Remarkable Ship in History: HMS Bounty


HMS Bounty was originally a merchant ship known as Bethia, built by Blaydes Shipyard in Kingston upon Hull, East Yorkshire, England in 1784. The ship was relatively small at 215 tons, she was 90 feet 10 inches long with a beam of 24 feet 4 inches and a draft of 11 feet 4 inches. She had no superstructures; all accommodations and facilities were below deck. Her three masts varied in height from 48 to 59 feet. Under the bowsprit there was a figurehead portraying a woman in a riding habit. On 23 May 1787, the ship was purchased, refitted, and renamed Bounty to honour the patronage of the King by the Royal Navy.

The ship was purchased by the Admiralty for a voyage into the deep Pacific. The order for this expedition had been prompted by an interest of the British authorities in the West Indies of a proposal to introduce the Tahitian breadfruit to the colonies in the hope that they would grow well throughout the year there and become a cheap source of food for the slaves workers on the sugar plantations. On 16 August 1787, with the support and recommendation of Joseph Banks, Lieutenant William Bligh, at the age of 33, was appointed to command the ship. Bligh had become renowned for both his skills in navigation and his knowledge of the islands in the Pacific, after a career that included a tour as sailing master of James Cook’s Resolution during Cook’s third and final voyage from 1775 to 1779. To sail through the Pacific successfully, Bligh was aware that the ship he was now assigned to would need some alterations and he immediately ensured that these were performed. The Bethia was restructured to hold the forthcoming cargo of breadfruit. The sail area was shortened to withstand the expected intense winds and cannons were placed for possible conflict. The ship’s complement was 46 men: a single commissioned officer (Bligh), 43 other Royal Navy personnel and two civilian botanists.

On 23 December 1787, HMS Bounty sailed from Portsmouth, Spithead, and made its way to Tenerife. Bligh was concerned for the welfare of his crew and he began to introduce plans to ensure that they remained in good health. He introduced a new and humane watch system, which would give the men four days on and eight hours off, to the men of the Bounty, Bligh was a harsh and cruel taskmaster. During the outward voyage, Bligh demoted Sailing Master John Fryer, replacing him with Fletcher Christian.

Bounty reached Tahiti on 26 October 1788, after ten months at sea. Whilst the accumulation of breadfruit seedlings had only taken six weeks to complete, the departure of the Bounty was delayed by five months. The crew had succumbed to the climate and beauty of the area, as well as the hospitality of the native people. Bligh became engrossed in his study of the island, its people, and their culture.

Bounty set sail with her breadfruit cargo on 4 April 1789, but tensions were becoming heightened. The climate was humid, and the ship had become more cramped as the breadfruit had taken up the space. Bligh believed that it had been from having to leave the paradise of Tahiti that had caused a fragmentation of order among his crew. Some 1,300 miles (2,100 km) west of Tahiti, near Tonga, mutiny broke out on 28 April 1789. Of the 42 men on board aside from Bligh and Christian, 22 joined Christian in mutiny, two were passive, and 18 remained loyal to Bligh. Despite strong words and threats heard on both sides, the ship was taken bloodlessly and apparently without struggle by any of the loyalists except Bligh himself. The mutineers dragged up Bligh to the deck of the ship and despite his pleas to Christian for mutual forgiveness, he and other crew members who decided to remain loyal to Bligh were cast adrift in the Pacific Ocean. By remarkable seamanship, however, Bligh, and his men reached Timor in the East Indies on June 14, 1789, after a voyage of about 3,600 miles using only a sextant and a pocket watch. Bligh returned to England and soon sailed again to Tahiti, from where he successfully transported breadfruit trees to the West Indies.

Meanwhile, Christian and his men attempted to establish themselves on the island of Tubuai. Unsuccessful in their colonizing effort, the Bounty sailed north to Tahiti, and 16 crew members decided to stay there, despite the risk of capture by British authorities. Christian and eight others, together with six Tahitian men, a dozen Tahitian women, and a child, decided to search the South Pacific for a safe haven. On 15 January 1790, the Bounty settled on Pitcairn Island, an isolated and uninhabited volcanic island more than 1,000 miles east of Tahiti. To prevent the ship’s detection, and anyone’s possible escape, the ship was burned after stripped of all that could be use on 23 January 1790 in what is now called Bounty Bay. It is known however, that a little later some of the mutineers returned to Tahiti and were captured by the men of the HMS Pandora and brought to trial in England where three were hanged. A British ship searched for Christian and the others but did not find them. It is not clear what happened to Fletcher Christian. It is thought that he, along with three of the other mutineers, may have been killed by the Tahitians.

In February 1808, nearly twenty years after the mutiny, Captain Folger of the American vessel, the Topaz, landed at Pitcairn’s Island, with the surprise of finding it inhabited. There, he met Alexander Smith (who was also known by the alias John Adams) the sole survivor of the mutineers, who was now the head of the community of the remote island. In 1825, a British ship arrived and formally granted Adams amnesty, and he served as patriarch of the Pitcairn community until his death in 1829. Today, there are still a few dozen live on Pitcairn Island, and all but a handful are descendants of the Bounty mutineers.

In 1957, photographer and explorer Luis Marden made the extraordinary discovery of the remains of the Bounty, still visible in shallow water off the shores of Pitcairn, more or less undisturbed for a century and a half. Although some artifacts from the wreck were removed, there are still remains that can be seen by divers willing to risk the dangerous swells of the bay. Other artifacts are on display at the community hall on Pitcairn.

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