What Was the Mutiny on the Bounty?

Mary McMahon

The Mutiny on the Bounty was a famous uprising which occurred on board the British ship Bounty in 1789. The event sparked a great deal of commentary at the time, since it had many unusual characteristics, and it has since been popularized in books, movies, and other media. Many people point to the Mutiny on the Bounty to illustrate the brutal conditions on board many ships in the 1700s.

The Mutiny on the Bounty was a famous uprising which occurred on board the British ship Bounty in 1789.
The Mutiny on the Bounty was a famous uprising which occurred on board the British ship Bounty in 1789.

The story of the Bounty began in 1787, when the ship sailed to Tahiti to pick up breadfruit. The breadfruit plants were to be taken to the West Indies. It was hoped that breadfruit could be used to provide a cheap and plentiful source of food for slaves in the Caribbean. The ship was commanded by Captain William Bligh, who was a strict disciplinarian, as were most ship captains during this period.

Once the Bounty arrived in Tahiti, Bligh and his men spent several years ashore collecting and preparing breadfruit. While in Tahiti, many of the men developed attachments to the local people, engaging in native traditions and living in villages with the Tahitians. In 1789, Bligh set sail for the West Indies, but he never reached his destination. On 28 April, a mutiny against the Captain was led by Fletcher Christian, the Master's Mate.

Christian's mutiny was unusual for the time for a number of reasons. Most mutinies took the form of strikes which were intended to improve working conditions for the sailors on board. Christian and his men actually staged a hostile takeover of the Bounty, putting Captain Bligh to sea in a boat along with 18 other men. The Mutiny on the Bounty was not simply staged by men who wanted better working conditions, but by a crew who wanted to remain in the South Pacific.

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Cast to sea with limited instruments, Bligh managed the 47 day trip to Timor with the loss of only a single sailor. Once in Timor, Bligh reported the Mutiny on the Bounty and ultimately made his way to England. While Bligh sought punishment for the mutineers, the men put several of their number ashore in Tahiti and picked up a small group of Tahitians before sailing for a place to settle. Ultimately, they ended up on Pitcairn Island, and the burned the Bounty in the harbor to erase their connections to the Mutiny on the Bounty.

Several of the mutineers put ashore in Tahiti were later picked up by the Pandora, a British ship which was sent to find the mutineers. The settlement on Pitcairn Island was not discovered until 1808, when an American ship, Topaz, came across the survivors of the mutiny and their children. The discovery of the group on Pitcairn Island was extensively covered in the news, as were other events relating to the Mutiny on the Bounty. A small population, including descents of the mutineers, continues to live on Pitcairn Island.

The reasons for the Mutiny on the Bounty have been a subject of intense speculation by historians. Initially, Bligh was painted as a ferocious and perhaps even evil Captain who drove his crew to violence. Later research suggested that Bligh may have been in fact unusually gentle for a Captain of the period, although he was probably far from likable. The Mutiny on the Bounty may have been driven by a desire to stay in Tahiti, or to escape life on board ship. Many of the mutineers came from the lower ranks of the ship, and they would have had extremely difficult and unpleasant lives as sailors. Perhaps they simply seized the opportunity to live more pleasant lives in the often idealized conditions of the South Pacific.

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