The Bounty Adventure Pt. 3/6: Discipline Undermined

HMS Bounty departs Tasmania for Tahiti

Text from Mutiny and Romance in the South Seas: A Companion to the Bounty Adventure by Sven Wahlroos.

The Bounty was now (May 1788) sailing eastward from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope. For almost the whole voyage there was a strong westerly wind which often propelled the ship to her maximum speed of nine (although midshipman Heywood tells us that she sometimes went to ten). Everyone on board was happy to get away from the storms of Cape Horn, but there was also a great deal of frustration: the Bounty was as far from Tahiti as when she had first sailed from England, so four months of incredible hardship and effort had been completely futile.

Table Mountain was sighted on May 22 and the next evening the ship anchored in False Bay (now known as Simonstown) for extensive repairs. The Bounty had to be completely recaulked; the leaks she had sprung at Cape Horn were so bad that it had been necessary to man the pumps every hour for the whole voyage to the Cape of Good Hope. The rigging and the sails also needed to be completely overhauled and, since large amounts of supplies had been damaged, there was a lot of reprovisioning to be done. All in all the Bounty spent 38 days refitting, which gives some idea of the damage she had received at the Horn. . . .


On July 1, 1788, Bligh left False Bay and set an east-south-easterly course for Adventure Bay in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). This, the longest leg on the voyage to Tahiti, was well over 6,000 miles. By the end of the month, having had strong westerly winds most the the time, the Bounty sighted St. Paul Island, actually just a little rock which Bligh wanted to reach on his way in order to test his navigational skill (superb as always). . . .


Fifty-one days out of False Bay, on August 20, 1788, Bligh sighted Mewstone Rock outside Adventure Bay in Van Diemen’s Land. This was a remarkable feat of navigation considering the equipment then available.

Bligh wooded and watered in the bay and planted fruit trees and vegetables for the use of aborigines as well as for future ships. The stay would have been uneventful had it not been for an incident which dealt a severe blow to his authority.

William Purcell, the cantankerous and argumentative ship’s carpenter, had been ordered to assist with hoisting water into the hold but refused “in a most insolent and reprehensible manner” on the grounds that, as a warrant officer, he could not be made to do the work of a common seaman. Technically Purcell was within his rights, but refusal to obey and order was still a severe offense, second only to outright mutiny. . . .

Bligh, however, was faced with a dilemma. If Purcell had been an ordinary seaman, he would have been flogged and that would have put an end to the matter. But as a warrant officer Purcell could not be flogged without the authority of a court-martial. He could be put in irons until the ship returned to England where he could be tried, but the Bounty was not due back for another fifteen months and Bligh needed the skills of the carpenter for the successful outcome of his expedition.

In the end Bligh decided to withhold provisions from Purcell until he agreed to obey orders. The carpenter was “immediately brought to his senses,” but denial of provisions was no punishment for mutinous behavior and everyone on board knew it. . . .


Bligh left Adventure Bay in Van Dieman’s Land on September 4, 1788. He rounded the southern tip of New Zealand and discovered thirteen small rocky islands which to this day are called the Bounty Isles. The Bounty was now heading for Tahiti with no further landfalls. On that beautiful island the main objective of the expedition, the breadfruit, was growing in abundance on countless trees. . . .


The Bounty was sailing eastward in the Roaring Forties on her voyage from Adventure Bay to Tahiti. On October 3, 1788, being at that time south-east of the Society Islands, Bligh changed to a northerly course in order to catch the south-east trades and so sail westward to fetch Tahiti.

On Thursday, October 9, the expedition experienced its first casualty: one of the most robust of the able-bodied seamen, James Valentine, died. The cause of his death was blood poisoning which had set in after he had been bled – for a “slight indisposition” – by the alcoholic ship’s surgeon, Thomas Huggan. Bligh was furious because he had not even been told that Valentine was gravely ill until three days earlier. The incident illustrates how extremely isolated Bligh was, even from his officers, and how little he knew about what happened on board his ship, even though it was small.

The very same day an incident took place which tended to further undermine Bligh’s discipline, already damaged by the carpenter’s open defiance of his captains’s orders while the Bountywas at Adventure Bay. This time it was none other than the sailing master, John Fryer, who openly defied Bligh.

Fryer had not got along with Bligh ever since the latter had promoted Christian to acting lieutenant in March 1788. Christian had not been promoted “over the head” of Fryer, as some students of the Bounty history have claimed. The distinguished Bounty scholar Rolf Du Rietz, has pointed out that masters were promoted by rate, not by rank, and were never expected to become acting lieutenants when at sea. Nevertheless, it may have irked Fryer to be subordinate to Christian because of the latter’s age (Fryer was thirty-three, Christian twenty-three).

Contrary to common Bounty lore, Fryer appears to have been (as Du Rietz has pointed out) a very competent man, and we know that Bligh could not tolerate any rivalry in competency on board his ships. He took every opportunity to “put down” officers who measured up to his own skills and talents. On the other hand, the master, a few years senior to Bligh, was not a man who easily accepted insults to his dignity, and by late September he had declined to continue dining with Bligh. On October 9 he brought matters to a head by refusing to sign the monthly expense books unless Bligh would sign a certificate confirming Fryer’s good behavior during the voyage so far.

Bligh would not stand for any conditional obedience. He had the ship’s company assembled on deck and read the Articles of War. Fryer signed, but not before he had made clear – in a loud voice – that “I sign in obedience to your orders, but this may be canceled hereafter.”

This, then was the second time a warrant officer had openly defied Bligh in front of the whole crew. (The boatswain’s mate, Morrison, says in his narrative that this was only one of many conflicts between Bligh and Fryer before the arrival in Tahiti.)

Another instance of disobedience was recorded ten days later when the gunner’s mate, John Mills, and the botanist’s assistant, William Brown, refused to take part in the daily dancing that Bligh had ordered for exercise. Both had their grog stopped, a punishment second only to flogging in severity.

In the early morning of Saturday, October 25, having altered course to the west, the Bountysighted the small island of Mehetia (then populated, but now unpopulated), 70 miles east of Tahiti. Tahiti was sighted in the evening, and on Sunday morning, fifty-two days out of Van Diemen’s Land, the ship dropped anchor in Matavai Bay surrounded by hundreds of outrigger canoes filled with wildly shouting and waving Tahitians. They soon climbed on board “in vast numbers,” so that Bligh “could scarce find my own people.” The total distance the Bountyhad sailed since leaving England on December 23, 1787, was 27,086 miles by the log (108 miles for each 24 hours). . . .

On New Year’s Day 1789, the Bounty was securely anchored in Toaroa harbor, not far from present-day Papeete. The day was celebrated with the issuance of a double ration of grog to the ship’s complement. It was, however, an ordinary working day, so only two sailors got shore leave in the usual manner of rotation.

The month of January provided an ominous preview of what was to come. Monday, January 5, at the relief of the night watch (4:00 a.m.), it was discovered that the small cutter was missing. Bligh mustered the ship’s company and found that three had deserted. One was Charles Churchill, the ship’s corporal, whose very duty it was to uphold discipline and prevent desertions! Another was William Muspratt, able-bodied seaman and Bligh’s own steward. The third was John Millward, able-bodied seaman. They had taken with them eight stand of arms with ammunition.

The Tahitians informed Bligh that the deserters had left the cutter in Matavai and were now on board a sailing canoe headed for Tetiaroa, an atoll 30 miles north of Tahiti (now owned by Marlon Brando).

Bligh managed to get a contingent of Tahitians – led by Teina’s younger brother, Ari’ipaea, and another chief named Moana – to promise to sail to Tetiaroa and capture the run-aways by pretending to be friendly and then grabbing their arms and binding them. However, before the pursuers could get under way the weather turned bad and the expedition had to be postponed. . . .

The deserters were captured toward the end of the month, an incident during which Bligh showed his bravery: he walked up to them alone, armed only with a cutlass. The men claimed they had given themselves up, but it turned out that their gunpowder was wet, a fact that Bligh did not know. . . .

Bligh sentenced Muspratt and Millward to four dozen lashes, Churchill to two dozen. It remains a mystery why the deserters were dealt with so leniently and especially why Churchill, their leader, received a lesser punishment. (Midshipman Thomas Hayward who was asleep on watch when the desertion took place had earlier been sentenced to eleven weeks’ confinement in irons.) . . .


. . . During the night between February 5 and February 6, the Bounty was subjected to sabotage. In the morning the anchor cable was found almost cut through at the water’s edge; only one strand remaining whole. With any wind at all the cable would have parted and the ship would either have drifted ashore or onto the reef of the lagoon.

Some writers have speculated that there may not have been any sabotage at all and that the cable may simply have chafed against the sharp coral. These writers cannot be sailors themselves, since any sailor would know the difference between a cut and a chafed cable. Bligh himself never mentioned any possibility of the cable being chafed.

Bligh’s original theory was that the cable had been cut by a Tahitian who wanted the ship to remain at the island. After the mutiny it occurred to him that the culprit could have been one of the Bounty’s crew who, like the deserters Churchill, Millward and Muspratt, wanted to stay in Tahiti.

Bligh’s first theory was correct, but for a reason he had not considered. As earlier described, midshipman Hayward had been put in irons for sleeping on duty. Like all on board the Bounty, Hayward had a taio ashore. This special friend was the local chief’s brother, Vaetua, and he wanted Hayward released. It was Vaetua who had ordered the anchor cable cut, expecting the ship to drift ashore with resulting evacuation of the whole crew, including Hayward.

Vaetua divulged his plan long afterwards to those mutineers and loyalists who had remained on Tahiti when Christian sailed away with the Bounty for the last time.

Bligh did not know how close he had come to being killed by Vaetua. At the time Hayward was sentenced, Vaetua had been on board the ship standing directly behind Bligh with a war club, ready to crush the captain’s skull if he had ordered Hayward flogged.

Vaetua despised Bligh. In fact, the Bounty’s boatswain’s mate, Morrison, writes in his narrative that Vaetua had “cursed Mr. Christian for not killing Lieut. Bligh which he said he would do himself if ever he came to Taheite.” Vaetua must have changed his mind, however, because when Bligh did show up again in the Providence on the second breadfruit expedition, Vaetua dined with him occasionally and often told him how superior British spirits were to the Tahitian ‘ava (Oliver 1988, pp. 193 and 200). . . .


The Bounty was coming to the end of its long (over five months) stay in Tahiti, and the loading of the breadfruit plants its crew had gathered now began. The discipline had become extremely lax during these months, not only among the seamen but also among the officers. . . .

On March 2, 1789, there was yet another incident illustrating the lackadaisical attitude of the officers. That morning William Peckover, the gunner, had several articles stolen from him by a Tahitian. If he had been an ordinary seaman, he would have been flogged but, again, since he was a warrant officer Bligh did not feel he could punish him.

The thief was caught and Bligh had him flogged with 100 lashes “severely given.” . . . After the flogging the islander was put in irons as a reminded to his compatriots of what would happen to them if they were to engage in similar pilfering. However, early in the morning of March 7 the prisoner managed to break his irons and escape while George Stewart, acting master’s mate, was on watch. Again Bligh was exasperated but felt he could do nothing more than give Stewart one of his famous tongue lashings. . . .


. . . On Saturday, April 4, 1789, the Bounty weighed anchor and sailed out from Toaroa harbor. On board were 1,015 breadfruit plants in 774 pots, 39 tubs, and 24 boxes. In addition there were numerous samples of other South Seas plants (requested by Sir Joseph Banks), 25 live hogs, 17 goats, and a number of chickens. As if that were not enough, the deck was crowded with last-minute gifts from Tahitian taios: coconuts, plantains, breadfruit, yams, bananas, etc. The Bounty looked like a floating farm. Overcrowded before, it was now “bursting at the seams.”

After briefly stopping at Huahine in the Leeward Islands, Bligh set course for the Friendly Islands (Tonga). On April 11 he discovered Aitutaki (in what is now the Southern Cook Group) but did not land. On April 23, the Bounty arrived at Nomuka in the Tongan (Friendly) Islands, 1,800 miles west of Tahiti, where Bligh had landed once before in 1777, on Cook’s third voyage. The very fact that he stopped here is of interest for two reasons:

First, it shows his extraordinary meticulousness. Bligh stopped at Nomuka primarily to replace one dead and two or three “sickly looking” breadfruit plants out of 1,015! He also wanted to “wood and water,” less than three weeks after leaving Tahiti.

Secondly, it was during and immediately following this stop that the incidents occurred which triggered the mutiny. Would the mutiny have occurred anyway? We will never know. . . .

Bligh was definitely at his worst on the voyage from Tahiti, fault-finding, insulting, petty, and condescending. He seems to have relished humiliating all his officers. Yet it is clear that he went out of his way to torment Christian.

At Nomuka Bligh put Christian in an impossible position. He sent him in command of a watering party with orders not to use any weapons, but to leave them in the boat. When Christian then encountered hostile Tongan warriors who threatened him and his men with spears, clubs and rocks, he had to retreat to the boat, since he had no arms. An adze was stolen from one of his men.

On hearing of the theft, Bligh damned Christian for a “cowardly rascal,” asking if he was afraid of “a set of naked savages while he had arms.” To which Christian replied: “The arms are of no use while your orders prevent them from being used.” Not only was Bligh engaging in crazy-making (damned if you do – use arms – and damned if you don’t), but more important, a gentleman simply did not call another a coward. Back in England the insult could have resulted in a duel.

Only two days later, on Monday, April 27, (the day before the mutiny), Bligh accused Christian – in front of the assembled ship’s company – of stealing some of his coconuts, calling him a thief and a hound.

This incident is extremely important, because it probably triggered the mental breakdown in Christian which would culminate in his decision to take over the ship. Morrison describes the incident in his narrative:

In the Afternoon of the 27th Mr. Bligh Came up, and taking a turn about the Quarter Deck when he missed some of the Cocoa Nuts which were piled up between the Guns upon which he said that they were stolen and Could not go without the knowledge of the Officers, who were all Calld and declared that they had not seen a Man toutch them, to which Mr. Bligh replied then you must have taken them yourselves, and ordered Mr. Elphinstone to go & fetch every Cocoa Nut in the Ship aft, which He obeyd. He then questioned every Officer in turn concerning the Number they had bought, & Coming to Mr. Christian asked Him, Mr. Christian answered “I do not know Sir, but I hope you don’t think me so mean as to be Guilty of Stealing yours.” Mr. Bligh replied “Yes you dam’d Hound I do – You must have stolen them from me or you could give a better account of them – God damn you you Scoundrels you are all thieves alike, and combined with the Men to rob em – I suppose you’ll Steal my Yams next, but I’ll sweat you for it you rascals I’ll make half of you Jump overboard before you get through Endeavour Streights” – He then Calld Mr. Samuel and said “Stop these Villans Grog, and Give them but Half a Pound of Yams tomorrow, and if they steal them, I’ll reduce them to a quarter.” The Cocoa Nuts were Carried aft, & He Went below, the officers then got together and were heard to murmur much at such treatment, and it was talked among the Men that the Yams would be next seized, as Lieut. Bligh knew that they had purchased large quantitys of them and set about secreting as many as they Could.

We have to remember that this was a time when a man’s honor was more valuable than his life. (This is why movie makers cannot show what actually happened; there is simply not enough time in a film to recreate the atmosphere of the era. Consequently Bligh must be portrayed as a brutal and physically cruel tyrant, otherwise Christian’s mutiny would simply not seem believable.) Christian came from an unbroken line of twenty-five generations of aristocracy and none of his forefathers would have let themselves be called cowards or thieves without retribution.

Yet Christian’s first reaction was to get awy from Bligh at any cost. At this point he had obviously lost his judgment: he was trying to construct a raft from a few spare spars and planks in order to leave the ship. (He had also torn up his personal papers and given away his curios and mementos.) . . .

Christian’s plan to leave the ship on a flimsy raft was certainly suicidal, even if he at the moment may consciously have believed that he might survive. When Christian mentioned his plan to a friend, midshipman George Stewart, the latter pleaded with him not to leave and then added a phrase which in all probability triggered a total change in Christian’s plans: “The men are ready for anything!”

To Be Continued. Courtesy of Pacific Union College.

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