The Bounty Adventure Pt. 4/6: Mutiny and Pitcairn

Detail of Fletcher Christian and the Mutineers Turn Lieutenant William Bligh and 18 Others Adrift by Robert Dodd

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

On the night between April 17 and April 28 Christian had probably had very little sleep. There are some indications that he had been drinking. In any case, when he was awakened for his 4:00 to 8:00 a.m. watch he felt his head “was on fire.”

He made the impulsive decision to seize the ship. The fact that the most discontented seamen on board were on his watch probably helped trigger his action. When he approached them, he found little difficulty in getting accomplices. . . .

The actual details of the mutiny have been portrayed with various degrees of accuracy in numerous books and articles and in five feature-length films. Suffice it to say here that Christian and eleven of his shipmates – out of a complement of forty-four – managed to take over the vessel and set Bligh and eighteen loyalists adrift in the Pacific thousands of miles from any European settlement. (Other loyalists had to stay on board so as not to further overload the ship’s launch.) . . . .

. . . The mutiny on the Bounty is one of the few bloodless ones in history. The harshest action, apart from setting the loyalists adrift, was that Bligh’s wrists were bound hard enough to cause him pain. Most of the violence was verbal and much of it came from Bligh, although the mutineers certainly did a good deal of threatening.

Another point illustrates – one could almost say proves – that the mutiny was not planned, and that is that three boats were launched: first the jolly boat which was found to be rotten through with worms and would certainly have sunk, then the cutter which also leaked and simply would not hold the large number of loyalists who preferred to go with Bligh, and finally the launch.

The third point is that the poor condition of the ship’s boats in itself illustrates the slackness of discipline that had prevailed during the stay in Tahiti. Not only had the new sails been allowed to rot, but two of the ship’s boats had not been repaired and were in no condition to be used in an emergency.

When Bligh had been forced into the launch together with eighteen loyalists, the freeboard remaining was less then the length of a man’s hand. The boat was designed for a maximum of fifteen men and for short distances, not for nineteen men with belongings and supplies and destined to sail close to four thousand miles. [Click here to read about the subsequent voyage of Bounty’s launch.]


. . . While Bligh and his crew were fighting for their lives (in the Bounty’s launch), Christian (in command of the Bounty) was heading for Tubuai, an island 350 miles south of Tahiti. Cook had sighted the island in 1777 on his third voyage but had not landed. Here Christian planned to found a settlement, since he was reasonably confident that Tubuai would not be visited for a long time; it had poor anchorage and only one narrow passage through the surrounding reef.

Christian reached Tubuai at almost the same time as Bligh arrived at Australia. The Bounty met with a very hostile reception, however, and Christian felt forced to fire into the armade of about 50 attacking canoes carrying close to 1,000 men. Eleven men and one woman were killed.

Nevertheless, Christian was determined to establish a colony on the island. To his astonishment, however, there were no mammals except rats on Tubuai, no pigs or goats, not even dogs. No one on board wanted to lead a vegetarian existence. Furthermore, the Tubuaian women were not as accommodating as their Tahitian counterparts. So Christian decided to sail to Tahiti to pick up women, pigs, goats and chickens. The Bounty sailed on May 31, 1789.


Christian and his mixed crew of mutineers and loyalists were collecting the women (including Christian’s consort Mauatua) and pigs, goats and chickens on Tahiti for their intended colony on Tubuai. During the stay on Tahiti, Christian made it known that any attempt on the part of a loyalist – or a mutineer for that matter – to remain on Tahiti would be severely punished. He did not want to take any risks of his planned refuge becoming known to pursuers.

Christian loaded the Bounty with 312 pigs, 38 goats, eight dozen chickens, and the bull and the cow that had been left by Cook in 1777. Dogs and cats were also taken along and some plants that had not been seen on Tubuai. Christian also took on board nine Tahitian men, eight boys, ten women, and a young girl as passengers. Add to this the Bounty’s remaining crew of twenty-five men and anyone who has been on board a 90-foot vessel can imagine how crowded it must have been.

Maneuvering out from Matavai Bay the Bounty came close to running aground on Dolphin Bank (so named after the ship in which the European discoverer of Tahiti, Samuel Wallis, arrived). In the process, one of the ship’s anchors was lost. (It was later retrieved by Captain Edwards in the Pandora). Had the Bounty sustained major damage, it might still have been in Tahiti when the brig Mercury arrived on August 12; how that would have influenced the fate of Christian and his men is up to speculation.

On arrival at Tubuai on June 23, 1789 (nine days after Bligh reached Timor), . . . Christian now made two fatal mistakes. Even though the Tubuian chief Tamatoa had offered a large piece of beautiful land to the men of the Bounty, Christian – for some reason that will forever remain a mystery – preferred a site to the east of Tamatoa’s chiefdom which belonged to a minor chief, Taaroatohoa. This was a humiliation which Tamatoa could never forget, and from then on he was Christian’s sworn enemy.

Christian’s second mistake was to let the 312 pigs loose on the island. All the Tubuaians had beautiful gardens which, since they had no animals, were not fenced in, and the pigs began to root them up.

Tamatoa and the third chief on the island, Tinarau, now formed an alliance against Christian and Taaroatohoa. Even the latter soon turned against Christian as the damage of the pigs became evident. . . .


. . . The natives of the neighboring districts on Tubuai had become so hostile that it came to outright battles. Although Christian and his men, armed with muskets as they were, emerged the victors (more than sixty natives were killed while the only casulty in Christian’s party was seaman Thomas Burkett who received a slight wound), it was clear to the majority that Tubuai was not the place for them, especially since the native women refused to come and live with them. . . .

(A vote was taken to return to Tahiti.) Christian then made his famous speech, for modern ears quite melodramatic, but very much in character:

Gentlymen, I will carry you, and land you, wherever you please. I desire none to stay with me, but I have one favour to request, that you will grant me the ship, tie the foresail, give me a few gallons of water, and leave me to run before the wind, and I shall land upon the first island the ship drives to. I have done such an act that I cannot stay at Otaheite. I will never live where I may be carried home to be a disgrace to my family.

Considering Christian’s suicidal plan to leave the Bounty on a makeshift rate, there is no doubt that he meant what he said. However, when he was finished, midshipman Edward Young rose and said: “We shall never leave you, Mr. Christian, go where you will!” He was speaking for all who voted against returning to Tahiti.

On September 17, after barely three months on Tubuai, Christian and his crew, together with their Tahitian companions and a few Tubuaians, left for Tahiti and anchored in Matavai on September 22 (the same day Bligh arrived at Samarang). The nine mutineers and seven loyalists who wanted to remain on the island were let ashore while Christian and the eight mutineers who had cast their lot with him prepared to leave.

We now know that the main reason Christian sailed immediately was that his consort, Mauatua, had discovered a plot among the Tahitians to capture the ship (which they could have done, since the Bounty now had a crew of only nine). Christian, in fact, spent only sixteen hours on Tahiti. . . .

. . . In the morning, the women could feel that the ship was outside the reef, and ran on deck. Although the distance to the reef was already a good mile, one woman jumped overboad and swam back but none of the others dared to try it (or perhaps they were hung over). Six of the women were considered “rather ancient” and were sent ashore in Moorea. That left twelve women, which would have been enough for the mutineers and the three Polynesians (two of them from Tubuai) who had been allowed to come along. Soon afterwards, however, three male Polynesian stowaways were discovered, and now Christian made a fateful mistake: instead of landing the stowaways on Moorea or some other island, he let them remain on board. It is entirely possible that the later tragedies on Pitcairn – which were caused partly by the lack of women – could have been avoided if the stowaways had been landed.

As it was, Christian left on his quest for a refuge with a time bomb aboard.


. . . Christian . . . was faced with the problem of where to look for his island of refuge. He first considered the Marquesas but decided against it, because the islands in the group were populated and too vulnerable to discovery. The experience on Tubuai had taught him an important lesson. He needed an island which was uninhabited, fertile, remote, and difficult of access.

Pitcairn fits that description perfectly. Indeed, for many years it was widely assumed that Christian set out for Pitcairn immediately after leaving Tahiti. Not only is that a highly unlikely conjecture (it takes only two to three weeks, not four months, to sail the 1,300 miles from Tahiti to Pitcairn), but we now know with certainty that Christian sailed westward on a voyage of exploration which covered thousands of miles before he arrived at Pitcairn. By then he had sailed approximately 7,800 miles since the day of the mutiny.

How do we know?

In 1956 a discovery was made which created a sensation among Bounty historians. Professor H. E. Maude of the Australian National University found some newspaper articles from the 1820s which contained interviews with Teehuteatuaonoa (also called “Jenny”), consort of the mutineer Isaac Martin and the first of the original settlers to leave Pitcairn (in 1817). [Click here to read a “Jenny” interview.]

From Teehuteatuaonoa’s account it is clear, not only that Christian sailed westward, but that he discovered Rarotonga, the main island in what is now known as the Cook group. Until Professor Maude proved otherwise, it was thought that Rarotonga was discovered by Philip Goodenough in 1814, although island tradition and some statements by John Adams on Pitcairn hinted at the possibility that the Bounty had stopped at Rarotonga after leaving Tahiti for the last time.

Teehuteatuaonoa’s account is also confirmed by a Rarotongan legend written down by the missionary John Williams in 1823. According to this island lore, Rarotonga had, two generations earlier, been visited by a floating garden with two waterfalls. The Bounty did indeed look like a garden and the waterfalls must refer to the pumps on board. A Polynesian generation is usually counted as fifteen to seventeen years, so “two generations ago” fits well with the time of the Bounty’s visit. In any case, even without confirmation of the validity behind the legend, Williams was always convinced that it referred to the Bounty.

Finally, we also know that it was the Bounty which introduced the orange to Rarotonga, the juice of which fruit today accounts for the island’s main export.


Christian’s adventures around this time are known only from Teehuteatuaonoa’s accounts and from the contridictory stories told to various sea captains by John Adams on Pitcairn. Polynesians do not attach much importance to matters involving time, and Adams’ memory was not very reliable, so exact dates are not known. We do know, however, that Christian, after discovering Rarotonga, sailed to the Lau group in the Fijis where he discovered the island Ono-i-Lau. He then sailed for Tongatabu where he stayed for two days and traded with the natives for provisions. Since Tongatabu is less than 100 miles distant from Tofua, the mutineers were now practically back to the place where the mutiny had taken place seven months earlier. .. . .


It must have been around this time (December 16) that Christian decided on Pitcairn as a promising possibility for a permanent settlement. In Bligh’s library he had read Hawkesworth’s Voyages which contained Carteret’s description of the discovery of Pitcairn in 1767:

We continued our course westward till the evening of Thursday, the 2nd of July, when we discovered land to the northward of us. Upon approaching it the next day, it appeared like a giant rock rising out of the sea: it was not more than five miles in circumference, and seemed to be uninhabited; it was, however, covered with trees, and we saw a small stream of fresh water running down one side of it. I would have landed upon it, but the surf, which at this season broke upon it with great violence, rendered it impossible. It lies in latitude 20 degrees 2 minutes south; longitude 133 degrees 21 minutes west. It is so high that we saw it at the distance of more than fifteen leagues, and it having been discovered by a young gentleman, son to Major Pitcairn of the marines, we called it PITCAIRN’S ISLAND.

Pitcairn is one of the most remote islands in the world. It lies “in the middle of nowhere,” 4,650 miles from California, 4,000 miles from Chile, and 3,300 from New Zealand. The closest inhabited island is Mangareva in the Gambier group, 306 miles to the north-west. (Mangareva was not discovered until 1797 and no European is known to have landed there until 1825.)

Here, then, seemed to be the fulfillment of Christian’s dreams, an island that fitted all of his requirements: it was remote, difficult of access, lush with vegetation, and apparently uninhabited. And, although Christian did not know about it at the time, Pitcairn had an extra bonus in store for him: Carteret had given it a position on his chart which was almost 200 miles off! . . .


Christian (in December,1789) was sailing eastward, tacking against the south-east trade winds, on his search for Pitcairn. It was an arduous voyage and voices were heard on board clamoring for a return to Tahiti. Christian, however, knowing that such a destination would mean disaster for himself and the other mutineers, insisted on pressing on to Pitcairn.

It was no easy task, since Carteret had charted the island so far to the west of its true position. But Christian guessed – rightly so – that the latitude would be approximately correct, and in the evening of January 15 Pitcairn appeared on the horizon, 7,800 miles and eight and a half months after the mutiny. Because of heavy weather, it was not until three days later that Christian, with some of his companions (Brown, Williams, McCoy, and three Polynesians), could land on what is now called Tedside on the west coast of Pitcairn. Two days were spent ashore and on January 20 Christian returned to the ship with good news: the island was well suited for a permanent settlement.

The Bounty was run up on the rocks close to the slight indentation in the shore line now known as Bounty Bay, and livestock and goods were shipped ashore. Most students of the Bountystory seem to assume that everything valuable and useful was salvaged from the vessel. This is highly improbable.

The Bounty carried pigs, goats, chickens, cats, dogs, and several varieties of plants. These all had to be ferried ashore (plus the Tahitian baby girl called Sully who was floated ashore in a barrel). Those who have visited Pitcairn know that even on the calmest day there is a heavy surf thundering into Bounty Bay and the waters there are extremely turbulent and dangerous. So it must have taken at least the best part of a day to get the animals and plants ashore.

But the Bounty was burned on January 23, three days after it was beached. In this short time it would simply have been impossible to salvage everything valuable, let alone everything potentially useful.

One can only imagine what the feelings of the settlers may have been as they saw their last link with the outside world destroyed. It is difficult to imagine that anyone was elated, although some or all of the mutineers may have felt relief, while some or all of the Polynesian women who had been forced to come along may have been depressed.

Be that as it may, the fact that everything useful had not been salvaged must have created ill feeling. Tradition has it that Matthew Quintal, in a state of drunkenness, put fire to the ship. Since he was one of the most willful and undisciplined of the mutineers, the story is probably true. An accidental fire is unlikely, and so is a command by Christian to burn the ship before everything useful had been brought ashore. The theory that the ship was burned to prevent dissenters from leaving founders on the fact that it would have been impossible to refloat the Bounty. Even if it had been possible, it would have required the cooperation of everyone. The traditional story is more believable.

But the conclusion that can be drawn is that the very first days of the settlement on Pitcairn was probably marred by disappointment and frustration.

To Be Continued. Courtesy of Pacific Union College.

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