Mutiny on the Bounty: the incredible tale of how castaway captain William Bligh made it back to England

The mutiny on the Bounty is a much-fabled crime, but what set-adrift commander William Bligh achieved next is the truly legendary part of the tale. Pat Kinsella explains everything you need to know about the mutiny and Bligh's extraordinary return journey to England for BBC History Revealed

Painting of Bligh and those loyal to him being cast adrift from the Bounty in a small boat

Just before the sun rose on 28 April 1789, Commanding Lieutenant William Bligh of the HMAV Bounty was woken at cutlass point. The weapon was held by crewmember Fletcher Christian. Bligh was forcibly relieved of his command by a mob of mutineers, and bundled rudely onto a seven-metre-long boat.

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Eighteen loyal crewmembers were crammed alongside Bligh in a vessel designed to carry a maximum of 15 over short distances. They were given four cutlasses, a quadrant and compass, 28 gallons of water, 150lbs of bread, 32lbs of salted pork, six quarts of rum and six bottles of wine, and cast adrift on the Pacific Ocean.

Two and a quarter centuries on, the mutiny on the Bounty is part of naval folklore and, thanks to Hollywood, Christian is regarded as a dashing rebel (played on screen by leading men such as Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson) while Bligh is remembered as a spiteful tyrant.

The truth is more complicated, but it’s what happened immediately after the mutiny that underpins Bligh’s legacy in maritime history, if not in popular culture.

Facts about the Mutiny on the Bounty

When: 28 April 1789

Where: At sea 30 nautical miles from Tonga

What happened: William Bligh is relieved of command of the Bounty in a bloodless coup and set adrift with 18 men who remained loyal to him

What was the Bounty‘s mission: Though armed, the Bounty was a merchant vessel; Bligh was sailing her to the West Indies from Tahiti (then Otaheite), where he had collected a cargo of breadfruit plants

Who led the mutiny: Fletcher Christian, the Master’s Mate. Post mutiny, he settled on Pitcairn Island. He married a chief’s daughter, and had several children. He likely died there, but is also rumoured to have returned to England

What happened to Bligh: He led the small boat he had been cast adrift in on an incredible journey across more than 3,500 nautical miles of ocean to make landfall in Timor. He then carried on to Batavia, where he secured passage back to England to report the mutiny. He would have a distinguished naval career – though he suffered another major mutiny while Governor of New South Wales, Australia

What became of the Bounty: She was burned when the mutineers reached Pitcairn

What was the fate of the mutineers: The ten who were discovered were brought back to England where they were court martialled

What happened during the mutiny?

The mutiny was bloodless, but more members of the Bounty’s 44-man crew actually sided with their Captain than with Christian. Several left on the Bounty had to be physically restrained from joining Bligh in his apparently doomed vessel, which was so heavily overloaded that seawater lapped over the gunnels and it looked set to sink at any moment.

Whether these men were truly loyal to their Captain, however, or afraid of the consequences of being associated with the mutiny, is debatable. The ship was on a peaceful mission – to collect breadfruit from Tahiti as a potential source of cheap food for slaves – but Britain’s Royal Navy was on a permanent war-footing throughout the late 19th century. If the mutineers ever returned to England, they were assured a trip to the gallows for treason.

Despite his enduring reputation, Bligh was a comparatively moderate disciplinarian for his time, but he was notoriously short-fused and infamous for launching vicious verbal assaults on people (some historians have suggested he may have had Tourette’s). A number of the Bounty’s crewmembers passionately disliked their Captain – including some who ended up on the launch with him after the mutiny, such as the Sailing Master John Fryer, who Bligh had demoted during the voyage, installing Christian as Acting Lieutenant in his place.

Bligh’s relationship with Christian, who had served under Bligh on several previous journeys, was complex. The two men were friends, but on the Bounty, Bligh constantly berated Christian, humiliating him in front of the crew and ultimately pushing him to breaking point.

As the launch was cut free from the Bounty, Bligh stared his old friend in the eye and reminded him: “You have dandled my children upon your knee…”

“I am in hell,” was Christian’s telling, emotional response.

Other mutineers were less conflicted. “Huzzah for Otaheite!” was the last shout from the renegade crew of the Bounty, as it made for the horizon. Otaheite was the contemporary name for Tahiti – the lovesick sailors were heading back to their native wives. While waiting for the breadfruit crop to reach a stage where it could be transported, Bligh’s men had spent five months enjoying the island’s laidback lifestyle and the company of its women. Returning to life on a boat was never going to be easy.

Who was William Bligh?

The abandonment of Bligh and almost half the crew on a dangerously overloaded small boat in the middle of the ocean could have been a death sentence, but the mutineers probably assumed they would make for nearby Tonga. If so, they gravely underestimated their erstwhile Captain, who had no intention of submitting so weakly to life as a castaway.

Bligh began his seafaring career as Ship’s Boy and Captain’s Servant on HMS Monmouth, aged seven. He served with distinction under Captain Cook in peacetime and Admiral Nelson at war, and was, by all accounts, a brilliant navigator. Even so, heading for Timor in Indonesia (the closest European settlement) by crossing over 3,500 nautical miles of ocean in a barely sea-worthy boat with no charts or marine chronometer was audacious in the extreme.

Their first stop was Tofua, a tiny island 30 nautical miles away, where they attempted to augment their meagre rations. The island’s hostile inhabitants attacked them, however, and John Norton, Quartermaster on the Bounty, was killed. They were chased from the island by several canoes, but managed to distract their pursuers by lobbing clothes overboard.

Still hopelessly under provisioned – but with one less mouth to feed – Bligh then went west towards the northern tip of Australia. En route, he led the first European passage through the islands of Fiji.

A meticulous cartographer, Bligh sketched the coastline of the Yasawa archipelago but, nervous after the Tofua attack and having previously heard rumour of cannibalism in Fiji, he opted against stopping.

Negotiating the big swell of the open South Pacific in a boat where the freeboard (amount of wriggle room) was no bigger than a man’s hand, was a nerve-destroying nightmare of unimaginable proportions.

All hands had to bail constantly to keep the boat afloat and, to avoid capsizing, the Helmsman’s concentration couldn’t waver for a second. Big seas, storms and torrential rain assailed them. Constantly soaked and exposed to the wind, the men were perpetually freezing – but the fresh rainwater did keep them alive.

How did Bligh and the castaways survive?

For a month, the men lived on a few ounces of bread a day and the occasional spoon of wine, but on 29 May they landed on – and named – Restoration Island, off Australia’s east coast. Still 1,300 nautical miles from Timor, they fell upon the beach like men embracing salvation.

Bligh and the survivors are received by the Governor of Timor on a beach
Bligh and the survivors are received by the Governor of Timor on 14 June 1789 (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

While island hopping north along the Great Barrier Reef, Bligh narrowly escaped a second mutiny when an altercation with Carpenter William Purcell erupted over food. It rapidly escalated until Bligh threatened Purcell with a cutlass. John Fryer and William Cole also became involved, but eventually the crew capitulated to Bligh’s need to be obeyed. Fryer later said Bligh “was as tyrannical in his temper in the boat as in the ship.”

With the boat barely afloat and morale sinking, Bligh successfully located Cape York. They sailed through the Endeavour Strait and out into the Arafura Sea in early June, and reached Coupang, a Dutch settlement on Timor, two weeks later. When they finally came ashore, 47 days after leaving Tofua, the crew were in a desperate condition, many unable to walk. David Nelson, the botanist, soon died from a fever. Bligh, desperate to reach Batavia and then Europe, bought a 10-metre schooner, HMS Resource, and the survivors set off on the 1,800-mile journey on 20 August.

In Surabaya, another altercation with his crew resulted in Bligh arresting Fryer and Purcell at bayonet point, and having them put in irons. However, on 1 October 1789, the unhappy ensemble finally arrived in Batavia. Almost immediately, Bligh departed for Europe accompanied by John Samuel and John Smith.

A court marshal cleared Bligh of blame for the loss of the Bounty, and the HMS Pandora was sent to hunt down the mutineers, many of whom had met grizzly ends. Of the survivors,
ten were brought back to England, where four were acquitted, three pardoned and three hanged – a conclusion that Bligh missed because he’d been dispatched back to Tahiti on a second breadfruit mission.

The mutiny on the Bounty and Bligh’s subsequent achievement in navigating a tiny, crowded launch over 3,500 miles from Tofua to Coupang, cemented his name next to those of Captain James Cook and Admiral Horatio Nelson as the most famous naval men of their generation. A plaudit even Bligh might have considered as compensation for being posthumously painted as a big-screen villain.

Bligh’s incredible journey

Bligh was sent on the Bounty mission because he was one of the few naval officers with hands-on experience of that region of the South Pacific. When Bligh and his crew went to Tahiti, it was just the third time Europeans had visited the islands. Fiji was completely unexplored when Bligh sailed non-stop through the islands during his small-boat trip.

  1. Otaheite (Tahiti)
    The Bounty’s primary destination, to collect breadplants as a source of cheap food. Discipline begins to break down here, as some sailors take native wives.
  2. Tofua (Tonga)
    This small island, 30 nautical miles from the scene of the mutiny, is Bligh’s first stop. Although today part of the ‘Friendly Islands’, the castaways are attacked by locals here, and John Norton is killed.
  3. Yasawa Islands (Fiji)
    Leading the first-ever European boat through Fiji, Bligh avoids landfall because of reports of cannibalism on the islands.
  4. Restoration Island (Australia)
    A remote sandbar, Restoration has the basic requirements to sustain life. Upon reaching this point, on the Great Barrier Reef, Bligh knows the worst is behind them.
  5. Cape York (Australia)
    Rounding this cape and going through the Endeavour Strait means that Bligh is on course for the Dutch East Indies, where he will find European settlement and a lift home to report the mutiny.
  6. Coupang (Indonesia)
    A remote Dutch settlement in Timor, where Bligh and the surviving loyalists make landfall, signalling the end of their incredible small-boat journey. Bligh purchases a boat to get them to Batavia.
  7. Surabaya (Indonesia)
    Scene of yet another confrontation between Bligh and his crew, which results in Fryer and Purcell being clapped in irons and thrown in the hold.
  8. Batavia (Indonesia)
    A major port (now Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies, where Bligh secures passage back to England. Three loyal crewmembers die here: Thomas Hall, Peter Linkletter and William Elphinstone.

Pat Kinsella is a freelance writer specialising in historical adventurers and expeditions

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This content first appeared in the July 2014 issue of BBC History Revealed