Aftermath of the Bounty Mutiny

We have all heard the story of the Bounty mutiny in 1789, where some of the crew of the HMS Bounty carried out a mutiny against their ruthless captain William Bligh in the South Pacific. What happened to the mutineers? It wouldn’t be like the British Royal Navy to let an incident like that go, and they didn’t by any means. 

The Bounty Mutiny, by Robert Dodd (1790)

The Bounty Mutiny, by Robert Dodd (1790)

William Bligh was known as a cruel, and often abusive British Navy captain, with bouts of paranoia, which drew the ire of many of his crew, but there was those who continued to remain loyal to him. Fletcher Christian (acting Lieutenant of the HMS Bounty) was a particular target of Bligh's, and was subjected to punishment more than most.

In April 1789 off the coast of Tonga, Fletcher Christian led a mutiny against Bligh and his 18 loyalists. They set Bligh and the loyalists adrift once Christian had control of the Bounty.

Bligh and the loyalists endured a perilous journey, where they initially spent time in Tonga, but had to quickly flee when the natives rose up. They made the 6,000km journey to Timor in harsh conditions, with what rations they had, and by the time they arrived in Timor, most were on the brink of death. Once he was well and able, Bligh made his way to Batavia (modern day Indonesia), and bought passage back to England. Only Bligh and two others made it back it England, with the others succumbing to the effects of the journey.

Christian suspected that the British would eventually come looking for the Bounty, in particular in Tahiti, so he took it on a course to the Tubuai islands in French Polynesia. The Tubuai island group had only been charted by Captain James Cook a decade earlier. When they landed on the island they were aggressively met by hostile natives which they quickly overcame with the Bounty's artillery.

Captain William Bligh

Captain William Bligh

Christian knew that if they were to succeed they would need supplies and resources from Tahiti, where the Bounty ventured to after a short while. Christian convinced the Tahitian Chiefs that he was working on a colonial establishment for William Bligh and James Cook. By using Cook's name (who was well revered on the island), they will given a plethora of supplies to take back with them, as well as 30 Tahitian natives to assist with the building.

After many months of trying to establish the settlement, and consistent fighting against the natives, discontent was growing among the mutineers. They held a vote as to what they would do, where eight of the men wanted to stay, and the other sixteen wanted to go back to Tahiti.

When they returned to Tahiti in September 1789, the Tahitians had learned of Christian's fabricated story (where they learned Cook had died 10 years earlier). Christian dropped off 15 of the 16 men who wanted to stay there, and kept one aboard that he needed for his skills.

While docked at Tahiti, Christian invited a group of natives on board for a party, and when the party was raging, Christian set sail abducting the natives on board. As they were leaving though, Joseph Coleman (the mutineer Christian wanted to keep aboard), dived overboard and swam to the Tahitian shore. Christian and the other 8 mutineers set sail to find another place to settle, along with their captive natives. The sixteen mutineers left behind in Tahiti began to establish their lives.

Christian landed the Bounty on Pitcairn Islands in January of 1790 where they decided to make settlement (in particular because the chartered position of the islands was incorrect), they set about unloading the Bounty, salvaging parts, then destroyed the ship. Christian settled down with his wife and had a child on the island. The mutineers integrated peacefully with abducted natives, a peace that lasted for a while, but over the years tensions grew, as the mutineers began mistreating the Tahitians.

Bligh had managed to make his way back to England by March 1790, but news of the Bounty mutiny had already been heard in England, and he was welcomed back a hero. He was subject to a court martial later in the year for the loss of the Bounty, was quickly acquitted and promoted.

HMS Pandora, by Robert Batty (1831)

HMS Pandora, by Robert Batty (1831)

The following month, the HMS Pandora set sail to capture the mutineers and arrived in Tahiti by March 1791. It didn’t take long for the crew of the Pandora to round up the remaining 14 mutineers and they placed them into a cage on the Pandora's deck. Two of the mutineers (Charles Churchill and Matthew Thompson) had died by that stage, Thompson killed Churchill, who was subsequently killed by natives for killing Churchill. Once the crew of Pandora had rounded up all of the mutineers from Tahiti, they set sail to try and find Christian and the Bounty.

By August 1791, after months of searching, the Pandora itself ran into trouble and ran aground in the outer part of the Great Barrier Reef, and it wasn’t long before the order to abandon ship was given. With the prisoners still locked up on board the sinking ship, one the crew tried to free the prisoners, but was only able to free 10 of the men before the ship went under, with 4 mutineers drowning. The survivors and remaining ten prisoners made their way in their life rafts and eventually arrived in Timor by September.

The prisoners were transferred to a Dutch East India company ship bound for Cape Town, where they were then transferred into British hands aboard the HMS Gorgon, which took them back to England, arriving in June 1792.

In September 1792 the trials of the ten mutineers began. Four of the prisoners (Joseph Coleman, Thomas McIntosh, Charles Norman, and the Bounty's blind fiddler, Michael Byrne), were quickly acquitted due to the testimony of Bligh and the surviving loyalists about their lack of invested involvement in the mutiny.

The remaining six were all found guilty and sentenced to death, however mercy was recommended for two (Peter Heywood and James Morrison) due to the circumstances of their involvement in the mutiny from witness accounts. Heywood and Morrison received pardons from King George III not long after. Another (William Muspratt), received a stay of execution and was later pardoned, mainly due to the fact that he was only one of two to retain legal counsel, Heywood being the other. The remaining three (Thomas Burkett, John Millward and Thomas Ellison) were all hanged in October 1792.

In September 1793, relations on Pitcairn had completely broken down, and the Tahitians hatched their plan to remove the British settlers. Five of the mutineers, including Christian, were killed one by one by natives in a series of carefully planned out murders, Christian was butchered in the field with an axe. The following year, the Tahitians who carried out the murders were all killed themselves (by unknown murderers).

Of the four remaining mutineers on Pitcairn, two tried to establish peace on the island (Edward Young and John Adams), while the other two continued in their drunken violent ways (William McCoy and Matthew Quintal). This continued until 1798 when McCoy committed suicide. In 1799 Quintal began a violent rampage against the natives, and Young and Adams banded together to kill him to restore the peace, Young died the following year from Asthma.

Adams, the only remaining free mutineer, established the community and took care of the natives. The community grew and flourished and wasn’t discovered by another westerner until 1808 when an American ship stopped there. Word reached England, but not much notice was taken at the time.

Two British warships stopped on the island in 1814, and discovered the thriving community led by Adams. They reported this back to England where the British Admiralty decided to take no further action.

Adams lived out his life until he passed in 1829, and to this day is celebrated as the father of the Pitcairn community.