Mutiny on the Bounty

It’s full steam ahead aboard Aranui 5 to the raison d’etre of this far-flung voyage through French Polynesia’s remotest isles and atolls as we near way off the beaten track Pitcairn. The legacy of and lore surrounding this isolated spot at the end of the Earth has made it one of the most romanticized and fabled islands in history, dramatized, if not celebrated, by bestselling authors and Hollywood blockbusters. Here’s the bare bones outline of what has made little Pitcairn loom large for decades in the zeitgeist as the ultimate getaway and isle of escape, the polar opposite of Alcatraz, that infamous icon of the island as prison.

On December 23, 1787, His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty departed from Spithead, England for Tahiti. The maritime mission’s purpose was to secure breadfruit, which grows in abundance at Polynesia, then sail to Britain’s Caribbean colonies, deposit the starchy staple foodstuff there, and return to England.

The ill-fated voyage ran into difficulties, as apparently to save time, the Bounty’s commander, Lieutenant William Bligh, set sail for Cape Horn, but was unable to surmount adverse weather conditions at the tip of South America. Bligh was forced to change course and head for Tahiti via the Cape of Good Hope, at the end of a South Africa peninsula. This wound up costing the Bounty precious time and the vessel didn’t arrive at its destination until October 26, 1788.

For five months the crew collected and transplanted 1,000-plus breadfruits aboard HMAV Bounty. During this extended period ashore, many mariners “went Native,” including romantic relationships with Tahitians.

The Bounty set sail for Jamaica on April 4, 1789. This is how Bligh himself described the earth shattering events that transpired on April 28 in Chapter 13 of his 1792 “Account Of The Mutiny On Board The Ship”: “Just before sun-rising, while I was yet asleep, Mr. Christian, with the master at arms, gunner’s mate, and Thomas Burkitt, seaman, came into my cabin, and seizing me tied my hands with a cord behind my back, threatening me with instant death if I spoke or made the least noise: I however called as loud as I could in hopes of assistance; but they had already secured the officers who were not of their party by placing sentinels at their doors. There were three men at my cabin door besides the four within; Christian had only a cutlass in his hand, the others had muskets and bayonets. I was hauled out of bed and forced on deck in my shirt, suffering great pain from the tightness which with they had tied my hands. I demanded the reason of such violence but received no other answer than abuse for not holding my tongue. The master, the gunner, the surgeon, Mr. Elphinstone, master’s mate, and Nelson, were kept confined below; and the fore hatchway was guarded by sentinels. The boatswain and carpenter, and also the clerk, Mr. Samuel, were allowed to come upon deck, where they saw me standing abaft the mizenmast with my hands tied behind my back under a guard with Christian at their head. The boatswain was ordered to hoist the launch out with a threat if he did not do it instantly TO TAKE CARE OF HIMSELF.

“When the boat was out Mr. Hayward and Mr. Hallet, two of the midshipmen, and Mr. Samuel, were ordered into it. I demanded what their intention was in giving this order and endeavoured to persuade the people near me not to persist in such acts of violence; but it was to no effect: ‘Hold your tongue, Sir, or you are dead this instant,’ was constantly repeated to me.”
Bligh and about 18 crewmen in the tiny launch were cast off to fend for themselves in the vast Pacific Ocean. Aboard the Bounty, the mutineers set a course for Tahiti, but did not stay there, realizing that the long arm of the law would seek to capture and punish the “criminals,” and that the first place the Royal Navy would look for them would be back at Tahiti. In a desperate attempt to avoid imprisonment and execution, the seamen set sail with their Tahitian lovers and a handful of Polynesian males who joined them at Tahiti, heading out into the unknown.

Accounts vary, but either by design or sheer luck, Mr. Christian navigated the Bounty which arrived at – perhaps stumbled upon – Pitcairn Island on January 15, 1790. (Ironically, when Fletcher was only 15, he’d fled from Cumberland, England with his indebted mother to the Isle of Man, where English creditors had no jurisdiction, so she could escape going to debtors’ prison.)

As tiny Pitcairn, which is located roughly midway between New Zealand and South America, was incorrectly located on Royal Naval charts, Mr. Christian assumed that the mutineers would be free from being found and apprehended at this uninhabited safe haven in the middle of nowhere. Thus, the mutineers, along with their Tahitian girlfriends and the Polynesian men who’d joined the crew, settled there.

A People’s History of the Bounty: Revolution on the High Seas

The Bounty mutineers escaped and eluded capture by the Admiralty, but their mutiny went on to capture the imagination of readers and moviegoers, largely through the trilogy penned by the American authors James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff, two Australian movies and three Tinseltown big budget epics. But the romanticism of page and screen has obscured what Howard Zinn would call “the people’s history” of the Bounty mutiny, a revolutionary act that hammered British colonialism and slavery.

It is important to remember that the revolt aboard HMAV Bounty took place six years after the American Revolution and only about three months before French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789. First and foremost, the sailors’ defiance must be placed in the context of the Age of Revolution that the seamen lived in.

In the 1935 and 1962 motion picture adaptations of Nordhoff and Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty, as well as the 1984 extravaganza The Bounty, “Captain” Bligh has been depicted by Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard and Anthony Hopkins as an overly ambitious, tyrannical commander. who placed the Bounty’s mission – in particular, the well-being of its precious breadfruit cargo – above the welfare of the crew. This, combined with the lifestyle the crewmen enjoyed at Tahiti – which was far freer and happier than most of the sailors experienced back at England – inspired the men to take over the Bounty, throw Bligh overboard and sail back to their Tahitian sweethearts, according to pop culture accounts.

Assuming that it’s historically correct that Bligh was a cruel, exacting taskmaster, the mariners’ uprising was a blow against the Royal Navy and the crown, asserting the human and civil rights of commoners against monarchy and militarism. But more than that, when the seamen tossed the breadfruit off the Bounty along with Bligh, they struck a blow against slavery, because the purpose of the Bounty’s mission was to ship breadfruit from Tahiti to Jamaica to supply cheap food for the enslaved plantation workers. In doing so, the insurrectionists also harmed colonialism.

As Brandon Presser writes in his 2021 book The Far Land, 200 Years of Murder, Mania & Mutiny in the South Pacific: “[T]he management of African slaves had become a costly prospect. Perhaps the introduction of breadfruit to the West Indies could be a more efficient means of feeding the landowners’ human capital? …The Royal Navy soon agreed that a voyage to [Tahiti] was a worthy investment in the prosperity of England’s slave trade, especially after losing its new-world colonies during the recent American Revolutionary War.”

With the exception of Fletcher Christian, a minor member of the gentry, the mutineers were commoners. Whether they were conscious of it or not, the mutiny carried out by members of the British white working class was an act of solidarity with the enslaved Black people in Jamaica and other Caribbean colonies.

The romanticism perpetuated by bestsellers and blockbusters surrounding the Bounty uprising has obscured the notion that the mutiny was actually an act of revolution. Indeed, that other great film about a historic mutiny – Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece Battleship Potemkin – is specifically about the 1905 Russian Revolution. At least this is how I see the Bounty’s legacy of revolt. But how do Fletcher Christian’s and the other mutineers’ descendants at Pitcairn Island perceive what their forebears did? This is one of the things I have traveled across the world to find out.

But I must get there first in order to discover how the Pitkerners themselves feel and think about their mutinous heritage. I have flown from L.A. to San Francisco to Tahiti and sailed 1,500 miles to get my answers. But like Hercules facing his 12 labors, I still have hoops to jump through before I can disembark at the long sought-after spot which epitomizes the ideal of the island as a haven of freedom. While Aranui 5’s passengers don’t necessarily have to slay a hydra or clean the Augean stables, as Hercules had to, we must test negative for a second covid test. And should we pass, the sea must not be too rough for Aranui and its barges to make landfall at Bounty Bay…

As we closed in on Pitcairn, after thousands of miles of peregrinations, will I even be able to set foot upon far away Pitcairn Island in order to carry out my scrutiny on the Bounty?

When you go:

French Polynesia:
Pitcairn Island:

Aranui: (800)972-7268
United Airlines: (800)864-8331

TIURAI TOURS: Vanessa Alvarez Tel/WhatsApps: (+689)89513222
Mana Tang Tel/WhatsApps: (+689)89527377

Hilton Hotel Tahiti: (689) 40 86 48 48; 1-800-HILTONS
Hilton San Francisco Union Square: (415)771-1400 1-800-HILTONS.
Beacon Grand, A Union Square Hotel: (866)377-9412.

Written by: Ed Rampell

 Ed Rampell picture Ed Rampell has traveled widely, to more than 100 Pacific Islands, Asia, Europe, Mexico and Africa. His travel writing and photography has appeared in: Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc, Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E — The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, etc. Rampell is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal. Rampell was interviewed in Tahiti for the CBS newsmagazine 48 Hours, and National Public Radio’s Savvy Traveler interviewed Rampell about the Marquesas Islands. Rampell acted as a consultant for, and appears as the most used on-camera interviewee, in the 2005 Australian-European co-production Hula Girls, which has been seen by millions of viewers on Dutch, German, French, Swiss, Australian, etc., television on the Avro and Arte networks. Rampell’s Polynesian daughter Marina is a singer in Australia.
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