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Mutiny on the High Seas - Settlement of Pitcairn Island

Tale of the Pitcairn Islanders

Travels In Time

Some of the smallest places have the most interesting stories. Located in the Pacific Ocean approximately midway between Panama and New Zealand, the Pitcairns consist of four small, volcanic islands: Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno. Their total area is only 18 square miles (47 square km), and only the second largest, Pitcairn, is inhabited. As an Overseas Territory of the UK the islanders have their own constitution, live by their own by-laws, and fly their own flag. With a population of only about 50, they constitute the smallest governmental jurisdiction in the world.

The islanders have enough natural resources to sustain a largely self-sufficient existence. Pitcairn has rich farmland producing a variety of fruits and vegetables. Fish and lobster are plentiful. The islanders sell souvenirs and postage stamps to passengers on the handful of cruise ships that visit Pitcairn each year. Yet in many respects life is hard. They have diesel generated electricity only ten hours a day. Communication is mainly by word of mouth or two-way radio. No doubt every adult on Pitcairn must work hard to make life possible.

These facts alone would make them unique, but the islanders have another distinction that sets them apart. Many of them are direct descendents of the mutineers who seized control of the HMS Bounty in 1789 --- an event which has been the subject of three major Hollywood films and has captured the imagination of millions.

The Mutiny

Mutiny on the Bounty
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Commanding Officer Lieutenant Bligh and his followers are cast adrift after the mutiny. With only a quadrant, a compass, and the stars, Bligh managed to navigate his way 3,618 nautical miles to Timor in the Dutch East Indies. The voyage took 47 days. All but one of the 18 men survived. Whatever his shortcomings may have been, William Bligh went on to have a distinguished career in the Royal Navy and was later appointed governor of New South Wales in 1805. Painting by Robert Dodd.

In April of 1789 the Bounty was sailing away from Tahiti, where the crew had spent five months gathering breadfruit plants to be used experimentally as food for the crop slaves of the British Empire. They had, in fact, gathered 1,015 breadfruit plants, so many that 34 year-old Commanding Lieutenant William Bligh had given up his captain's cabin to accommodate the plants and moved into cramped quarters near his officers and men. Later, in his own narrative of the mutiny, Bligh noted that during their time on Tahiti many of the crew had formed "connections" with the native women and had become equally fond of the idyllic lifestyle of the Tahitians. By all accounts many of the crew had gotten themselves Tahitian tattoos. Master's Mate and Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian had become infatuated with a Tahitian woman named Maimiti. After their departure on April 4th, tensions quickly escalated between Bligh and Christian, who would lead the mutiny before the month was out.

Attempting to determine the rightness or wrongness of the mutineer's cause seems futile. Discipline in the 18th century British Navy was swift, harsh, and often brutal. It may be that Captain Bligh was very typical of a naval officer of his time, or it may be that he relished his role as disciplinarian a little too much for the crew to bear. No doubt their newfound fascination with life on Tahiti was a contributing factor. Bligh later described himself as being genuinely shocked when the mutiny occurred, and a good case can be made that as a commanding officer he was somewhat lenient. Others take the opposite view.

Whatever the merits of their cause, the mutineers roused Bligh in his cabin the morning of April 28, 1789, at the point of bayonets and led him to the deck in his nightshirt. It was a bloodless mutiny, but shortly thereafter Bligh found himself along with 18 men who had remained loyal to him in the Bounty's 23' launch and cast adrift 1300 miles west of Tahiti, near the island of Tofua, where they were attacked by natives who killed one of the men, quartermaster John Norton. Proving himself a gifted navigator, in only 47 days Bligh managed to cross 3,618 nautical miles to finally reach the port of Batavia in Timor (present day Jakarta). All of his remaining men were still alive, but several died of disease while awaiting transport back to Britain. Bligh was eventually acquitted of any wrongdoing in the loss of the Bounty.

Next Steps for the Mutineers

Mutiny on the Bounty
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Use the large image viewer to see the voyages of the Bounty before and after the mutiny, as well as Bligh's voyage to Timor after being cast adrift in the ship's boat..

The red line shows the voyage of the Bounty before the mutiny. The yellow line shows its course after the mutiny. The green line shows Bligh's course on his voyage in the open launch to Timor.

Having rid themselves of Bligh, the mutineers set course for the island of Tubuai, south of Tahiti, where they were terrorized by hostile natives for three months. They returned to Tahiti. Sixteen of his fellow mutineers elected to remain there despite the distinct possibility of one day being arrested and hung for participating in the mutiny. Four men loyal to Bligh for whom there had not been room in the launch were also set ashore. Christian now had a crew of only eight when he departed Tahiti. Six Tahitian men, eleven women, and one baby were also aboard. One of Christian's followers later claimed that the Tahitians were kidnapped in order to obtain the women. At any rate, the mutineers made the mistake of treating the Tahitian men as slaves, an error which would cost them dearly. With no specific objective beyond finding a safe haven from the British navy, they set sail in September of 1789, passing the Fiji and Cook Islands and finally rediscovering the island of Pitcairn the following January. Pitcairn seemed a good bet since it was obviously misplaced on the Royal Navy charts that they had on board.

Livestock and supplies were moved ashore, and on January 23, 1790, the HMS Bounty was set ablaze and sunk to the bottom of what is now Bounty Bay.

Early Life on Pitcairn

The new settlers found Pitcairn to be a most hospitable environment. There was plenty of land, food, and fresh water. The climate was agreeable. The had apparently eluded the navy. In fact, only one ship was ever dispatched to find them and bring them to justice. The HMS Pandora arrived in Tahiti in March, 1791. The four Bligh loyalists came aboard right away, and as they had feared ten of the mutineers were found and arrested in Tahiti. All fourteen were imprisoned on an improvised cell on the ship's deck. The Pandora departed in May of 1791 to find the Bounty but ran aground on a reef in the Torres Strait in August. It sank the following morning. The survivors took to the ship's boat and made a voyage to Timor not unlike the one Bligh had made to the same destination in 1789.

Those on Pitcairn Island knew nothing of these events. The future seemed bright for them. The mutineers settled in quickly, comfortable with the fact that they would live out their lives there. Several children were born. Ensuing events are shrouded in much mystery, but it's clear that it was not long before trouble descended upon this newfound paradise. One of the original mutineers, John Adams, gave accounts that indicated that Fletcher Christian began to display a dark and cruel side of his nature that would cost him the trust and friendship of those who had followed him to the island, describing Christian as cheerful but prone to retreat and "brood in a cave". The Haitian men soon began to resent their status as slaves and their very limited access to the women. All of the ingredients for conflict were present.

Mysteries Surrounding the Ensuing Chaos

The Hatian men finally revolted in October, 1793, and from here, the conflicting reports begin. Young described the coming days as being marred by "several waves of violence" in which the all of the Tahitian men and at least four of the original mutineers were killed, as well as Fletcher Christian. John Adams, however, gave multiple accounts regarding the death of Christian, sometimes claiming that he "committed suicide", at other times only that Christian died in a "massacre". Adams also reported that at one point the mutineers divided into parties and both set upon each other with murderous intentions at every opportunity. Their accounts also claim that some of the Haitian men had murdered each other. It may be that it simply is not possible to obtain a succinct chronology of such traumatic events, even from those who survived and played a part in them. But these were certainly dark times for the islanders.

After Christian's death Ned Young and John Adams assumed leadership of the settlement. Peace was again the order of the day until William McCoy learned to distill liquor from a native plant. The men began to drink incessantly, and their drunken behavior brought the women a great deal of suffering. They were already quite unhappy with the way they had been passed from one man to another as men were murdered or died. William McCoy died by falling from a cliff, drunk on his own alcohol. Some say he jumped. Although not on the previous level, chaos had returned to the island. By 1799 of the original Britons only Adams, Young, and a man named Matthew Quintal had survived. Quintal was a brutish man, however, and he had threatened to murder everyone on the island. Adams and Young got him drunk and killed him with a hatchet in order to prevent him from trying to do so.

Afterwards, Adams and Young turned to the ship's Bible for spiritual guidance. Young used the Bible to help Adams improve his reading and writing skills, and Adams began teaching the children to read. He continued to educate the women and children until his death in 1829. The capital of the modern Pitcairn Islands, Adamstown, is named after him. To this day, the islanders are a devoutly Christian community, even if no longer such regular church goers as they were in the past. They converted to Seventh Day Adventism after a successful missionary effort by that church in the 1890s. Ned Young died of asthma in 1800. Both Adams and Young have many descendents on Pitcairn and on Norfolk Island.

Contact With the Outside World

It was not until February of 1808 when the American trading ship Topaz arrived at Pitcairn and sent a boat ashore that anyone would make contact with the settlers. At least three ships had passed by over the years but none had made any attempt to communicate with them. Captain Mayhew Folger of the Topaz, however, sent part of his crew ashore for 10 hours. Adams was the only surviving member of the mutineers. Nine of the Haitian women were still alive, and there were a number of children. Adams was granted immunity for his part in the mutiny in 1825, and in 1838 the islands became part of the British Empire. By 1856 their population had swelled to almost 200, and the British government gave them Norfolk island to settle, leaving the Pitcairns uninhabited. Three years later, however, many of them returned.

Contact with the outside world remained sparse until the advent of modern communications. Visiting Pitcairn is still somewhat difficult. There is no airport, and Bounty Bay is shallow and only permits small vessels to approach the island. The islanders meet large ships in their small fleet of long boats to transfer goods to and from the island through the bay. Their recreational activities include fishing and swimming. There is only one paved road covering the 4 miles between the bay and Adamstown.

Nevertheless, interest in the people of the Pitcairn Islanders and their fascinating story remains very strong. You can learn more about them by reading the articles referenced below and by searching the web on your own. There is a wealth of available information published about Pitcairn's history and their current status as well.

Mutiny on the Bounty - Wikipedia
HMS Bounty - Wikipedia
William Bligh - Wikipedia
Pitcairn Islands - Wikipedia
Ned Young - Wikipedia
John Adams - Wikipedia
Fletcher Christian - Wikipedia
History of the Pitcairn Islands - Wikipedia
History of the Pitcairn Islands - Pacific Union College
Image Credits
Bligh and Loyalists Cast Adrift - Artist and Engraver Robert Dodd (1748–1816) - Wikimedia Commons
Map of Bounty Voyages - Wikimedia Commons
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