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Pitcairn Islands Study Center

The Mutiny's Cause: A New Analysis

Painting of the Mutiny on Bounty

Mutiny on HMS Bounty

From the 'Bounty Chronicles' (by John Hagan), 28 original oil paintings depicting characters and scenes of the HMAV Bounty. Currently unavailable.

After nearly two centuries and a decade the mutiny that took place on HMS Bounty on April 28, 1789, continues to command attention. In terms of mutinies it was not exceptional; as far as after-the-fact analyses are concerned, it is the most studied of all mutinies. Questions that may never be answered about Lt. William Bligh, Bounty's commander, and the ship's crew continue unabated.

Several facts that bear on the mutiny are generally agreed by all authorities:

  • Captain Bligh was a harsh disciplinarian, a man of flaring temper, seemingly mindless of the cut of his words on others. His civility, though, returned as quickly as his temper flared.

  • Once at sea on April 4, 1789, after gathering the breadfruit plants on Tahiti, most of the ship's crew sorely missed the feminine companionship they had enjoyed at the hands of the Tahitian women, and they sought ways they could influence the Bounty's return to the island.

  • Royal Navy rules of the time called for blind obedience of a ship captain's orders. As the Bounty left Tahiti both officers and men began to ignore or disobey their captain's orders.

The incident that is most often cited as the act that set off the mutiny was Bligh's show of unusually bad temper over what he supposed was the theft of coconuts from a pile kept between two of the Bounty's guns. Indeed, his ranting words to his officers about the matter are characteristic, with "damned hound," "scoundrels," "thieves," and "rascals" predominating.

While the incident may have played a role in the mutiny, its leader, Fletcher Christian, had already made plans for desertion rather than mutiny. He had secured a large plank and scant provisions with which he intended to jump overboard and attempt to reach a nearby island. Christian was psychologically ill over the public insults of a captain who had long been his friend, and the loss of his Tahitian mistress.

Few if any scholars cite the fortress mentality that must surely have afflicted Bligh as he put to sea from Tahiti after gathering the breadfruit plants. He had a largely hostile crew, no commissioned officer except himself on board, and no marine guards to assure that the captain was protected. The requests for a fellow commissioned officer and marine guards, as well as that he be promoted to Captain, be given a larger ship, and be provided a purser for the Bounty had all been denied before he left England. Despite these disappointments, Bligh had moved from one stage of success to another throughout the voyage. He had been most considerate for the health and welfare of his crew, and by his concern he would be judged a kindly man. Only one punishment is noted on the outward voyage. When it was administered, Bligh recorded in his log, "Until this afternoon I had hoped I could have performed this voyage without punishment to anyone." One seaman died, and the alcoholic surgeon, Huggen, died in a permanent drunken stupor. No lives were lost in the mutiny itself.

In the eighteen months prior to April 27, 1789, Bligh had ordered that only five of the crew be flogged. In terms of Royal Navy punishment of that day these were mild affairs, and not all the culprits had been punished as fully as they might have been. But as the voyage progressed, and particularly after leaving Tahiti, a sense of isolation from and insolence by his crew seemed to grow on Bligh. Though a man of supreme confidence in himself, he could not have helped, given the circumstances, feeling extreme frustration at the increasing unreliability of his officers and anger over the quite obvious thievery of the coconuts on the afternoon of April 27.

A glaring omission in Bligh's account of the events of April 27, a startling revelation that is clearly recorded in Master John Fryer's and Bosun's Mate James Morrison's accounts of the day opens a new field of speculation as to the "trigger" for the mutiny. Both men record that Bligh did not appear on deck before noon on April 27.

At dawning each day Royal Navy ships of that time always went to General Quarters -- guns were armed and manned, and lookouts sent aloft and to the ship's quarters (each compass point on deck), and the captain was called on deck as set down in his Standing Orders. Until the lookouts could report that they could "see a grey goose at a mile" the ship remained at General Quarters. Only when all lookouts gave this report could the crew stand down from General Quarters and go to breakfast.

Though the Bounty was on a peaceful mission which might not have led the captain to insist on the arming of the guns, he would have still followed the lookout procedure in the waters of the Friendly Islands, largely uncharted and thus uncertain as they then were.

The sunrise lookout routine of April 27 is not noted in any of the three accounts, Bligh's, Fryer's or Morrison's. But the two men note in their journals that their captain did not appear on deck before noon! Why would a stern disciplinarian like Bligh fail to be on deck for the dawn lookout procedure, and not appear until midday? And why was he so radically out of sorts when he did appear, ranting as he did about the coconuts?

The question has been put to Royal Navy officers, those whose answers might be expected to be closest to what actually happened.

Says one, "No captain worth his salt would fail to appear on deck before noon without very good reason, and Captain Bligh was very much worth his salt. So, was he severely ill? Nothing short of a broken leg would have kept a commanding officer below in a ship under sail, and remember that Bligh had little trust or confidence in Fryer, his sailing master, or Christian, his second-in-command.

"One reason remains; he had a staggering hang-over, and when he did at last appear on deck he had an almighty bad temper, and he took it out on his subordinates."

Aboard Royal Navy ships of the time only two items were kept under lock and key: arms and rum. Obviously arms, because of the danger of falling into the wrong hands. Rum because its issue was strictly laid down by regulations. The full strength rum of Bligh's day has been likened to dynamite, not to be compared to the rum one buys in a wine shop.

Navy rum, as distilled, was more powerful than wine shop rum. The issue of rum in Bligh's time was strictly controlled and allowances measured. Only one person was free of any control -- the captain. He could have as much as he wanted, stored in his own cabin.

One need not wonder why Bligh would have succumbed to a bout of heavy drinking. He was a man beleaguered in his own ship. He knew that many in his crew were dead set against his carrying them away from their Tahitian sweethearts. Instances of insolence and insubordination had proliferated to the extent that he did not know who he could trust.

It is true that Bligh had not been known as a heavy drinker, at least not publicly. There are, however, numerous well-known cases of secret alcoholism. General Gordon of Khartoum had frenzied bouts of drinking, and the cut of his tongue then would rival Bligh's. Secret drinking need surprise no one.

But instances are many of Bligh's undoubted leadership and self control in times of stress and crisis. How does one account for such in the face of heavy drinking? Again, naval officers note that there have been many naval commanders who drank heavily, some bad tempered with it too, who, the moment a war patrol started, would not touch a drop. These stood the strain of command through battle, air attacks and minefields. Back in harbour, with tension eased and crisis over, one would not recognise the same man.

And there have been those who drink, either secretly or publicly excessively, who after a court martial or other traumatic experience, cut out drinking entirely and never touch it afterwards. Bligh seemingly did just that after his traumatic experience of the mutiny and the open boat voyage. Afterward we hear less of the ranting and roaring Captain Bligh who previously was sometimes beside himself with rage and temper.

Strong drink may well have been Bligh's weakness in his Bounty days. Certainly it was not women, else he would have easily fallen to the charms of those unspoiled, dusky Tahitian beauties. How else account for the great seaman, the strict disciplinarian Bligh, with his ship at sea, with no confidence in two officers, staying below in his small cabin from daybreak to noon (his own great cabin having been given over to housing breadfruit plants)?

No wonder the man ranted and roared over trifles, and was so different when he sobered up. Away from that ferocious rum, with a crisis to deal with, he was a different man.

So far as the mutiny is concerned, it was a small incident in the annals of the Royal Navy. Of the many books written about Bligh and the mutiny, few are constructive, most add to the confusion. Bligh gave his own reason for the mutiny, and it is the only one which will stand up to scrutiny. The Admiralty absolved him of any blame, and he survived adverse criticism, ending his distinguished career as Vice Admiral of the Blue.

©Herbert Ford, Director, Pitcairn Islands Study Center, Pacific Union College

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