I have previously written about “legal pirates” who came across a spot of bother in the South Seas, and today I bring you another saga from the Pacific.
Yesterday, April 28, was the 224th anniversary of the mutiny on board the HMS [or HMAV] Bounty. This is an event that has fascinated people for generations. The accounts of the captain, William Bligh, have been published in various books, novels have been written, and several filmsmade on the subject.
My focus in researching this event, and those that followed over the past two centuries, was of course on law-related matters. But, as usual, these matters are inextricably tied to the story itself. So, let’s begin with a quick recap of the tale of the Bounty, its commander, and its crew.
The adventures of the Bounty
The Bounty was commissioned by the British Navy in 1787 and set sail for the South Pacific, where samples of breadfruit were to be collected and taken to Jamaica (apparently to help feed slaves working on plantations there). William Bligh was the commander of the ship and he selected Fletcher Christian to be the master’s mate. The Bounty arrived in Tahiti in late 1788. After spending several months on this beautiful tropical island, on April 4, 1789, the Bounty and crew departed for the journey to the West Indies. However, a few weeks into this voyage, Fletcher Christian led the now infamous mutiny on board the ship and Bligh and eighteen crew members were dispatched to the ship’s small launch to fend for themselves. (Bligh was allowed to take his logbook with him, which is now held by the British National Archives.)
Bligh’s subsequent 47-day journey to the Dutch East Indies in the 23-foot open boat is also famous. Nearly a year after the mutiny, he returned to England with the remaining crew: one man had been killed by inhabitants of the Friendly Islands, i.e. Tonga, and three more died in Timor following the voyage. Bligh reported all of the events to the Admiralty. The story of the Bounty became well-known in England due to Bligh publishing his account of the events in 1790.
The HMS Pandora was dispatched in 1790 on a quest to hunt down the Bounty mutineers and secure the return of the ship. Fourteen men were captured but the Bounty itself and several other mutineers (including Christian) were not found.
After another epic journey, during which the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef and sank, killing four of the prisoners, the mutineers were returned to England where they faced a court martial. (Bligh himself had previously been tried by the naval court for losing the Bounty, apparently a standard legal requirement in such situations, but was honorably acquitted in 1790.)
If any Person in or belonging to the Fleet shall make or endeavor to make any mutinous Assembly upon any Pretence whatsoever, every Person offending herein, and being convicted thereof by the Sentence of the Court Martial, shall suffer Death: and if any Person in or belonging to the Fleet shall utter any Words of Sedition or Mutiny, he shall suffer Death, or such other Punishment as a Court Martial shall deem him to deserve: and if any Officer, Mariner or Soldier in or belonging to the Fleet, shall behave himself with Contempt to his Superior Officer, such Superior Officer being in the execution of his Office, he shall be punished according to the Nature of his Offence by the Judgement of a Court Martial.
The naval court’s verdict in the cases of those accused of mutiny was delivered on September 18, 1792. Six of the men were convicted and four acquitted. Of the six who were convicted, two were immediately pardoned, while one was pardoned later. The remaining three men were hanged on October 29, 1792.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean…
While all of this was being played out, Fletcher Christian and eight other crewmen had continued their adventures in the South Pacific. These men had left sixteen people on Tahiti after the full group had tried to settle on nearby Tuabai but been run off the island by the locals. Two of those sixteen later died and the remainder were eventually picked up by the Pandora.
The nine remaining men, along with twelve Tahitian women, a baby, and six Polynesian men, had set off in search of somewhere to hide from the Royal Navy. This led them, in January 1790, to Pitcairn Island – a then uninhabitated island among a small group of islands about halfway between New Zealand and South America. This place had been discovered by explorers earlier, but had apparently been placed in an incorrect position on existing maps – an important point that Christian likely discovered only when he didn’t find the island where he thought it would be.
The mutineers and their companions settled in for the long haul. The Bounty was stripped of everything on board and the ship burned in what is now Bounty Bay. It wasn’t all utopic, however. The Tahitian men were treated like slaves and some were forced to share their wives with the mutineers, leading eventually to violence and murder. Following “Massacre Day,” September 20, 1793, just four European men remained alive along with ten women and their twenty-three children (all by the mutineers). Fletcher Christian himself had been shot dead. By 1800, John Adams was the sole male survivor of the original settlers.
However, the small community survived under the leadership of Mr. Adams (the capital, and only, town on the island later became “Adamstown”). The whereabouts of the island was next discovered in 1808 by an American whaling ship. Over the years, visitors came occasionally; some stayed. The population grew. Eventually, in 1856 the decision was made to emigrate, and all 194 of the Pitcairn islanders boarded a ship that took them to Norfolk Island; a former penal colony, now a self-governing territory of Australia. (This followed a previous attempt to emigrate to Tahiti in 1831 that did not go well for the Pitcairners). However, some of the islanders were apparently homesick, so sixteen members of the community returned to Pitcairn in 1858/59. They were followed by four additional families in around 1862.
Jumping ahead about 150 years…
Tomorrow I’ll publish the second installment of this post that covers the quite extraordinary trials of a group of Pitcairn islander men in the mid-2000s. The information that was brought to light about life on the island, and the legal arguments during the trials regarding British sovereignty and the applicable laws on Pitcairn, put this isolated place back into the public eye and generated widespread comment.