Known as the most famous mutiny in history, the Mutiny on the Bounty is a compelling tale of ambition, hedonism, betrayal, seamanship and tragedy – all set against the idyllic tropical backdrop of the South Pacific.
Setting out for Tahiti to procure breadfruit to replant in the West Indies as a food source for slaves, the HMS Bounty left Spithead in England in December 1787 – the year that the First Fleet set sail for Australia. Led by Lieutenant William Bligh – who would become Australia’s 4th Governor in 1806 – the difficult conditions meant that the voyage to Tahiti took 10 months, with the Bounty arriving in October 1788.
The crew spent five months on the island, enjoying the generous hospitality of the Tahitians. This, combined with Bligh’s alleged harshness – with the flogging of miscreants becoming a regular occurrence on the island – meant that most of the crew did not wish to leave and endure the long, hazardous voyage back to England. The austere, severe life at sea was a far cry from the island paradise of Tahiti.
The Bounty left Tahiti on 5 April 1789, but three weeks later, Bligh was confronted by mutiny-leader Fletcher Christian and several other mutineers. Bligh and eighteen loyal crew were cut adrift in a 7-metre open boat and, somewhat incredibly, Bligh managed to traverse nearly 7,000km over 47 days to reach the East Indies without maps or a compass. Given he was without access to any tools and in a vessel completely unsuitable for the journey; Bligh’s success leading his men to safety is a genuine marvel, and testament to his skill as a navigator. The commander then returned to England, where the mutiny was reported to the Admiralty in March 1790, with the HMS Pandora dispatched to find and arrest the mutineers.
Of the twenty-four crew not cut adrift with Bligh, sixteen stayed in Tahiti and eight settled on Pitcairn Island. By the time the HMS Pandora arrived in Tahiti, two mutineers were dead, with the other fourteen arrested. In a further dramatic twist, the return journey was as treacherous as the trip home after the mutiny itself. Of the fourteen, four drowned when the Pandora sank after striking the Great Barrier Reef. The ten survivors were tried, with four acquitted, two found guilty but pardoned, one freed on a technicality and three convicted and hanged in late 1792.
Of those settling on Pitcairn, five mutineers were killed in a dispute with the Tahitians they had brought with them. The remaining mutineers died one by one, with the sole survivor, John Adams, going on to lead a small, stable community, a community that ultimately established the country of Pitcairn. The country is still going strong today, with 50 regular citizens and a government that issues legal tender coins. One of those coins is the 2014 Mutiny on the Bounty Silver Proof, which commemorates the 225th anniversary of the Mutiny on the Bounty and is made all the more poignant for being struck as Pitcairn legal tender.
Oh, and what happened to that breadfruit, the quest for which cost many lives and caused the most famous mutiny of all time? The locals refused to eat it.