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The History Behind The Movie: Mutiny On the Bounty

January 25, 2013 in Pacific History

Tahitian inspired drawing created by J Hanna.

Tahitian inspired drawing created by J Hanna.

At the age of thirteen I began my love affair with Mutiny on the Bounty after watching the 1962 film starring Marlon Brandon. Honestly, I could not help put notice that Brando was quite dashing, which was another reason I loved the story, but it was also about the locale and history behind the movie. Usually I am not a fan of movies about ships, but this film spoke to me because since the age of ten I have had an obsession with Polynesian history and culture. If the film had taken place in England I probably would not have been as spellbound, but the setting in Tahiti caught my attention, and I wanted to learn more about the real story behind the HMAV Bounty.

Fletcher Christian and William Bligh were both upset after the mutiny, and basically the former had revolted because he could no longer take the pressure of the latter’s tongue lashings. The 1935 and 1962 versions of the film Mutiny on the Bounty portray William Bligh as being a harsh dictator upon this tiny ship, but the truth was Christian was young and some what tempestuous when he decided to mutiny. The historical record has shown that Bligh was a fair captain and a great navigator, although he did have some what of a temper and liked to swear quite a bit. However, he never keel hulled his men, and he flogged his sailors less often than many sea captains of his day.  Nevertheless, Captain Bligh did not inspire respect like his charasmatic mentor, Captain Cook, so people were put off by his abusive language and insults.  He would have people mutiny against him a couple more times, and be reprimanded for his harsh language later in his career.

The best way to learn more about mutiny on the Bounty is by reading books on the subject and watching more accurate movies. I still enjoy the 1962 version of the film Mutiny on the Bounty because this movie is based on one of my favorite novels, but I view it as a fictionalized account. The 1984 film The Bounty is more historically accurate than previous films, but even this movie makes a few historical faux paus. For example, Christian mutinies against Bligh in the 1984 because he decides to take the ship back around Cape Horn, but this never happened in real life. Actually the true to live events as described in Caroline Alexander’s book The Bounty  and Glynn Christian’s Fragile Paradise are much more compelling than the fictionalized account in movies. Christian mutinied because he did not want to leave Tahiti, plus he and Bligh were having somewhat of a personal falling out. Have you ever seen two people who were friends that decide to start a business together begin to argue? Christian’s mutinying against Bligh can be likened to the falling out of two business partners that were once good friends.

The Mission of The HMAV Bounty: Transporting Breadfruit To Jamaica

Slave owners in the West Indies wanted to keep down their overhead costs, and after the American Revolution they lost the United States as a nearby source of food for the slaves laboring on their plantations. So how would slave owners obtain food sources for the slaves working on their plantaions? Slaveowners decided that transplanting breadfruit trees to grow in the West Indies would provide a cheaper food source than wheat, and it became the job of the HMAV Bounty to transport small breadfruit plants from Tahiti to Jamaica. The HMAV Bounty left England on December 23, 1787 on the breadfruit mission, but little did the shipmates know the ship and many crew members would never see England again.

William Bligh was given the title of lieutenant, but the royal navy failed to promote him to the rank of captain for this expedition. Also, the royal navy failed to give him a ship with adequate room for this expedition, so in many ways this trip was doomed for failure from the start. Bligh was a man of humble origins and regarded this voyage as a way to make a name for himself before he got too old because he was only 31 at the time, even though the 1962 film portrayed him as an older man.

Bligh was not one to forget his friends, so he appointed Fletcher Christian as master’s mate, even though he was only in his early twenties. Bligh justified the appointment of Christian because they had been on several previous voyages together, and the young man’s record showed he had great potential to do well in the British Royal Navy. However, Christian came from a wealthy background, and it was not until recent events that his immediate family had experienced financial difficulties, so he did not have as much of a incentive to make a name for himself as Bligh, especially since he already had family connections back at home.

Bligh had wanted to circumnavigate the globe and initially tried to round Cape Horn, but the harsh weather made this route impassable, which resulted in  Bligh redirecting the ship towards the Cape of Good Hope. Bligh decided to promote his friend Christian at this juncture because he had shown more courage than Master John Fryer. The move to replace Fryer was a mistake on Bligh’s part, which he would pay for later on because many men decided to follow Christian when he decided to mutiny.

Nevertheless, Bligh was a thoughtful person that had done health research based on the latest knowledge available at that time, and he helped to revitalize his men by feeding them sauerkraut and vinegar to help ward of scurvy, which was something he had learned from his mentor James Cook. Later on sailors would eat limes in the British Navy to ward off scurvy, hence the nickname limees. Bligh also helped to make his men happy by giving them a daily allowance of rum, which was important on a long sea voyage. Not one to be negligent for providing entertainment, Bligh hired the blind violinist Michael Bryne to seranade the men on board. So all in all, the historical record indicates that   Bligh was forward thinking commander in comparison to his contemporaries, and he most certaintly did not set out to become the tyrant. History would see things a bit differently, and the fact he was not much of a people person did not help matters along.

Lieutenant William Bligh served under Captain Cook on his last voyage, and during this expedition he had learned many navigational skills from this great sea captain. Bligh was a superb navigator and many of his maps and drawings of different islands were even used up until recent times before satellite maps became more prevalent, and allowed for the easier navigation of Pacific Islands. However, unlike the legendary Captain Cook that had a very personable, Bligh was more of an introvert and very rigid about living according to the rules of the British Royal Navy. Whereas Captain Cook could get away with this because of his charisma, when Bligh attempted to do many of the same things, he came across as a dictator and a harsh man.

The Bounty Reaches Tahiti In October 1788:

Unfortunately the HMAV Bounty reached Tahiti in October of 1788, which is the dormant season for the breadfruit plant. This set of events required that the HMAV Bounty had to stay five months longer than planned, which extended the amount of time the men were able to spend on the resplendent Tahiti. Just imagine if you are poor man in England living where it rains and is cold, plus you are not very attractive, and most women are not going to want to date you. Guess what guys: that was not a problem in 1788 Tahiti because the Tahitian women were beautiful and thought the white men’s looks were exotic and intriguing. Thus the men were able to cavort around on the island with beautiful women and eat all the fresh food they wanted. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out why many of the English men did not want to leave Tahiti, even if Lieutenant Bligh was less harsh than many commanders of his day. During this period the Bounty’s crew were able to eat fresh food and experience the beauty of the South Seas, which made it very hard for few of them to leave. Three men tried to escape and were flogged as an example for the crew.

Bligh realized he had lost the discipline of his crew, so on the return voyage he used his harsh language and commands to try and get everyone back in line. Bligh was forced according to British naval law to flog three men who tried to escape, but by and large he did not use flogging as discipline, even though the 1935 and 1962 films would like us to believe otherwise. However, his harsh mouth and temper were annoying to the men, and especially Christian who was beginning to have a falling out with his one time friend.

From this point onward Bligh tried to clamp down on the Bounty’s crew in a futile attempt to regain discipline . Bligh attempted to tighten discipline with daily verbal attacks and rages, which were beginning to grate the nerves of many men who had just left the lush and hospitable Tahiti. What did they have to look forward to back in England? Just think about it from this perspective and consider why they viewed Bligh as tyrant: he was taking them from a place that people even have a hard time leaving today.  After World War II a lot of American GI’s also were forced to leave Tahiti, and some were not happy about it.  Actually, the American GI’s operated a base in Bora Bora, but the culture and hospitality of this island is comparable to that of Tahiti, so you can see why people never want to leave these islands.

The Mutiny

On the voyage back Bligh’s verbal outbursts became too much for Christian to bare, which resulted in the mutiny on April 28, 1789. Christian decided to put Bligh adrift with the eighteen loyalist men who fit in the boat with him, but quite a few more wanted to go with Bligh and simply could not fit in the small boat. Bligh was a superb navigator who was able to take his men on a voyage from Tofua near the present day Tonga.  However, the natives of Tofua were very hostile to Bligh and his men upon landing to replenish supplies, so they sailed for two months straight without stopping all the way to Timor, which is the present day island of Jakarta. Bligh navigated from memory and rationed a two week’s supply of food to last two months. How many British navigators of the day could accomplish this feat? Bligh was one of the few who could, and that is remarkable in itself. Bligh did an admirable job of navigating the Bounty’s launch and helping his crew stay alive, except for one man who was murdered by the natives on the island of Tofua. It was not until Bligh and the loyalists reached Timor where several became ill and passed because of flies that hovered around the Dutch canals on the island, which transmitted malaria to the populace.

Meanwhile, Fletcher Christian and the mutineers tried to settle Christmas Island, and eventually ended up going back to Tahiti to pick u women and supplies.  Eventually the men who went with Christian decided to sail on to Pitcairn’s Island in January of 1790, which was their final hope after several failed attempts at trying to settle on other small islands.  Unlike the other island the mutineers tried to start settlements on, Pitcairn was ideal because it was uninhabited and mischarted in the British naval maps.

Bligh remarkably made it back to England just two months after Christian and his crew settled on Pitcairn, which is all quite interesting timeline wise. Bligh endeavored to clear his name back in England by showing he was brave and looked after his loyal crew that accompanied him in the Bounty’s launch between Tofua and Timor.  The HMAV Pandora was sent to apprehend the mutineers, and as legend would have it, the name bounty hunters came from the hunt for the mutineers.

The HMAV Pandora Embarks To Capture The Mutineers:

In 1791 the loyalists and mutineers who remained on Tahiti were apprehended and brought back to England for trial by Captain Edwards, who commanded the HMAV Pandora.  Those who had claimed not to take part in the mutiny were still imprisoned along with the mutineers in a small part of the ship referred to as the Pandora’s Box.  The Pandora was damaged when sailing through the Great Barrier Reef, and several of the men who had been on the Bounty drowned along with this ship.  Captain Edwards of the Pandora was forced to also make the trip to Timor, as Bligh had, with several smaller boats.  One of the boats that made this journey was a small but sturdy vessel that men who had been loyal to Bligh had constructed before being apprehended by Captain Edwards in Tahiti.  These loyalists had planned on sailing back to England, but Captain Edwards was only acting on orders of assuming everyone was guilty until the court martial proceedings in England had taken place.

The Court Marshall of The Mutineers

The court martial of the alledged mutineers and accused mutineers took place a year later, and a few claimed Bligh was a harsh tyrant in order to keep themselves from hanging. Peter Heywood had been a midshipman on the Bounty and had attempted to foil the mutiny against Bligh, but in the confusion that day he was not able to reach the deck before Bligh and the loyalists were set adrift in the launch. The haze of the day’s events, and Heywood’s not being on deck to beg to go with Bligh, resulted in the lietaunant believeing Heywood was a mutineer, but during his court martial he claimed he was not. Also, Heywood used his family connections, as did the Christian family, to clear relatives names, and labeled Bligh as a harsh dictator. Forever Bligh’s image was changed in history, but Caroline Alexander’s book The Bounty is a good place to learn the truth behind these events. Bligh was probably a bit dictatorial in his words and actions, but the historical record has shown that most commanders of his day were as such, and he was actually more humane than some.  It was his disposition and personality that rubbed people the wrong way more than anything, and in the end he just did not inspire respect and awe the way Captain Cook had.

Christian Hides On Pitcairn Island:

Fletcher Christian and nine mutineers decided to accompany him to their final hiding place on the rocky and mischarted Pitcairn’s Island, so named after a midshipman who spotted it back in 1766 midshipman Robert Pitcairn on the HMAV Swallow. Did you know there is a name connection between Pitcairn Island and Pitcairn, Pennsylvania? Robert Pitcairn was the son of the Major John Pitcairn, who was British officer that died at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Since this island named in Pitcairn’s honor was mischarted it was thus isolated and the perfect hiding place for the mutineers.

Christian crashed the Bounty against the rugged and rocky shores of Pitcairn and then set the ship on fire on January 23, 1790, which is a national holiday on Pitcairn, Norfolk Island, and is also celebrated by many Bounty enthusiasts and mutineer descendants around the world by burning replicas of the Bounty. Christian set off a catalyst of events that isolated the mutineers from the world for eighteen years, that is, until the American whaling ship Topaz landed on the island in 1808.

In 1793 five of the mutineers including Fletcher Christian had been murdered after one of the Europeans had decided to steal the wife of one of the Tahitian men. In revenge the wives of the murdered mutineers killed their male Tahitian compatriots, which left four European men and several Tahitian women. Two of the four remaining men eventually died because of arguments and suicides over liquor. The remaining two men, Edward Young and John Adams (Alexander Smith), decided to use the Bounty’s Bible and teach everyone how to read and write. When the American Folger of the Topaz visited Tahiti in 1808 he was surprised to see an island where people spoke English and looked Polynesian. Today a small number of the mutineers descendants live on Pitcairn Island, but a larger number live on Nolfolk Island and in New Zealand.  There are even some descendants of the mutineers that are now living in the United States, and a few have made their way back to the United Kingdom. Interest in story behind Bounty continues to grow through the centuries, and one of the best places to learn about this history is by reading a few books on the subject. I highly recommend Caroline Alexander’s The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty and Glynn Christian’s Fragile Paradise: The Discovery of Fletcher Christian, Bounty Mutineer

8 responses to The History Behind The Movie: Mutiny On the Bounty

  1. This is a truly intriguing story. After reading your article, it strikes me that perhaps it is not so much that Bligh was a bad leader, but that the discipline of a ship was much less attractive a lifestyle than what was offered by the Polynesian culture in a hospitable climate. The work ethic really only makes sense in those environments where we must work in order to survive.

    • However, it is also true life in Tahiti was far more alluring than life in England. Not really a far fetched idea to realize most people would not want to go back to England.

  2. Bligh was definitely not a good leader. He strived to emulate his role model Captain Cook, but he had a certain charisma that Bligh could never achieve. There is also another theory, and one that I have always found quite intriguing. Bligh might have been obsessed with Christian and jealous of the relationships that he developed with women in Tahiti, and eventually deciding to marry one. This is one theory that makes a lot of sense to me because at one time Bligh and Christian had been friends, and then he turns around and starts accusing his one time friend of stealing coconuts.

    • Well, even without an obsession, sometimes a friendship is altered and destroyed when one of the two friends marries. So that could be part of it. But it might not have been the fact that he married so much as that he married outside his culture.

      • Bligh was disconcerted with how Christian took to the Tahitian culture, that part is very much true. It is just a theory that Bligh might have been in love with Christian, but I do find this theory interesting. One Bounty enthusiast actually wrote a book about things being from this angle, which would explain why Bligh was harsher on Christian than the others with his words. I think Bligh is interesting and I admire him for many things, such as his navigation skills. He was not the tyrant the early Hollywood movies made him out to be, but he did lack certain interpersonal skills that made him not as admired as a leader. Bligh also was mutinied against a few times later in the future, and the most famous occasion is when he was governor of New South Whales and was overthrown in the Rum Rebellion, which is similar to our Whiskey Rebellion in some ways. You might find that aspect of the story interesting.

        • Yes, I do find that interesting. I don’t actually know anything about the Rum Rebellion in New South Wales. That would make a great topic for another Historia Obscura article: “William Bligh and the Rum Rebellion.” If you write it, I will read it!

          • I know a rough amount about the Rum Rebellion, but I think I will have to brush up on the subject to write on depth about it. I will look into doing this.

  3. Thank you for this post. I am going through each and every Bounty film right now, for the first time. It’s always fascinating to see what different productions do to the story (I’ve done the same with Alice in Wonderland and Wyatt Earp).

    This article adds some good historical background. Hollywood indeed get carried away. The book I would like to read now is the one that paints a picture from the native’s point of view.

    1) What did the indigenous culture think of the white man continuously coming back to remake the same picture over and over? Did some of the participants appear in more than one bounty film?

    2) Was the culture truly as as happy and carefree as portrayed? Or were they ‘suffering’ in some manner even before being discovered, albeit health issues, social issues, Was it paradise?

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