Breadfruit & Blood

History and pop culture can be at odds many times with respect to an event or a certain historic figure. 

The name “Bligh” conjures up images of an abusive, megalomaniac British naval lieutenant of the “Mutiny on the Bounty” affair.  However, it was not William Bligh, the commanding officer of HMS Bounty, who was the wrongdoer in the events leading to the well-known mutiny. 

Bligh cast off the HMS BountyCredit: public domain

It was his acting lieutenant, the spoiled dilettante, Fletcher Christian, who was the true villain of the Bounty mutiny.

Bread Growing from Trees
Britain’s empire building from the early 16th Century forward into the late 19th Century was nothing short of phenomenal.  Colonies ranged round the globe, and the sun literally never set on the British Empire (meaning that somewhere on any given day the sun was shining on either a British colony or one of its protectorates). The British homeland not only did its best to aid its colonists abroad but it also strove toward “civilizing” foreign lands into adopting British culture and customs. 

While the acculturation process was probably not always welcomed (as is evidenced by native revolts in British-occupied India and other lands time and again) biopiracy and biodiversity at the hands of British privateers and explorers changed the world’s landscape in terms of its ability to sustain itself.

Adventurers, and accidental tourists alike, discovered wonders among the local flora and fauna of newly discovered territories not known in their native lands.  Among these, greater than any mineral or other resource, were edible plants.  One of the greatest gifts to the world at large was the usurping and exploitation of comestibles from foreign lands, transplanting them into either the Old World or colonies of expansionist Britain.

Sometimes the reasons for these transplants were purely economic as in the mid 19th Century biopiracy of the cinchona shrub (from which quinine is obtained) and the rubber tree.  Both of these plants were native to South America, and both were great contributors to the economy of Brazil and other rainforest countries.  British smugglers removed seedlings from both plants, and these were cultivated abroad in tropical British colonies.  The effect on the native economies, however, was devastating – two very precious and controlled resources became widely available, rendering the need to deal with Brazil or any other South American country to broker these tightly controlled commodities moot.

The breadfruit, a plant whose name also describes its qualities, is a product of the tropics.  It was first cultivated roughly 3500 years ago by Polynesians and other South Pacific islanders.  These people, directly descended from indigents from what is now Taiwan and parts of Southeast Asia, learned that the breadfruit fared better in their islands than did their primitive rice crops (a cereal grain brought with them in antiquity).

As a food source, it packs a lot of value in a small package.  The breadfruit, a member of the mulberry family, produces ovoid fruits.  It is one of the highest-yielding plants on earth, giving Breadfruit (botanical drawing)Credit: public domainanywhere from 50 to upward of 200 fruits per growing season per plant.  The starchy interiors have a mealy consistency much like a potato’s.  The breadfruit is cooked – baked, fried, or boiled, it produces a foodstuff with a taste and texture like bread. Furthermore, the breadfruit could be preserved by the primitives for later use by burying it in pits.  As the fruit continued to ripen its starches converted to sugars and the fruit fermented mildly, developing into a sticky, slightly sour paste that kept for a year or more stored in a leaf-lined pit.  It was portable food and helped many islanders survive during lean times. 

Its nutritional value is not to be denied, either.  A roughly 4 oz serving of breadfruit has over 100 Calories of food energy.  Although it contains no Vitamin A, and only traces of sodium and zinc, breadfruit has significant dietary portions of the B-complex vitamins, iron, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.  It also has over one-third of its food value from carbohydrates, sugar, dietary fiber, and fat.  For a primitive people looking for a well-rounded source of energy and dietary benefits the breadfruit is tough to beat.

The recognition of its substantial benefits to keep people alive, and healthy, were of course recognized by the earliest European explorers who came into contact with Pacific islanders in the late 17th to the early 18th Centuries.  And the need to feed a group of people inexpensively and with little farming effort made the breadfruit attractive as a transplant into the West Indies. 

It was there that Britain’s expanding New World empire had to feed a growing population of people who were not only considered sub-human, but were treated as animals, and as such were to be fed as inexpensively and with as little effort as possible.  These people, of course, were imported Africans


Breadfruit Bounty
The breadfruit came to play a part in the slave trade.  “Discovered” by men aboard Captain James Cook’s vessel, the Endeavour, during his 1769 expedition in the South Seas, the breadfruit’s food value to the rest of the world was immediately recognized.  The Tahitians visited by Cook’s crew helped the Endeavour sailors understand the preparation and cultivation of breadfruit.

It was to feed slaves in the tropical regions of Britain’s slave-holding colonies that the plant was first proposed as a food source for enslaved Africans.  The need for cheap, high-energy food for slaves motivated several colonial administrators and plantation owners to have this plant brought to the islands and cultivated in the tropical climates.  One of Captain Cook’s 1769 expedition mates, Sir Joseph Banks, offered a cash bounty and gold medal from the British government to anyone who could successfully launch an expedition to obtain breadfruit and return with viable plants.  Banks managed to lobby for a British Naval expedition through his influential friends in Britain’s government.

Among the respondents to take up the quest to procure breadfruit for crown and country in 1787 was a naval officer named William Bligh.  He was a personal friend of Banks’, having served alongside him under Capt. Cook in the past.  Bligh was appointed the commander of a too-small ship, refitted for sailing to Tahiti, obtaining breadfruit cuttings, and then sailing on to the West Indies.  The ship was the HMS Bounty; Bligh made the mistake of recommending a young novice seaman named Fletcher Christian to be on his staff as master’s mate.

Bedighted Bligh
The man whose name has unfairly been subverted and maligned in history to an association with sadistic discipline was born in England, near Cornwall (extreme southwestern part of the country), on September 9, 1754.  His father, as was customary for the times, made the decision for young William that he would be a “navy man”, and the boy was signed into service at the age of 7 as a Captain’s Servant (cabin boy).  He later officially joined the ranks of the Royal Navy when he was a teenager, and by 1771, as a 17-year-old, he held the rank of Midshipman.

Bligh learned both seamanship and classics as well.  He developed an interest in science and mathematics, and excelled in both.  He was also a talented illustrator and a skilled writer. He William Bligh (1754-1817)Credit: public domainsailed on a historic voyage with the legendary Captain James Cook as a Sailing Master aboard the Resolution.  Bligh was 22 years old then; this fateful voyage ended on February 14, 1779, in the Sandwich Islands (the Hawaiian Islands, today) when Cook was murdered by islanders.  It was Bligh who appeared before an inquest panel and gave details about what happened to Cook upon his return to England.

It was during a one-year leave from active duty in 1781 that Bligh met Elizabeth Betham.  They married on February 14, 1781.  He was a navy lieutenant by then, and he sailed off again, engaging in a naval battle off the coast of England in the North Sea against the Dutch in August 1781.  He saw action again in a skirmish at sea against the French and Spanish during a relief effort to resupply the British stronghold of Gibraltar in 1782.  Bligh had also managed several scientific marine mapping expeditions.

Spoiled Brat
Fletcher Christian was born, unlike the civil-servant backdrop of William Bligh, with a silver spoon in his mouth on September 25, 1764 (making him nearly a decade younger than his future beleaguered captain).  He was the fourth of six children, and was born in the family manor in Eaglesfield in the county of Cumberland, in the borough of Cockermouth (in northwestern Britain near the Scottish border within miles of the Irish Sea coast).  His family had property and money – his father was an attorney and had inherited substantial holdings

His mother, however, was not so responsible, and when Christian’s father died when the boy was 4 years old, she not only burned through the family’s wealth by the time he was 15, but ended up several thousand pounds in debt at a time when people were imprisoned for such things.  She took him and her other two youngest children and fled to the Isle of Man (in the Irish Sea), out of the reach of English creditors.

Her three older sons managed to scrape together a means of getting her an annuity that amounted to roughly $6000 US yearly today. This allowed her to keep the family together, and they lived in what was termed “genteel poverty” for the times.  Christian managed to get several years of formal education at the Cockermouth School – one of his younger contemporaries there was future poet William Wordsworth. 

When he was 18, Fletcher Christian joined the Royal Navy in 1783 and embarked on a 21-month sea voyage that took him to India.  Seven months out on this trek, his conduct merited a promotion – he was upgraded from Midshipman to Master’s Mate.  He also later undertook two voyages to Jamaica, sailing under command of William Bligh (a half-pay lieutenant). 

In light of Sir Joseph Banks’ offer of a large reward to retrieve breadfruit from the tropics and transport them to the West Indies to feed slaves a ship named the Bethia was repurposed. It had been built in 1784, and until 1787 went by its original name.  The British Royal Navy bought this merchant vessel to use for the South Pacific expedition Banks had instigated. 

This tub – originally used to transport coal – was refitted for the botanical mission.  The great cabin was converted into a nursery, with space for potted breadfruits to ride securely.  Grates were opened up in the deck to allow light and air into the interior nursery space. It was also armed; the original vessel was not.  The ship was rechristened HMS Bounty, and veteran Navy man William Bligh, assigned to command her on the voyage, noted its appearance thus:

“The Burthen of the Ship was nearly 215 Tons; Her extreme length on deck 90Ft..10In. & breadth from outside to outside of the bends 24Ft..3 in. A Flush deck & a pretty Figure Head of a Woman in Riding habit; She mounted 4 four pounders & 10 Swivels & her Complement was,

1. Lieut & Commander 2. Masters Mates 1. Gunners Mate
1. Master 2. Midshipmen 1. Carpenters Mate
1. Boatswain 1. Clerk 1. Sailmaker
1. Gunner 2. Qr. Masters 1. Armourer
1. Carpenter 1. Qr.Masr.Mate 1. Carpenters Crew
1. Surgeon 1. Boatswains Mate 1. Corporal
24 Able Seamen

Total. 45 One of which is a Widow’s man. There was likewise a Botanist & his Assistant.”

[The position of “widow’s man” is a fictional one, and the number of “widow’s men” assigned to any ship was proportional to its complement.  The posting was merely on the ship’s books in the event of a death – the dummy widow’s man’s pay was used as a means of ensuring benefits to the widow of a real seaman if he was lost on a voyage.  In the case of the Bounty, only one “widow’s man” was warranted for its 44 crew]

Bligh’s previous good experience sailing to Jamaica with qualified Master’s Mate, Fletcher Christian, led him to recommend the younger man to the post of second-in-command on the Bounty

The ship was not nearly large enough for the many nautical miles and months it would spend at sea with so many men aboard in cramped quarters.  Significant living space had been earmarked for the breadfruits; thus, the men were packed aboard like sardines.  And, as with any close quarters accommodations there would be discontent aboard. 

Dirty, Scurvy Dogs
William Bligh was a stern disciplinarian; however, he was not any more or less harsh than the situation merited, nor was he any more abusive than other commanders of his era.  Some historians have stated that he was, in fact, more lenient than other similarly placed commanders.  There are allegations that he was sharp-tongued, and that he also availed himself of a cat-’o-nine-tails as punishment. His rise through the ranks in the Royal Navy ensures that he was not only competent but well-regarded; otherwise one could not expect such promotions and responsibility to be handed over to him.

Bligh was a stickler for hygiene aboard ship, and he required his men to bathe with a degree of frequency most probably had never experienced.  He also knew of the diseases common to sailors such as scurvy.  With only 44 crew aboard, he could ill afford to lose any one of his men to something as preventable as scurvy.  The British Navy, having finally figured out that the scourge of its seafarers was a lack of Vitamin C (though not knowing it by that name yet) had begun issuing limes and other citrus fruits for them to eat as part of their shipboard diet (consisting mostly of hardtack, some live farm animals if space allowed, and salt pork).  The practice of sucking on limes led to the nickname “Limey” for British sailors, later extended to British military personnel regardless of discipline.

Bligh and a few other more astute seamen of the times, however, had noted that the Germans never seemed to have a problem with scurvy.  Investigation led to the discovery that the sauerkraut the Germans ate routinely was a preventative.  Introducing sauerkraut aboard British ships, and demanding the crew eat it, met with resistance initially.  Finally, one enterprising captain placed a barrel of sauerkraut on deck with a sign on it that read “For Officers Only”.  Magically, the sauerkraut began disappearing from the barrel, and scurvy was avoided. 

HMS Bounty set sail on December 23, 1787.  The 10-month outbound trip to Tahiti from England was mostly uneventful.  Bligh exercised his right of command, making the men keep the Bounty ship-shape and themselves clean and healthy in the process.  As the ship approached Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, the weather delayed their rounding the cape for a full month.  Because of what Bligh felt was the unhealthy dampness and cold of the air at that latitude he insisted fires be built below to keep the air below decks dryer and the men warmer.  Furthermore, these fires had to be tended, per his orders, round the clock.  The men did not seem to understand the point of the exercise and they felt it was a silly waste. 

Not able to sail around Cape Horn, Bligh changed course and made the voyage into the South Pacific traveling easterly via Africa’s southern Cape of Good Hope.  Once they managed to progress into the South Pacific he noted in his journal that he also made the men keep the bilge tanks (for ballast and refuse) flushed with fresh water.  This was a sanitation issue – bilge water in the tropics would have been a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes and other life-threatening organisms.  The men, of course, did not see the cleaning of the bilge tanks as anything other than busy work, and they grumbled about it.

Map of Outbound Voyage to Tahiti of HMS BountyCredit: public domain
Paradise Island
Otaheite – “Tahiti”, as it was pronounced – came as a welcome relief after many months at sea on October 26, 1788.  The women of the island were particularly in demand – after ten months at sea these exotic beauties were quite a sight.  Partially nude, dark-skinned, and unlike the repressed, overdressed women of 18th Century England, they treated sex and their sexuality as a normal, healthy part of their existence.
Tahiti (Vaitephiha Bay, 1777)Credit: John Webber, public domainFor the men of the Bounty the women proved too great an attraction to think about anything else.  The crew remained in port for five months – the delay in travel (thanks to the aborted attempt to round Cape Horn) caused the ship to arrive at a time of year when the breadfruit plants were not mature enough to safely collect and transport.  Most of the men, including Fletcher Christian, spent their time in leisure and could not be torn away from their Tahitian “wives”.  Bligh and several of the more conscientious members of his staff, however, carried out their survey, recording conditions as they found them, speaking with natives about the breadfruit and its cultivation, and preparing the ship for its voyage to the West Indies.

The Bounty spent a few months cruising the perimeter of Tahiti.  The working crew managed to procure and store slightly more than 1000 breadfruit trees aboard ship.  But during this time, the men were too easily drawn away.  Bligh recorded, “The women are handsome – mild in their manners and conversation – possessed of great sensibility...” 

Because of the female lure and the resultant disciplinary problems it caused, Bligh was obliged to resort to floggings on seven occasions to uphold order and as a deterrent to future foibles. For this, many men (including Fletcher Christian) felt affronted.  Bligh was also quick with a tongue-lashing, dressing Christian down once in front of Christian’s Tahitian “wife”, a singular offense that would stick in Christiana’s craw.

As time drew near to depart, many of the crew agitated about leaving such a place, a literal paradise on earth.  The weather was always pleasant, food literally grew on trees, the natives were accommodating, and the Tahitian women were treasures beyond any of their imaginings. There was no question of staying behind, however – every crewman had taken an oath to England as a Navy man.  Remaining behind would have been desertion, an offense for which Bligh (as commander) could have ordered the execution of any man running away from his duty.

The Bounty was resupplied with other foods for the outbound voyage, including a store of coconuts to be rationed among the men.  With the first part of its mission completed – the procuring of the breadfruit plants – HMS Bounty sailed in a westerly direction from Tahiti on April 4, 1789.

Mutiny on the Bounty
Many of the men sorely missed the tropical land they’d just vacated. The life they’d spent for five months in Tahiti was certainly more pleasurable than the one facing them as mere sailors.  The discontent was palpable, and every ship’s directive Bligh gave, no matter how innocuous, was perceived by some as intolerable.

Fate, and a spoiled brat attitude, stepped forward on the afternoon of April 27, 1789.  The Bounty was roughly 1300 miles west of Tahiti.  Some of the coconut supply had been stashed between the ship’s guns, and Bligh noted that several of them were already missing. [These were to be rationed for the outbound voyage – one of Bligh’s more forward thinking, but underappreciated protocols, concerned the healthful foods he insisted the men eat.]  He openly accused Fletcher Christian of having stolen them.  Christian seethed, but otherwise denied that he’d anything to do with the loss of the coconuts.

What happened next was all out of proportion to the events leading up to it.  In his log, Bligh wrote:

“Just before Sunrise Mr. Christian and the Master at Arms . . . came into my cabin while I was fast asleep, and seizing me tyed my hands with a Cord & threatened instant death if I made the least noise. I however called sufficiently loud to alarm the Officers, who found themselves equally secured by centinels at their doors . . . Mr. Christian had a Cutlass & the others were armed with Musquets & bayonets. I was now carried on deck in my Shirt in torture with a severe bandage round my wrists behind my back, where I found no man to rescue me. . . ”

 He expanded on this in a later written account:

“Just before dawn [on April 28, 1789] I woke with a start.  Rough hands took hold of my chest and my arms were pinned to my back.  My eyes widened with shock as I saw the naked bayonets pointed at my heart. Charles Churchill, the master at arms, hissed, ‘Make a sound, Mr. Bligh, and you will be a dead man.’

Alarmed, I looked about and in the half-light saw the officer of the watch, Fletcher Christian, then Quintal, McKoy [sic], Churchill, Mills, Thompson, and Isaac Martin all under arms in a very excited state.

I shouted, ‘Mr. Fryer, come at once!’ as loud as I could, ignoring the threats of the villains.

‘Roll the bastard over and hold him tight so I can tie ’im,’ ordered McKoy, and I was roughly turned on my stomach while cord was used to cruelly bind my hands.

‘Come Mr. Bligh,’ snorted Christian, and I was at once jerked to my feet while the villains crowded in around me.”

Fletcher Christian had managed to subvert enough of the ship’s crew with promises to return to Tahiti (combined with his imagined abuses at the hands of Bligh) that slightly over half of the crew sided with the mutiny plot.  The main party of six armed mutineers (led by Christian) had surprised nearly everyone in the night, so most of the other senior staff was secured in their quarters under guard.

Bligh had been bound at the wrists, and Christian ordered him dragged up to the open deck.  His original intent was to kill him outright – enough of the remaining crew, however, though unarmed and at great personal risk, sided with Bligh and stood with him against the armed mutineers.  Christian realized that killing almost 20 men in cold blood could never be justified. 

He never explained to Bligh why he was commandeering the Bounty.  Another mutineer remarked that Bligh should not fear as they were heading back to Tahiti (a statement that probably divulges the reason for the mutiny better than any other). Despite the loathing of him by Christian, he was not abused, nor were any of the other loyal crewmen.

Bligh, meanwhile, stood on deck in his nightshirt, talking with Christian and the other mutineers in hopes of being released.  He promised to let the matter drop if they would only desist.

What to do with Bligh became paramount.  When another ship’s officer was brought on deck it was decided to set Bligh adrift in the Bounty’s cutter, a decrepit vessel incapable of surviving long in the open sea.  After some discussion among the mutineers, and seeing the number of men standing with Bligh, it was decided to turn them loose with the ship’s much larger launch (which actually had a mast and sail) instead.  Any discussion with Christian from Bligh about the cause or outcome of the mutiny was met with threats from other mutineers to disembowel him, throw him overboard, or shoot him. 

Fletcher Christian directed the bulk of the mutineers to assemble everyone who was “not with” them (loyal to Bligh) and bring them to the aft area of the ship.  Once there, he gave them an ultimatum – either join the mutineers or be cast off in the launch with Bligh.  By now, Bligh realized the situation was hopeless and resigned himself to be setting out to sea in a small vessel. 

The loyal men and Bligh were allowed to dress and were dropped into the launch.  It drew heavily as it was overloaded and was in danger of flooding almost from the outset.  Bligh asked for weapons for the trip (which was laughed at and denied).  The mutineers were surprisingly benevolent in another way, however – the launch was supplied with a 28-gallon cask of water, 150 pounds of bread, 30 pounds of pork (in 25 “chunks”), six quarts of rum, six bottles of wine, and a tool chest [four sabers as well as a compass were noted by another source; the sabers seem unlikely given Christian’s need to keep all weapons at hand for the mutineers, and Bligh’s fearing later to land in the Fiji Islands noting they “had no weapons”.] The boat was so deep in the water, though, that no one believed it would make it to land (the nearest place was the tiny island of Tofua); several of the mutineers jeered at their luck in making for shore.

Bligh & supporters put overboard April 28, 1789Credit: public domain

Fletcher Christian was also surprised and dismayed at the number who elected to follow Bligh rather than return to Tahiti with him.  Shouting derision at the hapless commander (calling him “Breadfruit Bligh” a moniker he had actually earned as one of the discoverers, along with Sir Joseph Banks, of the breadfruit on an early Cook voyage), one of the Bounty crew tossed a breadfruit plant at the departing launch as it moved away from the bigger ship.  As Bligh and the castaways rowed off the stern they could hear shouts of joy aboard the HMS Bounty: “Huzza for Otaheite!”

Bligh without his Bounty
Bligh and his men set the 23-foot launch for the nearest land (only 30 nautical miles away), the island of Tofua (a place they had visited en route to Tahiti).  This time, however, without the intimidating presence of the armed HMS Bounty a clear threat, the natives were not as welcoming as they had been.

Bligh and his men came ashore and sought refuge in a cave.  While out foraging to augment their supplies from the launch, roughly 200 natives swarmed over the small party, stoning them, and driving them off the island.  One of Bligh’s men, John Norton, was killed in the skirmishing.  He wrote of the incident, “In the course of this, I saw five of the natives about the poor man they had killed, struggling who should get his trousers, and two of them were beating him on the head with stones.”

Bligh rousted from TofuaCredit: Robert Clevely, 1790, public domain

Setting sail again, Bligh ordered that all spare sails, ropes, and clothing be thrown overboard to free up space and lighten the boat’s draft.  The bread was stashed in the tool chest to try to preserve it. Because the boat sat so low in the water, bailing was a constant.  “A situation equally horrible perhaps was never experienced,” Bligh understated in his log book of the journey.  And, in spite of his precautions, the constant stormy waters faced by the group caused their bread to get waterlogged, and most of it began to rot.  The men had to eat it anyway: “Our wants are now beginning to have a dreadful aspect,” Bligh commented in his log.

A little over a week at sea, the boat approached the Fiji Islands, but there was no chance of rescue. “I dare not land for fear of the natives, having no arms,” Bligh dutifully recorded in his log.   Two Fijian canoes appeared suddenly and chased the Bounty’s launch.  The crew “rowed with some anxiety” (as Bligh noted) until the natives gave up pursuit. The men were very fearful of putting ashore on any more islands, and Bligh felt compelled to at least head toward more “civilized” waters.  With no charts or instruments other than a sextant (and possibly a compass) and his pocket watch, he sailed by experience and instinct alone.  The little boat, settled roughly to within seven inches of its hull from the water and incipient flooding, rode roughly in the waves. 

Bligh’s regimen of rations, while niggardly, was successful.  The men were reduced to 1½ ounces of bread and 1 gill (5 imperial ounces) of fresh water from the boat’s meager stores (the small supply of salt pork was long gone).  He rationed the rum to one spoonful a day.  On May 25 (after almost a month at sea) one of the starving crewmen managed to seize a noddy (a tern about the size of a pigeon) with his bare hands.  Bligh commandeered the bird and divvied it up equally into 18 pieces; it was “eat up, bones and all, with salt water for sauce”.  They also managed to scrape some oysters from the Great Barrier Reef as they drew near its reaches before being chased off by natives.

Despite the travails – and as a testament to Bligh’s seamanship skills – he piloted this launch through 3,618 nautical miles of stormy, aggressive straits and seas between Tofua and New Guinea and Australia, finally striking shore after 43 days.  They came to rest in the safe harbor of the remote Dutch-ruled island of Timor (part of Indonesia).

Although several of the men were gaunt and others were sickly – mostly from exposure and the lack of heartier nourishment – all but the one man (stoned by natives at the island of Tofua) survived the ordeal at sea.  It was June 14, 1789, when Bligh and his men came to rest on Timor.

Map of Bounty & Bligh voyagesCredit:
Fletcher Sails
In the wake of dumping Bligh and the other 18 crewmen Fletcher Christian steered the Bounty eastward back toward Tahiti.

Initially, the group dropped anchor at Tubuai, an island roughly 400 miles south of Tahiti, and attempted to build an outpost there, out of reach of civilization.  Continued conflicts with the native inhabitants, however, forced him and the other mutineers to abandon the island.  The ship and its mutineers returned to Tahiti briefly, long enough for Fletcher Christian to marry the daughter of one of the local Tahitian tribal chiefs (on June 16, 1789, just two days after Bligh and his men made landfall in Timor almost 5000 miles to the west). Her name was Maimiti (also known as “Mauatua”).  Christian renamed her “Isabella”. 

At the time of this layover in Tahiti, Christian left sixteen members of the original Bounty complement.  Of these men, four had been loyal to Bligh but there had not been room enough on Bligh’s launch to accommodate them with the other 18 castaways already loaded.  Two more men were neutral in the mutiny, neither siding with Bligh nor caring overly much for Fletcher Christian and his “cause”.  The other ten were mutineers who had enough of being at sea and really had wanted to go back to Tahiti.

Finally, with a much reduced crew (nine original mutineers and an additional group of Tahitians, six men and eleven women) Christian set sail once again, this time for parts unknown. The ragtag group plowed eastward, and finally came across what The Guinness Book of World Records once termed “the most isolated inhabited place on Earth”, Pitcairn Island.

Nobody Home
The Pitcairn Islands were first discovered by Europeans in 1606 by a Portuguese explorer sailing on behalf of Spain who named two of the main islands found, now known as Ducie Island and Henderson Islands.  The four main islands in the group are spread out over several hundred square miles and only make up a land mass of about 18 square miles.  Pitcairn Island is the second-largest in the group and is slightly over two miles along its east-west axis. 

This tiny splotch in the ocean was spotted by a British sloop on July 3, 1767.  It was named after Midshipman Robert Pitcairn (the fifteen-year-old crewman who first sighted it).  Although at the time the island was uninhabited, it was believed to have been occupied by Polynesians as recently as the late 15th Century, but had been abandoned by its inhabitants. 

Fletcher Christian needed a place to go.  Not knowing the fate of Bligh and his castaways, he knew that in good time news of the Bounty mutiny (just from rumor-mongering among ships visiting Tahiti and other South Pacific locales) would reach England.  Certainly, a manhunt for the criminals responsible for commandeering the ship would be launched.  He decided to head eastward toward South America.

Whether he knew of the Pitcairn Islands or not, it was at the small island of Pitcairn that Christian decided to bring the Bounty to the end of its voyage.  He, the remaining mutineers, and the Tahitian men and women disembarked and made permanent landfall.  They stripped the HMS Bounty of anything of value and floated those goods ashore.  A crewman, Matthew Quintal, set fire to the ship.  It burned to the water line then sank. [The wreck is still visible underwater in Bounty Bay.  It was found and confirmed in 1957 by an explorer working for National Geographic.]

The scuttling of the ship symbolically and literally severed their ties with civilization.  It furthermore removed the albatross of the Bounty from around their necks – with the ship anchored in a bay near the island, it would have been a beacon for any passing ocean traffic, with curiosity seekers probably unable to resist closer inspection.

The ragtag group set up housekeeping on their volcanic-rock outcropping of tropical island in 1790.   Fletcher and Isabella Christian had three children: a son, Thursday October Christian (born in 1790, likely before the Bounty anchored at Pitcairn); a son named Charles Christian (born in 1792); and a daughter Mary Ann Christian (born in 1793).

Bligh Rebounds
Bligh wrote, “It is not possible for me to describe the joy that the blessing of seeing the land diffused among us,” in reference to his successfully sailing to Timor in an open launch. 

However, his wrath was boundless, and a determined William Bligh bought a 34-foot schooner in Timor.  He renamed it HMS Resource, and he set sail. “In this vessel we continued by way of Samarang to the Dutch settlement of Batavia [Jakarta], where I sold the Resource and, with my people, embarked for Europe in ships of the Dutch East India Co.”  Once back in England, he tried to convince an inquest board to name the 25 Bounty mutineers as pirates, and to have them condemned to death by hanging in the event of their capture.

However, because he was personally responsible, as ship’s commander, for the HMS Bounty and its safety and security, Bligh was under suspicion for “losing” his ship, possibly derelict in his duties as commander.  He acquitted himself well under scrutiny before a board of inquiry, and was absolved of responsibility for the ship’s loss. 

As for the reason behind Christian’s instigating a mutiny, Bligh wrote in 1790:

“It will very naturally be asked, ‘what could be the reason for such a revolt?’ in answer to which, I can only conjecture that the mutineers had assured themselves of a more happy life among the Otaheiteans, than they could possibly have in England; which, joined to some female connections, have most probably been the principal cause of the whole transaction.

The women at Otaheite are handsome, mild and chearful [sic] in their manners and conversation, possessed of great sensibility, and have sufficient delicacy to make them admired and beloved. The chiefs were so much attached to our people, that they rather encouraged their stay among them than otherwise, and even made them promises of large possessions. Under these, and many other attendant circumstances, equally desirable, it is now perhaps not so much to be wondered at, though scarcely possible to have been foreseen, that a set of sailors, most of them void of connections, should be led away; especially when, in addition to such powerful inducements, they imagined it in their power to fix themselves in the midst of plenty, on the finest island in the world, where they need not labour, and where the allurements of dissipation are beyond any thing that can be conceived.”

By November 1790 when Bligh set sail on another vessel, he had been promoted to a full Captain.  In 1797, he commanded a ship in The Battle of Camperdown (a British Naval victory over the Dutch); as Captain of HMS Glatton in 1801 he took part in The Battle of Copenhagen (a British victory over a Danish-Norwegian fleet, after which he was commended for bravery by Admiral Nelson). In the same year, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society (in consideration of his distinguished services in navigation, botany, hydrographics, and other maritime disciplines).

He went on to be promoted several more times, a clear sign of good faith in his abilities as a Royal Naval Officer, reaching the rank of Vice Admiral by the end of his career.  His later political life found him as governor of New South Wales, Australia, starting in 1805.  He tried to clean up the corrupt rum trade, and to that end he stopped rum from being used as a medium of exchange in his jurisdiction, an unpopular move.  His actions led to the Rum Rebellion of 1808. 

Bligh was forcibly removed from office in a coup and imprisoned for two years as a result of a defection led by British troops sent to oversee his law enforcement. He returned to England where he once again had to face an inquiry for a defection under his watch.  He was cleared of blame in the Rum Rebellion incident.

He lived the remainder of his years in Kent, England.  He died in London (in Bond Street) on December 7, 1817.  He was 64. 

His gravesite carries an impressive stone monument with an inscription listing his achievements:William Bligh's grave & monument



Bligh had successfully returned to Tahiti on 1792 on another botanical mission to recover breadfruit plants and transport them to the West Indies.  This time, his mission went off without a hitch. He also “discovered” the ackee fruit of Jamaica and introduced it to the Royal Society in Britain upon his return from his successful second breadfruit voyage (the ackee fruit’s scientific name Blighia sapida was coined in honor of Bligh).

Transplanting Breadfruit from TahitiCredit: Thomas Gosse, 1796, public domain

The irony, though, is that once the plants were cultivated in the West Indies and mature breadfruits were obtained, the people for whom they were intended – the slaves – did not like them at all and refused to accept them as food.  It was the white Europeans living there who found them delicious.

Fletcher Fails
As for Fletcher Christian and the dregs of the Bounty, things did not follow along utopian lines.  While longing for the hedonistic lifestyle they had found on Tahiti, they were unable to duplicate the bliss formerly known. 

There were slightly more men than women on Pitcairn – 15 males (6 of which were Tahitian) to 11 females.  This led to conflicts over sexual “rights” among the mutineers, and the Tahitian men were treated as second-class citizens, virtually enslaved by the Bounty refugees. 

Squabbles arose, and Matthew Quintal – the man who had set fire to the Bounty, erasing it from prying eyes – was murdered by two of his former mates (Edward Young and John Adams), in “self defense” after he allegedly attacked them.  Four other mutineers (John Williams, Isaac Martin, John Mills, and William Brown) were murdered by the Tahitians. Some of the Tahitian men were likewise murdered by the Tahitian women in retaliation (all the native men were finally killed).  William McKoy fell off a cliff in a drunken stupor. One of Quintal’s killers, Edward Young, succumbed to asthma. 

By 1800, the only survivor from the Bounty was John Adams (who had signed on under the alias, Alexander Smith, and who was also one of the two men who had murdered Matthew Quintal).  He became the de facto leader of the little colony consisting of himself, nine Tahitian women, and their children by other mutineers.

As for Fletcher Christian himself, his demise still contains elements of mystery. 

Between 1795 and 1808, three ships came very near Pitcairn Island (according to the islanders) but none ventured ashore, and none came close enough to identify a country of origin by their standards.  In February 1808 the remaining Pitcairners were discovered when the American seal-hunting ship Topaz called at the island. It was learned who these islanders were and from where they had come.  By then, the population of the island, including the sole Bounty survivor, John Adams, was less than 50 people.

Map of Pitcairn Island (showing relevant sites)Credit:

The captain of the Topaz, Mayhew Folger, was told by Adams (and Christian’s surviving wife Isabella) that Fletcher Christian had been murdered during the conflict between the Tahitian men and the mutineers. Another Tahitian woman named Jenny (who left the island in 1817) claimed Christian was shot while working by a pond next to his home – Isabella was pregnant at the time with their last child, the girl Mary Ann.  Adams later reported that Christian had killed himself after going insane.  Regardless of cause, the date of his death was fixed as September 20, 1793.  He was 28 years old.

Fletcher Christian's house (Pitcairn Island)Credit: 19th Century print, public domain

The Topaz only stayed for 10 hours, then set sail.  Capt. Folger reported his findings upon his return.  His report was forwarded to the British Admiralty, but because of preoccupation with other matters in Europe and later the War of 1812 in America, nothing was done until late in 1814 when two British ships were sent to look into the Pitcairn group.

Rounding Up Mutineers
After Bligh’s testimony in England, the British government took action once the Bounty’s fate was determined.  Captain Edward Edwards was assigned on August 6, 1790, to take command of the frigate HMS Pandora. His assignment was to journey to “remote parts” to find any surviving Bounty mutineers.  He set sail on August 11, 1790, and began searching for the mutineers, starting with the obvious place, Tahiti. 

With help from Thomas Hayward, a Bounty midshipman and castaway loyal to Bligh, Edwards successfully recovered fourteen mutineers.  It took many months to find these men.  They were manacled and imprisoned in a tiny 18′ by 11′ by 5′8″ tall wooden cell on the Pandora’s quarterdeck.  

Unfortunately, the Pandora wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef on August 29, 1791, on the outbound trip home.  Four mutineers and 31 of the ship’s crew died.  Almost literally following in Bligh’s footsteps of two years earlier the survivors made to sea in an open longboat and ended up, as Bligh did, on Timor.  From there, they made their way to Jakarta (Batavia, as it was known then), and home to England.

The ten surviving mutineers were brought before a board.  Edwards himself was court-martialed in September 1792 for the loss of the Pandora. However, as it was learned the circumstances of the ship’s wreck were out of anyone’s control, he was not prosecuted any further than the inquiry phase.

It is more than likely that Bligh’s reputation as a cruel disciplinarian was confused with the real sadism and harshness of Capt. Edward Edwards (reputedly every bit the cruel captain that Bligh was falsely accused of being).  When the Pandora ran aground on the Reef, Edwards was not inclined to save the mutineers.  He would rather have let them drown in manacles.  But for the compassionate actions of a bosun’s mate aboard (William Moulter) that is exactly what would have happened.  Moulter, however, unlocked the prisoners’ cage before abandoning the ship, jumping overboard as it sank.

The mutineers who reached the embrace of the long arm of the law did not suffer overly much at the hands of British justice.  Taking into consideration the ordeal of the Pandora’s sinking and Edwards’ treatment of them, many were felt to have suffered enough already. Four men were acquitted outright.  One was pardoned.  Two others were condemned to death, but were later pardoned.  Only three (Thomas Ellison, Thomas Burkitt, and John Millward) were executed.

At this time, of course, the fate of the other mutineers on Pitcairn was not known. As all but John Adams were dead by the time Pitcairn was “rediscovered” by Britain, it seemed pointless to prosecute him alone for Christian’s insurgency.  John Adams, the sole survivor of the mutiny on the HMS Bounty, died in 1829 (without prosecution for either his role in the mutiny or for murdering Matthew Quintal).

End Notes
Thursday October Christian and Charles Christian (the sons of Fletcher and Isabella Christian) are the ancestors of nearly everyone surnamed Christian on Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands.  Thursday October Christian (b, 1790), c. 1814Credit: John Shillibeer, 1814, public domainSame-named people have also moved away from Pitcairn to Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
Pitcairn Islanders, 1916Credit: public domain
Fletcher Christian was never the subject of a drawing or painting in his lifetime.  The only descriptions are from contemporaries.  Bligh described him as “5 ft. 9 in. high, blackish or very dark complexion. Hair - Blackish or very dark brown. Make - Strong.  A star tatowed [tattooed] on his left breast, and tatowed [tattooed] on the backside.”  The tattoos were received on Tahiti using a very painful and primitive tattooing method, graphically documented in the excellent 1984 film, The Bounty (starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Christian).

Bligh further noted that Christian’s “knees stand a little out and he may be called a little bow-legged.”  A final interesting point is that Fletcher Christian suffered from hyperhidrosis (aFletcher Christian (artist's rendering, not from life)Credit: condition characterized by abnormally increased perspiration, in excess of that required for regulation of body temperature). Bligh wrote, “He is subject to violent perspiration, particularly in his hand, so that he soils anything he handles.”

There are dozens of portraits of Fletcher Christian in the public domain. In many he is a “pretty boy”, achingly handsome.  In others he assumes the square-jawed, heroic stature of Hercules. 

None can claim any accuracy except to use the few details provided by Bligh and others who knew him (such as Peter Heywood, rounded up in 1791 in Tahiti with the other 13 mutineers originally left behind in 1789). 

In reality Fletcher Christian was a short, swarthy man with dark hair who sweated too much.  Anything else is the fanciful product of artistic license (as with portraits of the 1st Century CE Nazarene, Jesus).  And he, not William Bligh, was the truly bad man of the Bounty mutiny.


Bligh as played brilliantly by Sir Anthony Hopklins (1984)

The Bounty
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In William Bligh's own words