Image ID KPTWWR Mutiny on the Bounty, Fletcher Christian and the HMS Bounty mutineers turn Lieutenant William Bligh and 18 others adrift on 28 April 1789 CREDIT GL Archive Alamy Stock Photo
Fletcher Christian and his fellow HMS Bounty mutineers turn Captain William Bligh and 18 others adrift on 28 April 1789 (Picture: GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo).
Naval History

Mutiny on the Bounty: The Royal Navy's most famous rebellion

Image ID KPTWWR Mutiny on the Bounty, Fletcher Christian and the HMS Bounty mutineers turn Lieutenant William Bligh and 18 others adrift on 28 April 1789 CREDIT GL Archive Alamy Stock Photo
Fletcher Christian and his fellow HMS Bounty mutineers turn Captain William Bligh and 18 others adrift on 28 April 1789 (Picture: GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo).

The legendary mutiny on board HMS Bounty, the inspiration behind several feature films, books, plays and TV shows, is one of the most famous examples of naval rebellion. 

It was a clash between two strong personalities – Captain William Bligh and Master's Mate Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, although neither man was quite what he seemed.

The two 18th-century protagonists are often portrayed as obedience against rebellion, protagonist versus antagonist.

Bligh was, in fact, only a lieutenant, albeit a very able one.

He had sailed and perfected his navigation with Captain James Cook but, despite his talent, had antagonised his superiors in the Royal Navy and been denied promotion.

Likewise, Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian was not the aristocratic English gentleman he appeared to be.

He had a borderline personality disorder and was saddled with a drop in class status when his older brothers plundered the family fortune following their father's death.

Image ID BP3CEJ Clark Gable and Charles Laughton as Fletcher Christian and Captain William Bligh in film Mutiny On The Bounty, 1935 EXP 04.01.24 CREDIT Allstar Picture Library Ltd Alamy Stock Photo
Clark Gable played Fletcher Christian in the 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty (Picture: Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo).

Christian had little choice but to seek work in the Royal Navy at the age of 17, a late start for someone on an officer track.

He overcame this by networking with his friend Bligh, who arranged for him to gain important experience on three voyages.

By the age of 22, Christian was deemed ready to be Bligh's second-in-command aboard the HMS Bounty, a ship chartered to transport breadfruit from the South Pacific.

But after setting sail, Bligh's cantankerous nature and paranoid anger soon became evident.

Image ID BNEWWG Replica HMS Bounty in Skye as part of a tour in 2009 EXP 04.01.24 CREDIT Caroline Briscoe Alamy Stock Photo
Replica HMS Bounty in Skye as part of a tour in 2009 (Picture: Caroline Briscoe / Alamy Stock Photo).

He accused crew members of stealing cheese he had arranged to be transported to his house in England weeks before.

In retaliation, he spitefully replaced their bread rations with rotting pumpkins.

When Bligh then had a disagreement about a loan he'd made to Christian, the crew began to side with the ship's mate.

Tensions dispersed when the crew reached Tahiti and were seduced by the island paradise and its women.

DVIDS Image ID 2219759 Koa Moana 15-3, participate during an outrigger canoe event in Tahiti, Sept. 28 2015 CREDIT Marine Expeditionary Force
Koa Moana 15-3 Marines participate in an outrigger canoe event in Tahiti, Sept 2015 (Picture: Marine Expeditionary Force).

Bligh soon felt the need to re-assert British naval discipline, however, so he flogged three men for taking a lifeboat, coming down hard on the crew when the Bounty set sail again.

Prior events soon began to repeat themselves as a split again emerged between Bligh and Christian.

The master's mate had fled from belligerent natives on another island when he was sent to fetch water and Bligh soon accused him of cowardice and then of theft from his coconut store, brought over from Tahiti.

Christian's borderline personality was triggered, leaving him suicidal with plans to leave on a lifeboat. But the crew, preferring him to Bligh, convinced him to stay aboard.

The handful of rebels next mutated into mutineers when their mounting fury at Bligh prompted them to seize the ship.

Image-ID-MF180071013-One-of-the-canons-from-the-famous-HMS-Bounty-on-display-on-Pitcairn-Island-CREDIT-Royal-Navy-Crown-Copyright
One of the cannons from the famous HMS Bounty on display on Pitcairn Island (Picture: Royal Navy).

Bligh was ejected on a lifeboat with a handful of loyalists and, in an incredible feat of navigation and perseverance, sailed 3,600 miles in 47 days, finally reaching safety at Timor on 14 June 1789.

Without weapons, unfriendly natives on closer islands could not be contained so Bligh switched to survival mode, suppressing the cantankerousness that had fuelled the mutiny against him.

Instead, he showed cool-headed leadership and discipline in the face of stormy seas and limited rations.

Once back in England, Bligh made it to the rank of admiral, but tales of the mutiny followed him home and he was caught up in two more mutinies during his long naval career.

Descendants of mutineer, Fletcher Christian , Fred Christian, shows 16 year old Fletcher Christian, relics from the sea...

Posted by Fiji Museum on Thursday, 14 March 2013

 

HMS Bounty's mutineers fared rather less gloriously and for many years, no one was entirely sure what had happened to them.

Some split off and were rounded up by the Royal Navy.

Despite three of their number being hanged, their tale of the mutiny on the Bounty won sympathy for Fletcher Christian from the British public.

This was helped no end by the London Press serialising The Letters of Fletcher Christian, which were allegedly by Christian and gave his account of the mutiny.

It's this account that has gone on to inspire stories and feature films, such as the famous 1984 production starring Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson.

The main question on everybody's mind, though, was what exactly had come of Fletcher Christian?

In 1808, an American expedition landed at Pitcairn, a tiny South Pacific island and was astonished when three natives rowed out to them and started speaking English.

Venturing ashore, the party met a man calling himself 'Alexander Smith' (real name John Adams), who was living with four women and 20 children.

The rudder of HMS Bounty on display at the museum.

Posted by Fiji Museum on Thursday, 14 March 2013

 

He related that Christian and the others had kidnapped 12 native women and six men and had settled on Pitcairn precisely because it was incorrectly charted on their Royal Navy maps, making it infinitely harder for the British to catch them.

With that, they burned the Bounty, completing their escape.

But they had also blocked their escape route and were stuck on the island.

Image ID MF180071152 the Island of Pitcairn 02.01.2019 CREDIT Royal Navy Crown Copyright
Pitcairn Island, where HMS Bounty was burned (Picture: Royal Navy).

The paradise the nine mutineers had created for themselves soon descended into chaos.

They divided everything on the island among the nine of them and treated the native Polynesians as property.

A war broke out in 1793 between the white men and the natives and by 1801 Adams was the sole survivor of the original crew.

Image ID FF6ECN Home of John Adams, alias Alexander Smith, the last surviving mutineer of HMS Bounty 1831 EXP 04.01.23 CREDIT GRANGER Historical Picture Archive Alamy Stock Photo
The Pitcairn Islands home of John Adams, alias Alexander Smith, the last surviving mutineer of HMS Bounty (Picture: GRANGER Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo).

Adams' account of the fate of Christian was riddled with inconsistencies.

He claimed on different occasions that he had been murdered, committed suicide and died of natural causes.

Whatever happened to Fletcher Christian, his descendants flourished and he is the ancestor to almost anybody with the surname Christian on the islands of Pitcairn and Norfolk, as well as many who moved to Australia, New Zealand and the US.

Adams' legacy meanwhile, also survives to this day, in the name of the main settlement and capital of Pitcairn – Adamstown.