses, and several days food and water.

Bligh's Voyage

As Bounty turned to return to Tahiti, Bligh set course for the nearest European outpost at Timor. Though dangerously overloaded and lacking charts, Bligh succeeded in sailing the cutter first to Tofua for supplies, then on to Timor. After sailing 3,618 miles, Bligh arrived at Timor after a 47-day voyage. Only one man was lost during the ordeal when he was killed by Native people on Tofua. Moving on to Batavia, Bligh was able to secure transport back to England. In October 1790, Bligh was honorably acquitted for the loss of Bounty and records show him to have been a compassionate commander who frequently spared the lash.

Bounty Sails On

Retaining four loyalists aboard, Christian steered Bounty to Tubuai where the mutineers attempted to settle. After three months of fighting with the Native people, the mutineers re-embarked and sailed to Tahiti. Arriving back at the island, twelve of the mutineers and the four loyalists were put ashore. Not believing that they would be safe in Tahiti, the remaining mutineers, including Christian, embarked supplies, enslaved six Tahitian men, and eleven women in September 1789. Though they scouted the Cook and Fiji Islands, the mutineers did not feel that either offered sufficient safety from the Royal Navy.

Life on Pitcairn

On January 15, 1790, Christian re-discovered Pitcairn Island which had been misplaced on British charts. Landing, the party quickly established a community on Pitcairn. To reduce their chances of discovery, they burned Bounty on January 23. Though Christian attempted to maintain peace in the small community, relations between the Britons and Tahitians soon collapsed leading to fighting. The community continued to struggle for several years until Ned Young and John Adams took control in the mid-1790s. Following Young's death in 1800, Adams continued to build the community.

Aftermath of the Mutiny on the Bounty

While Bligh was acquitted for the loss of his ship, the Royal Navy actively sought to capture and punish the mutineers. In November 1790, HMS Pandora (24 guns) was sent to search for Bounty. Reaching Tahiti on March 23, 1791, Captain Edward Edwards was met by four of Bounty's men. A search of the island soon located ten additional members of Bounty's crew. These fourteen men, a mix of mutineers and loyalists, were held in a cell on the ship's deck known as "Pandora's Box." Departing on May 8, Edwards searched the neighboring islands for three months before turning for home. While passing through the Torres Strait on August 29, Pandora ran aground and sank the next day. Of those on board, 31 crew and four of the prisoners were lost. The remainder embarked in Pandora's boats and reached Timor in September.

Transported back to Britain, the ten surviving prisoners were court-martialed. Four of the ten were found innocent with Bligh's backing while the other six were found guilty. Two, Heywood and James Morrison, were pardoned, while another escaped on a technicality. The remaining three were hung aboard HMS Brunswick (74) on October 29, 1792.

A second breadfruit expedition departed Britain in August 1791. Again led by Bligh, this group successfully delivered breadfruit to the Caribbean but the experiment proved a failure when the enslaved people refused to eat it. On the far side of the world, Royal Navy ships relocated Pitcairn Island in 1814. Making contact with those ashore, they reported the final details of Bounty to the Admiralty. In 1825, Adams, the lone surviving mutineer, was granted amnesty.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Royal Navy: Mutiny on the Bounty." ThoughtCo, Sep. 22, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, September 22). Royal Navy: Mutiny on the Bounty. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Royal Navy: Mutiny on the Bounty." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).