Mutiny on the Bounty reconstruction
Naval History

The Royal Navy's Most Famous Mutiny

It was a clash between two strong personalities - Captain Bligh and Master's Mate Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, though neither man was...

Mutiny on the Bounty reconstruction

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

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

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

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

He had 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.

Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Clark Gable played Fletcher Christian in the 1935 film 'Mutiny on the Bounty'

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.

1960 HMS Bounty reconstruction
A 1960 reconstruction of HMS Bounty. Picture: Dan Kasberger

He accused crewmembers of stealing cheese he'd had transported to his house in England weeks before, and 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.

Tahiti
Tahiti today. Picture: Michelle Maria

Bligh soon felt the need to re-assert British naval discipline however, and 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, and he became suicidal, planning 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.

Mutiny on the Bounty contemporary painting
Fletcher Christian and the mutineers turn Lieutenant William Bligh adrift, in a painting from the year after the events. Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Bligh was ejected on a lifeboat with a handful of loyalists and, in an incredible feat of navigation and perseverance, sailed 3,600 miles for 47 days, finally reaching safety at Timor on the 14th of June, 1789 (Bligh had perfected his navigation under Captain Cook).

Without weapons, unfriendly natives on closer islands could not be contained, and Bligh switched to survival mode, suppressing the cantankerousness that had fuelled the mutiny against him, and showing cool-headed leadership and discipline in the face of stormy seas and limited rations.

Bligh made it back to England and 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.

HMS Bounty rudder in Fijian museum
Parts of Bounty's rudder on display in a Fijian museum. Picture: Jerrye & Roy Klotz

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

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

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty poster
A 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty poster

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'd also blocked their escape route and were stuck on the island.

Bounty Bay, Pitcairn Island
Bounty Bay, Pitcairn Island, where HMS Bounty was burned

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

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

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

Fletcher Christian's Pitcairn Island house
Fletcher Christian's house on Pitcairn Island

Adam's account about the fate of Christian was riddled with inconsistencies - he claimed on different occasions that he'd 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 that 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.

Cover image shows Tahiti in the era of the Bounty.

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