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Mutineers Suddenly Seize Control of HMS Bounty

Mutiny on the Bounty by Robert Dodd (1790).

Today on April 28, 1789, the crew under Lieutenant William Bligh suddenly seized control of the ship in a rebellion known as Mutiny on the Bounty.

The Mutiny on the Bounty is perhaps the most famous act of sedition in the history of the Royal Navy. The exact cause of the mutiny is still unclear, but many have pointed to the captain's harsh treatment of his crew. The epic story has since become mainstream and made popular in countless books, films, biographies, and even a broadway musical. The 1984 Hollywood hit film, The Bounty, stars Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson.

HMS Bounty was a three-masted, 91 feet long vessel armed with four short carriage guns and ten half-pounder swivel guns. It also carried a small number of firearms, such as muskets. The Admiralty ranked it a cutter, which was the smallest category of warship in the navy. In August 1787, Lieutenant William Bligh assumed command of the Bounty expedition. Bligh was an experienced naval commander who had previously served under Captain James Cook during his third and final voyage.

His orders were to circumnavigate the earth via the Southern Hemisphere and transport breadfruit plants from the Pacific islands to the Caribbean. On October 15, 1787, Bligh and his crew departed Britain. They were to enter the Pacific Ocean via the Cape Horn (in South America), collect the tropical trees, and continue sailing westward through the Endeavour Strait. The Bounty would sail through the Indian Ocean into the South Atlantic before reaching the West Indies. At the time, breadfruit was an essential food source for the ever-growing slave population.

In December 1788, HMS Bounty arrived at the beautiful island of Tahiti. Their orders were to fill the cargo containers with breadfruit saplings and continue on their way. However, the crew quickly become accustomed to the relaxing island lifestyle and were not so eager to leave. In fact, many of the sailors fell in love with local Polynesian women and reportedly considered staying. The five-month layover in Tahiti proved to be detrimental to discipline among the ranks.

But William Bligh wasn't having any of it. The lieutenant had earned a nasty reputation for being an overly hard-nosed officer — some even referred to him as a tyrant. In reality, Bligh probably wasn't much worse than other naval officers of the day. Most commanders relied on harsh discipline and punishment to maintain law and order at sea.

Yet despite growing resentment, Bligh and his reluctant crew set sail from Tahiti on April 4. With a full cargo ship of breadfruits, they set off toward the Caribbean. However, relations between Bligh and his men rapidly deteriorated in the subsequent weeks. In response, he began issuing even harsher punishments to virtually anyone and developed an abusive tone. On the morning of April 28, 1789, Fletcher Christian and a group of 25 petty officers seized control of the ship — a mutiny on the Bounty suddenly erupted. The crew immediately forced Bligh and 18 of his loyal sailors onto a small, open-air boat and left them for dead.

The mutineers sailed back to Tahiti despite the risk of being apprehended by British authorities. Unsure of what to do next, Christian, along with eight other mutineers and several native islanders left Tahiti in search of a safer haven. After four months at sea, they found themselves on the remote volcanic island of Pitcairn. The outlaws stripped the Bounty of all its resources and made tents from its sails before burning it in a nearby bay. However, life on the island proved to be far from idyllic. The marooned fugitives were immediately plagued by starvation, disease, internal fighting, and bad weather.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Bligh and his men miraculously reached Timor (an island in the East Indies) after completing a daunting 3,500 nautical mile voyage. He eventually returned to England and faced a court-martial over the mutiny on the Bounty. The Admiralty promptly acquitted him and ordered him on a second mission to Tahiti. Bligh sailed back with the Pacific with revenge in mind. The survivors who stayed in Tahiti were all apprehended and transported home. Of the ten who returned to England for trial, four were acquitted, three were pardoned, and three faced execution for their treasonous behavior.

All but one mutineer, John Adams, survived living on Pitcairn Island. Against all the odds, Adams built a thriving secret colony that went entirely unnoticed for almost twenty years despite countless search missions by the Royal Navy. In 1808, an American whaling ship noticed smoke coming from the island's treetops and went to investigate. They were shocked to find Adams living there with a village of women and children. The British eventually incorporated the island and its community into the empire. An estimated fifty people still live on Pitcairn Island today — all of which are descendants from the Mutiny on the Bounty.


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