“Pride, Envy, Avarice; these are the sparks that have set on fire the hearts of all men.” – Dante Alighieri
In 1787 the HMAV Bounty set sail to Tahiti to collect breadfruit saplings to provide cheap food for slaves in the West Indies. Under the command of William Bligh, the crew spent many months traveling to, and living in Tahiti.
The voyage of the Bounty, which would be its last, would go down in the annals of history as a turbulent story of betrayal, brutality, murder, mutiny and vengeance; the effects of which can still be seen today.
Far removed from the drizzle, cold and prudishness of England, Tahiti was a tropical paradise of delicious fruits, crystal lagoons, and sexual freedom. After five months of living with such freedom, and subjected to the prospect of sailing under the strict disciplinarian William Bligh, a portion of the crew –led by the young Christian Fletcher- mutinied, setting Bligh and several others adrift on the ship’s launch.
Whilst Bligh set out on one of the most famous and arduous open-boat voyages in the age of sail, the mutineers settled variously on Tahiti, and the small improperly-charted island of Pitcairn.
Of the men who mutinied, some offered their services as mercenaries to tribal chiefs, others tried to escape the island and surrender themselves to the authorities, some tried to integrate with the Tahitians.
Of those who sailed with Bligh, some died of disease and exposure, others made it back to England, and some sought revenge on those who had forced them adrift.
These are the stories of the men on that voyage; those that lived, those that died, those that mutinied, those that were kidnapped, and those that spent the rest of their lives in isolation, hiding from the vengeful hammer of the British Navy.
It was not for my loyalty to Lieutenant Bligh that I had elected to join him in the launch, but for my loyalty to the crown itself. The Bounty –which was indeed a cutter- was headed not by a Captain, but by a Lieutenant; a title which Bligh tended to resent.
As the mutineers seized the boat, I watched our Lieutenant sitting in a most undignified position, bound by his hands to a chair, naked from the waist down, and imploring what little loyalty he commanded -from the few who remained truly loyal to him- to seize Fletcher Christian.
At first, they launched the Jolly boat, which was found to be rotten through with Toredo worms, and would have sunk under the weight of just one man; the cutter was also launched, which leaked and took on water at a rapid rate. Finally, the mutineers piled us into the launch, along with our Lieutenant.
The launch was designed for a maximum capacity of fifteen sailors for short journeys in shallow waters, for not much longer than an hour at a time. With nineteen of us –along with possessions and provisions- the freeboard was less than the length of a man’s hand.
As the launch began to drift away from the Bounty, some words were exchanged between Bligh and Christian. After being thrown four cutlasses, Bligh implored for muskets, to which Christian joked that he will not need any arms where he was going, as they would be amongst friends. This had been a reference to Bligh’s earlier command not to use arms against the friendly islanders of Nomuka, where we had been the day previous.
Afterward, Bligh called to the few men who had been forced to remain amongst the mutineers against their will -such as the ship’s armourer Joseph Coleman- and assured them that should he reach England alive, he will do them justice.
Finally, as the Bounty disappeared beyond the horizon and the gruesome reality of our unenviable situation dawned upon us, Bligh appealed to the personal relationship he had with Christian, and that he had bounced Bligh’s children upon his knee. To this, Christian said but four words; screamed manically across the sea:
“I am in hell.”
As the waters seethed around us, the contempt of the men aboard seethed with it. Patience for our Lieutenant, and the situation he had put us in was shorter than the freeboard which threatened to sink us at a moment’s notice. Had it not been for his navigational abilities, we might have thrown him overboard to free up an inch of freeboard and an inch of leg space.
It seemed that the mutineers did not expect, nor wish for us to perish in the waters; rather, they expected that we would make our way to the Tongan islands and await an English ship to escort us home. Our provisions were expected to last little more than five days, which could carry us through to Tongatabu, but not much further.
The ship’s carpenter, Purcell, came aboard the launch with us, along with his tools. This had been allowed on the chance that the launch would require repairs; the mutineers clearly did not fear that we would sail to an island and construct a ship. It was not the small amount of freeboard, the minimal provisions or damage to the ship that I feared, but rather the reaction which we might find from the natives of the islands which we intended to visit. With nought but four cutlasses and no small arms between us, we could do little to assert authority over them as had been done previously. Often, the cruel treatment of European settlers, the use of force or the exploitation of the lands led to the natives treating us as hostile. It was only through use of our superior firepower that rebellions were quashed.
Bligh set sail for Tofua, a volcanic island which was about thirty nautical miles from us. The island could be seen in the distance for the pillar of thick smoke which exuded from the volcano. From Tofua, we hoped to obtain provisions such as food and water to sustain us for a longer voyage towards the Dutch East Indies.
As we arrived at the island, we set about finding a cave on the steep cliffs, from which we could shelter. Bligh sent out provisioning parties to collect food and water, informing the natives that they had been shipwrecked. Though our supplies were minimal, the natives saw our defenceless position, and the clothes on our backs, and as they began to gather around us, saw that we were practically defenceless.
At once, it became clear that an attack was imminent. Without warning, we sprinted towards the launch, which remained tied to the shore. The natives chased us, hurling rocks and carrying canoes with them. We climbed aboard the launch, at which point the natives grabbed a hold of the rope which tied us to the shore, and began to haul the launch to towards them. I grabbed a cutlass and began to hack at the rope which tethered us, but to no avail. As canoes left the shore and made their way rapidly towards the launch, I leapt from the launch.
Following the line of the rope, with a cutlass in my hand, I made my way towards the natives whom pulled the rope. Rocks struck me as I approached, striking my arms and chest. I raised my cutlass and swung viciously at the natives as I approached the shore. The natives surrounding the rope dispersed, taking their chances throwing rocks from a distance rather than facing the cutlass. At once, I set about untying the rope and freeing the launch.
I looked out at the panicked faces of my fellow sailors as they threw clothes from the launch, which slowed the advancing canoes, which stopped to collect the sinking clothes. Rocks rained down upon me, laming my arms and legs. Finally, I freed the rope, and the launch set sail, the sailors rowing away in desperation, as the rocks rained down on my head.
As blood matted my hair, and my consciousness began to slip away, I watched the launch escape from the canoes, and make it into the open ocean once more.
What a cruel irony. In 1605 it was my ancestor –after whom I was named- who captured and arrested none other than the most infamous traitor to the crown; Guido Fawkes. My ancestor’s role in the capture of the notorious traitor had brought great honour to my family, and we had lived with such prominence ever since.
Who would have believed that 184 years later, his descendant would stand before the court and receive a death sentence for the treacherous crime of mutiny?
I was born on the Isle of Man to a family with a strong naval background, it was a family tradition to contribute to the good of the empire through military or naval service -and so- at just fifteen, I was called to serve on the HMAV Bounty under the command of the stern Captain William Bligh. Partly, this was because my father had begun to suffer financially.
Raised in a prestigious family, I had never had to live under the oppressive leadership of a tyrant. It was only during my voyage on the Bounty that I began to sympathise with the vilified traitor that my ancestor had captured, and gain an insight into the motives of the oppressed to take drastic and desperate action against their oppressors.
As a young gentleman upon the Bounty, I’d been unranked, but had nevertheless been given the privileges of a junior officer. The purpose of our mission was not a military one, but a botanical one. We were to collect breadfruit saplings from Tahiti to provide cheap food for slaves in the West Indies.
The first leg of the journey had been somewhat pleasant, with weather which any sailor would envy, but as the weather changed, so too did the mood of Captain Bligh. As storms ravaged us at the Cape of Horn, we were made to pail the deck constantly to prevent leaking. Bligh, seeking an outlet for his fury turned his attention to me, forcing me to climb the mast and stay there beyond the point of all endurance. As I shivered and swayed in the cold of the bitter storms, I looked down at Bligh and saw him for the capricious tyrant that he was.
Bligh never missed an opportunity to remind me of my family’s financial troubles, and bestowed himself the honour of having saved us from destitution.
Our arrival in Tahiti was met with great hospitality from the natives, who prepared for us a great feast of fish, suckling pig, and a selection of exotic fruits. By day, we enjoyed the warm weather, crystal lagoons, and led lives of unbridled sexual license which the Tahitians embraced. By night, we slept on the Bounty; though our duties were relatively light –generally restricted to preventing the theft of nails from the ships planking and collecting breadfruit saplings- Bligh became ever more liberal with the whip. Floggings became a common occurrence for real, perceived or imagined slights, with Christian Fletcher taking the brunt of almost all of Bligh’s erratic outbursts.
Several months of hedonistic living in Tahiti left Christian and I with venereal infections, for which the surgeon’s mate Thomas Ledwood provided us with crude treatment; the ship’s surgeon Thomas Huggan having died after six weeks, succumbing to his alcoholism.
Though the complement of the Bounty relished in the freedom of the Tahitians, the level of sexual freedom and hedonism seemed to earn the chagrin of the prudish Captain Bligh. He seemed to be blissfully unaware of the effect his humiliations and punishments were having on his crew, and would simply go about his business as usual immediately after breaking into a colossal tirade.
After five months, our departure from Tahiti was imminent, and with heavy hearts we prepared to sail through the uncharted and potentially fatal Endeavour straits, followed by months of hard sailing. The thought of leaving Tahiti and sailing under the contemptible Captain Bligh weighed heavily on all of us. Bligh caught the whiff of contempt, and sought to crush it out of us; asserting his authority through crueller means.
When we departed Tahiti, the seething resentment on the ship was palpable, and whispers of mutiny pervaded throughout the cabins. The final straw came when Bligh cut our rations, forcing us to steal coconuts from the ship’s storage. When Bligh discovered our theft, he placed the blame squarely on Christian.
That night, mutiny erupted. Christian led the attack against Bligh, forcing him from his cabin, naked from the waist down, and tying him to a chair. I’d spoken to Christian previously, advising him that –should he go ahead with the mutiny- that I would not stand in his way.
After we set Bligh and his loyalists adrift, we turned around and made our way to Tubuai. It took us a month to arrive, and though our reception was far from congenial, we set about finding a suitable site to build a fort and establish a colony. Christian reasoned that settling in Tahiti would be too dangerous; in time the might of the British navy would set its sights on us, and come looking for the Bounty. Our plan was to build a fort through which we could establish a colony capable of holding our own against any incursions from the British fleet.
After establishing a suitable place on the island, we returned to Tahiti. Christian told the natives that they –along with Captain Cook and Bligh- were preparing to establish a new settlement on Tubai. The deception was initially successful, and the Tahitians bestowed us with gifts of livestock and other provisions. With a crew of over thirty Tahitians, we returned to Tubuai to prepare to settle.
The natives of Tubuai however, were hostile to our presence. This hostility was precipitated in part by the mistreatment of the natives. Soon, the Tahitians became aware of the deceit, and fearing another mutiny, Christian abandoned his plans. We returned to Tahiti despondent, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, I decided to take my chances on Tahiti.
Christian and I parted ways shortly afterwards. He had suggested settling on another uncharted island; somewhere even the British Navy would not be able to find. There was a divide between the mutineers; myself and fourteen of my fellow mutineers elected to remain on Tahiti, whilst Christian and eight of his loyalists set sail into the great unknown along with a great deal of Tahitian women and several Tahitian men. That was the last time I saw the Bounty or Christian.
Even amongst those of us who’d elected to remain on Tahiti, we were divided. Fearing our inevitable arrest, James Morrison and those who followed him set about building a schooner, with the aim of traveling to the Dutch East Indies and throwing themselves on the mercy of the crown. They deduced that –by turning themselves in- they could effectively emancipate themselves from any responsibility in the mutiny and receive royal pardons.
Others, such as Matthew Thompson and Charles Churchill succumbed wearily to despair, turning to drink to numb out the anxiety of their impending arrest. In their drunkenness, they became thuggish and hostile towards the natives. Their attitudes led to their murder at the hands of the natives.
I decided to go a different way, embracing Tahitian culture, taking a wife and living in a small house. I believed that –when in Rome- one must act as the Romans do; for this reason, I shed my British clothing and began to dress like the natives, learning the Tahitian language to the point of fluency and even adorning my skin with tribal tattoos.
For two years, I raised a child with my Tahitian wife, and contemplated the fate that awaited me. On the 23rd of March 1791, a great ship appeared on the horizon, and I knew that my time had come at last. With no hope of fighting or escaping from the navy, I rode out in a canoe along with Joseph Coleman and George Stewart. We identified ourselves to the captain, who in turn identified himself –and his ship- to me. He was Captain Edwards, commander of the HMS Pandora. My hopes that I –and the others who boarded the Pandora voluntarily- would be treated mercifully were dashed as we were thrown into shackles and locked away. This came –in part- from the testimony of the contemptible Thomas Hayward, with whom I’d served on the Bounty. He informed me of Captain Bligh’s survival and subsequent passage to England. He staunchly insisted that I had been an active mutineer, rather than a passive and unwilling captive as I had claimed.
It took just two weeks for the crew of the Pandora to round up the rest of the mutineers and imprison them on the Pandora.
For the next three weeks, Edwards set about trying to determine the whereabouts of the Bounty. We informed him that Christian and the remaining mutineers had set sail to a location unknown, and we could only point them eastward.
For the next five months, we remained locked in handcuffs and leg irons on the Pandora. The heat was so intense, and the ventilation so poor, that within out prison the sweat frequently ran in streams to the scuppers, and produced maggots in a short time.
Despite the many thousands of southern Pacific islands which were dotted around, the crew of the Pandora searched tirelessly for Christian and the Bounty, but coming at once to nothing. Whenever the Pandora docked at an island, they found hostile reactions from the natives. Edwards blamed this on the poor character of the mutineers, and the lasting impression this had left on the islanders.
After failing to locate Christian, Edwards turned to the Torres Strait and made his way to the Dutch East Indies. By the end of the month, the Pandora began floundering after running aground on the Great Barrier Reef. Needing all the manpower they could muster, I –along with two other prisoners- were released from our shackles and ordered to assist the crew, which we did with great diligence throughout the night.
With the rising of the sun, it became clear that our efforts to save the Pandora had been in vain, and the ship’s armourer was ordered to release the remaining prisoners. I watched in desperation as the armourer tried to free the prisoners. George Stewart -a man with whom I’d become good friends with during our time on Tahiti- could not be freed in time, and I wept as the ship sank, knowing that Stewart would be drowned.
With nine of my fellow mutineers, and ninety remaining crew members, we spent two nights on a nearby island before sailing on an open voyage. It seemed to me to be arcane recompense for setting Bligh adrift two years earlier. We too would now have to make that same voyage to Coupang, in the same brutal conditions. My only outlet throughout the ordeal came in the form of my prayer book, in which I chronicled the dates, locations and events during my captive voyage.
On the 19th of June, we arrived in Portsmouth to face trial for our crimes.
I’d met William Bligh through my eldest sister Ann. Her friend Betsy Betham married William Bligh, and through him I’d been recruited to serve as a midshipman on the botanical mission aboard the HMAV Bounty.
Bligh was a firm commander; a resourceful man with navigational skills which earned him the envy of many of his officers, including the young and naïve Fletcher Christian, a young gentleman whom Bligh had taken under his wing.
Throughout the voyage, I would go on to witness one of the most unjust and ungrateful usury of power in my entire nautical career. I was born as the son of a minor official from Hackney, there had –like very few of the young gentlemen on the Bounty- been opportunity for me to pursue another career. Others, who lived in the shadow of their families debts perceived me not as a willing and able shipmate, but as a middle-class and privileged fellow; Peter Heywood often referred to me as a ‘worldling’, a man born and raised into a little society whom affected airs and grace beyond my station. Others amongst the crew held similar views; most of which stemmed from –I am sure- my position of seniority amongst them.
Bligh often commented on my ineptitude as a sailor, which as a midshipman of minimal experience, I found to be an unfair and hasty judgement. Despite this, I had never once been disloyal to Bligh. I imagine that the other young gentlemen; those who would go on to become active participants in the mutiny, had less to lose and more to gain from the mutiny than I, whose fortunes were most prudently invested in my loyalty to Bligh.
Hallett suffered a similar fate as I; born into a middle class family, we’d both earned the chagrin and personal contempt of Fletcher Christian and his followers. Hallett and I had been on watch when a Tahitian prisoner –whom we held on board in relation to an iron theft- escaped from the ship. The punishment for this was brutal. Bligh commented that in order to better understand how to hold a prisoner, I must experience incarceration. Turned before the mast, I was confined to irons for a month.
I was the last person to speak with Christian before he seized the ship. I had been on watch at the time. Christian had come after to relieve me of my watch at around 4am; one hour later, after giving the order to prepare for washing the decks, he’d ordered me to take the lookout whilst he went below to lash up his hammock.
As Christian descended below, I watched in the waters behind the ship as a shark followed us, marveling at the vicious animal before me. I should have been more concerned with the vicious animals which approached from behind me. Not a moment later, I turned to see Christian and eight of his comrades coming aft, armed with muskets and bayonets, taking Thomas Burkett as a prisoner.
Before I could inquire about their actions, Christian held a musket to my chest and ordered me to hold my tongue instantly. Promptly, he disappeared and returned with Bligh, bound and nude from below the waist.
Hallett and I were the second ones forced on to the launch; this I felt was predetermined. Christian and his fellow mutineers had taken a personal dislike towards us, and whilst others actively participated in the mutiny and some –including Peter Heywood- stood with their arms folded taking no action to prevent the mutiny; Hallett and I had no choice in determining our fate.
As the Bounty left and I looked about the waters to see if the shark which I’d spotted earlier was in close vicinity, a voice called from the ship.
“Go see if you can live upon a quarter pound of yams per day!”
This had been a loaded comment; one which referenced Bligh’s previous rationing of the Yams after the ship’s rations had been raided, resulting in the theft of many coconuts.
Raising the small sail, we set sail towards the plume of smoke which came from the volcanic island of Tofua. After just four days on Tofua, the natives who had initially welcomed us became hostile, setting upon us with stones and crude bludgeons. With the noble sacrifice of John Norton, we narrowly escaped with our lives.
At first, Bligh had intended to dock at Tongatapu after Tofua. He’d visited the island earlier on one of Captain Cook’s voyages, and believed he could seek assistance and provisions from King Poulaho. After watching the brutal murder of Norton -which had resurrected old memories of Captain Cook’s murder at the hands of the natives of Hawaii- Bligh reconsidered visiting Tongatapu.
Instead, Bligh directed the launch to Coupang in Timor. With minimal rations, and a journey of over 3,500 nautical miles, Bligh determined that we would eat no more than an ounce of bread and quarter-pint of water each day.
The journey to Coupang was one of bitter winds and heavy storms; waves which rose so high that they threatened to consume the launch in a moment’s notice. Our days were spent rowing and constantly pailing the excess water which flooded into the launch. We reveled in the short-lived periods in which the sun cast its sultry rays upon us, and Bligh endeavoured to keep the crew’s morale up by encouraging the crew to sing and recite prayers.
Passing through the Fijian island, and against all of our hunger and thirst, we elected not to stop for fear of the cannibalistic natives which may await us. Seven days of wet and miserable weather, with no protection from the brutality of the elements, we finally heard the sound of birdsong in the air, which indicated that we were approaching land. The Great Barrier Reef could be seen, and using his expert navigation skills, Bligh found a way to slip through it without running aground and found a calm lagoon.
Upon departing the launch, we gorged ourselves on the plentiful berries and oysters of the island. I had never before –nor since- tasted berries so sweet, or oysters so succulent. For the next four days, we traveled from island to island with great trepidation, aware that we were being observed by the mainland natives. Paranoia and fear gripped the whole crew; these tensions culminated in an argument with the carpenter Purcell, who found himself threatened by Bligh, who held a cutlass to his throat and challenged him to fight.
The Master, John Fryer –who many believed was as capable a navigator as Bligh- ordered Cole to arrest the captain. Bligh then turned his attention to Fryer, threatening to kill him if he intervened. Supplied with only four cutlasses, one of which Bligh kept with him and another of which had been lost to the natives on Tofua, we had little choice but to continue to allow Bligh to take charge.
The launch sailed around Cape York, and then turned South West. With surgical precision, Bligh steered the launch through the reefs and sandbanks which threatened to sink our small vessel, or leave us marooned on one of the small uninhabited islands. That evening, we finally reached the Arafura sea. With just over one-thousand nautical miles of open ocean ahead of us, we sailed onwards to Coupang. It took us eight days of laborious sailing before we raised a makeshift Union Jack, which had been patched together from various patches of clothing, and sailed in Coupang harbour. By this point, many of the men –including Nelson and Hill- had begun to collapse from exhaustion, exposure to the elements, hunger or thirst.
In Coupang, Bligh was finally able to report the treachery of Christian and the others to the authorities, and write to his wife Betsy. He was also able to book passage home for himself and some of the others. Nelson died shortly afterward; I imagined that –as a botanist rather than a sailor- he’d found the hard labour of the journey too much, and succumbed to his exhaustion and the bitter elements. Soon after, I traveled to Batavia to await a ship bound for England. Here Thomas Hall died from a fever which he had picked up during the voyage.
When I finally returned to England, the nightmarish brutality of the mutineers and the ordeal which they had inflicted upon us led me to join Captain Edward Edwards on the HMS Pandora. Edwards sailed back to Tahiti to round up and arrest the fugitive mutineers and return them to England to face punishment.
This time, I worked diligently for Captain Edwards and the crew, determined to prove myself as a distinguished and capable shipman; to shed my previous image as a sheltered man who’d been born into fortune.
As we arrived at Tahiti, three of the mutineers rode out in canoes to greet us; Joseph Coleman, George Stewart and Peter Heywood.
The last time I’d seen Heywood, he had been standing with his arms folded, doing nothing to prevent the mutiny. For this I’d determined that he was just as culpable as those whom had taken up arms against the captain and set us adrift. Whilst we’d risked life and limb against the unforgiving tides of the open ocean, he had lived in luxury in a tropical paradise. Despite this, he’d implored me to vouch for his non-participation in the mutiny, which I ruthlessly denied him.
I spoke for Coleman however, who was one of the few who had actively opposed the mutiny, and had requested to remain on board. Still, Captain Edwards –unwilling to take any chances- manacled all three of them and set about locating the rest of the mutineers, and the Bounty itself.
After just a few days, we’d rounded up the remaining mutineers on Tahiti, and questioned them as to the location of the Bounty. They informed us that Christian had set sail to an unknown eastern location, which could have been one of many thousands of islands in the area.
We searched for many days, but finding little more than a few bits of wood and some evidence of human habitation, we departed without the Bounty or the rest of the mutineers. Our journey back to England was one marred by bad luck; and once again I found myself in an open boat. The Pandora found itself floundering after running aground on the Great Barrier Reef. Throughout the night, we worked to pail the decks and rescue the ship, but by the time the sun came up, we realised the futility of our efforts. Many of the crew drowned, along with a portion of the mutineers who’d been imprisoned.
I remember the last voyage of Captain Cook; the third and final voyage that ended with Cook being bludgeoned to death by the angered natives. I stood alongside the ship’s Master, the young William Bligh, as we bore witness to the brutal murder of one of the most prodigious navigators the world had ever seen.
Perhaps it was in that moment that Bligh saw for the first time the horrors that could befall any many tasked with captaining a ship. He was in his early twenties at the time, and had aspired to become as great as Cook. But where Cook was a utilitarian, Bligh became a disciplinarian. Perhaps it was in the brutal death of Captain Cook, that Bligh had adopted a strategy of strict discipline, ensuring that the chaos in which Cook died would never fall on him.
It seems now that his uncompromising rule of law led to the contempt of his underlings, which in turn led to him being ousted from power three times in his life.
As an armourer who had sailed alongside Bligh, he had selected me to personally join his voyage on the HMAV Bounty. The voyage was to collect breadfruit saplings to feed the English slaves of the West Indies. After the American colonies achieved independence, the supply of fish they had been exporting to England was cut off entirely. It was subsequently concluded that breadfruit might fill the gap in the diet of English slaves working the sugar plantations of Jamaica and the Lesser Antilles. The voyage, however, did not rank highly in the Admiralty’s priorities. For an armoured vessel, the Bounty was small, and Bligh was denied the status master and commander and the other commissioned officers and security force usually given to the captain of a voyage of such length.
I worked on the Bounty as the only armourer; knowing my skills were essential, I was treated with a degree of courtesy by Bligh. Other skilled men –such as the carpenter- were treated far more harshly, leading to an overall feeling of contempt towards the Captain.
When we arrived in Tahiti, my job became far more difficult. This was due to the common occurrence of iron theft. As the Tahitians valued iron so highly, the crew began stealing nails from the planking and trading them for sexual license with the native Tahitian women.
The biggest theft occurred in January, when John Millward, William Muspratt and Charles Churchill stole a considerable amount of arms and ammunition and fled. Bligh ordered that the deserters –and their stolen produce- be returned to him; he even went so far as to threaten the Tahitians that he would make the whole country suffer if they did not assist him in recovering the stolen items and the men who’d taken them. Three weeks later, the deserters were found in five miles away, living in a village. Bligh administered lashings and clad them in irons; telling them that –in his mercifulness- he would not recommend them for a court-martial, which would likely result in their executions. Though I could understand how Bligh had been both merciful and harsh, it only served to escalate the tensions between Bligh and his crew, and the three deserters joined the mutiny.
After we left Tahiti, and a significant portion of the weary, resentful crew seized the ship, I elected to be set adrift with Captain Bligh. Though he may have been an overly disciplinarian commander, I had worked alongside him before, and elected to remain loyal to those I knew, rather than take my chances with the younger and more capricious mutineers.
Against my wishes, I was locked away. Fletcher Christian -the prime instigator of the mutiny- decreed that my skills as an armourer were too valuable, and so I was confined and put to work.
As I watched Bligh’s open boat set adrift, I heard him shout “Never fear, my lads; I’ll do you justice if I ever reach England!”
I wondered if he was talking to me –and the other loyalists whom had reluctantly stayed on board- or the mutineers, vowing revenge.
Under Christian’s captivity, I worked dutifully and steadfastly, knowing that when the British Navy came to capture the mutineers, they would see that I had no active part in the mutiny, and I would be pardoned. I also had faith in Bligh’s navigational abilities, which would carry him to the safety of the Dutch East Indies. From his testimony, I was sure to be exonerated from guilt.
When the mutineers failed to establish a colony on Tubai, they returned to Tahiti. Still imprisoned on the Bounty, I set to work breaking my leg irons.
One night, Christian and a handful of the mutineers brought a group of Tahitians onto the ship. At once, he cut the ropes and set sail. Seizing the opportunity to escape, I fled from the ship, leaping from the deck and swimming ashore.
For the next two years, I spent my time living amongst the remaining mutineers and the natives; learning the native customs and language, and awaiting rescue. Throughout my time on Tahiti, I resolved that I would survive no matter what. Whilst some of the mutineers took to lives of nihilism and hedonism, others integrated themselves amongst the locals.
Eventually, a ship appeared on the horizon; the HMS Pandora. Many of the remaining mutineers fled to the hills and forests to evade capture; I –along with Peter Heywood and George Stewart- rowed out in a canoe to meet the ship. I suspected that Heywood and Stewart, who had become close friends during our time in Tahiti, intended to associate themselves with me in order to increase their chances of being pardoned. If they presented themselves as friends of mine, they could claim non-complicity in the mutiny. If they’d truly been my friends, they’d have come to my aid when the cowardly Fletcher Christian had imprisoned me against my will.
Either way, the result remained the same; Captain Edwards of the HMS Pandora threw us all into shackles and locked us away in a wretched box.
During my internment on the HMS Pandora, I explained to Captain Edwards the events following the mutiny on the Bounty. I explained that Fletcher Christian left sixteen men on Tahiti and departed with the other mutineers in search of an uncharted island. I explained how I’d jumped overboard and escaped, but could not offer any clues as to where they were hiding, as they had themselves been unaware of where they would end up.
Of the sixteen left in Tahiti, Charles Churchill and Matthew Thompson, had been murdered. From talking with curious Tahitians that had climbed aboard the Pandora, Edwards learned of the likely whereabouts of the eleven remaining fugitives on the island, and they were soon captured. The details that the fugitives left in their journals allowed Captain Edwards to piece together the rest of the events, but it was not enough to afford me freedom from Pandora’s on-board prison.
As the Pandora set sail, I spent my time in the company of the remaining mutineers, locked in a box of prickly heat and squalor. All at once, the boat ran aground at the Great Barrier Reef, causing the boat to take on water at an alarming rate. Three of the mutineers were freed to help pail water from the boat. As the ship began to sink, I set to work dismantling my leg irons. When the morning came around, the crew had given up on trying to save the Pandora, and the ship’s armourer set about freeing the remaining prisoners. By this point, I’d managed to free myself and escape.
For the second time, I escaped captivity and made it to the shore alive and well.
When we were finally taken to England to stand trial, Bligh’s testimony ensured my exoneration from guilt.
As the second son of Teu Tunuieaiteatua, I had reigned under the regency of my father, as Ariʻi-rahi –or prince consort- of Porionuʻu. During those days, my chiefdom was small and contained.
I’d seen Europeans visit our islands before. In their great vessels -which dwarfed our canoes- and equipped with weapons which could kill a man from a great distance, we could only hope for their benevolence.
When the Bounty arrived, we had welcomed our guests with jubilant celebration, offering them gifts of the finest foods, entertainment, and the welcome embrace of the Tahitian consorts. They, in turn, brought gifts of clothing from England, which we accepted gratefully.
What we really sought was that most precious commodity which was not readily available on Tahiti; iron. Many of the Europeans would steal small amounts of iron to trade with us; others plied small nails from the boards of the ship.
In those days, the islands were composed of chiefdoms. Territorial disputes would often break out and tensions would rise depending on the scarcity of commodities. The Europeans never involved themselves in what they considered to be tribal disputes.
This all changed after the Bounty left our shores. Shortly thereafter, the Bounty returned with a significantly diminished crew, Captained by an entirely different crewman by the name of Christian Fletcher. He told us that he, along with the former Captain Bligh, and Captain Cook –whom had visited our island many years previously- sought to establish a settlement at Tubuai.
Realising the potential benefit of being allowed to freely trade with the British -but without having to surrender the sovereignty of our island- the tribal chiefs, including myself, provided the Europeans with livestock, provisions and able-bodied men to help to establish to settlement.
Shortly thereafter, another passing vessel stopped briefly in Tahiti. The crew informed us that there were no such plans to build a settlement, and that Captain Cook was long dead. Tensions rose as the Europeans returned to Tahiti after just a few days, blaming hostility from the native islanders for their inability to build a settlement. We began to suspect that we were being deceived.
Shortly thereafter, the Bounty fled the island with a group of native Tahitians, leaving behind a number of their own men. Some of those who remained on Tahiti went about in idleness, drinking and fighting. Others integrated themselves with our culture, getting tribal tattoos upon their skin, and taking a wife.
Some approached me -with the weapons they had secured from the ship- and offered their services to me as mercenaries. With the great firepower of the Europeans at my disposal, I would be able to unite the chiefdoms into one single Kingdom over which I could rule all of the islands of Tahiti.
Using the weapons of the Europeans, I was able to successfully conquer the islands of Moʻorea, Mehetiʻa, Mehetia and Tetiʻaroa, unifying them all as one single Kingdom. I took the name Pōmare I –meaning ‘night cougher’- which I had named after my daughter, who had died some years earlier from a disease that had caused unceasing coughing throughout the night.
Shortly thereafter, another European ship arrived; the HMS Pandora. The crew of the Pandora took just a few days to round up and capture the men who had elevated me to power, many of whom had fled into the hills and forests. But even without their presence, I knew that they had changed the history of the Tahitian islands forever.
A good navigator does not make a good leader. This I learned from Captain Bligh and the crew of the Bounty. Captain Cook had been an expert navigator, and a charismatic leader, but Bligh and his pupil Fletcher Christian failed in their abilities to command respect.
I’d wanted to be the master gunner on the Bounty, but the position had been filled before I’d enlisted. Instead, I was given the far less prestigious title of boatswain. I’d accepted this position with great gusto, eager to sail on an expedition to further the scientific knowledge of the empire, and the help our nation prosper.
What I had expected to be journey of scientific conquest quickly devolved into what would become one of the most catastrophic failures in navigational history. I’d borne witness to the cruelty of Captain Bligh; he was not so much physically cruel –floggings were actually far less common than on an average voyage- he was more a menace to the morale of his underlings. His belittling comments, frequent mood swings and unpredictable temperament led to many of the crew to reject his leadership. To serve under such a capricious leader was psychologically laborious and tiresome. It came as no surprise to me when, upon leaving Tahiti, Christian led a mutiny against his former master.
It seemed as though Bligh was unable to recognise the hardships he’d inflicted upon his crew; after berating Christian for his incompetence in a vicious invective, he would subsequently invite him to dine with him, as though he was totally oblivious to the tears which hung in his eyes.
During the mutiny, I had refused to participate. They said that those who did not join the mutineers -but did nothing to prevent them- were equally as culpable for the mutiny. I could see that the boat upon which Bligh and his loyalists were set adrift was dangerously overloaded, and undersupplied. With only four cutlasses for defence, they would be at the mercy of the tides, the potentially hostile natives, and indeed, Bligh himself. For this reason, I remained on the Bounty.
It was Christian’s failure to communicate with his crew and the natives that led to his failure to establish a colony on Tubuai. The natives resented his presence, and their hostility led him to abandon his plans and set sail to an uncharted island.
I elected to remain on Tahiti. Whilst some of those who remained on Tahiti tried to integrate with the natives, and others spent their time drinking and leading lives of debauchery, I set to work building a schooner, which I decided to name after the ship of the last truly brilliant navigator and leader that had graced the British Empire; Captain Cook. I named my schooner The Endeavour.
I knew that if I endeavoured to escape the island, and set sail to the Dutch East Indies, it would be clear that I did not side with Christian and his ragtag band of mutineers. I could throw myself upon the mercy of the empire, and make it clear that I had no active part in the mutiny.
It took over eight months to build the Endeavour; utilising the local timber of the island. Right up until the point of completion, I kept my project secret from the other mutineers, who might perhaps question my loyalty –or worse- try to steal the schooner for themselves. After the schooner was finally completed, I took a few of the more sensible mutineers aside, and revealed my intentions. For days, we cured pork using the salt from boiled seawater, and gathered fresh water to prepare to set sail. I was no expert navigator, and I knew that our journey would be a long and arduous one into the unknown. With no navigational equipment, we would be at the mercy of the waves, with nothing more than primitive navigational methods to guide us; the location of the sun in the sky and the stars at night.
Our plans were cut short when we spotted a looming omen on the horizon; the HMS Pandora. Before the ship reached the shore, we set sail on the schooner, opting to take our chances against the waves, rather than in the shackles and chains of a naval vessel.
As we tried laboriously to navigate the schooner against the ebb and flow of the tide, the futility of our quest became apparent. Even Bligh had been given a sextant and compass with which to navigate; we had no such equipment, nor sufficient rigging or enough water to reach our destination alive.
After several days at sea, we turned and headed back to Tahiti, whereupon we surrendered ourselves and the schooner to the Pandora, and were shackled. Captain Edwards re-rigged and renamed the schooner after the port at which he had docked; Matavai.
After Edwards had successfully rounded up the remaining mutineers, he set sail with the schooner in tow. After many weeks at sea, locked in that cursed box, choppy seas led to the separation of the Matavai from the Pandora, along with the crew who’d manned her. In our prison cell, the mutineers spoke of the ill-fortune that came with renaming a ship, even if it was just a schooner; the same fortune had befallen the Bounty, which had originally been named Berthia.
The Pandora sailed for Anamooka and awaited the return of the Matavai; for several weeks, Captain Edwards hoped that the schooner would arrive, but –with no navigational equipment and minimal supplies- he eventually decided to sail on, deeming the crew lost at sea.
After leaving Anamooka, disaster struck. The Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. From dusk ‘til dawn they kept all of us –save for three men- locked in the prison as the ship slowly sank. As the morning sun rose, the ships armourer came about to set us free. By this point, the ship had begun to take on water at an alarming rate, and he was unable to free all of the prisoners. I was lucky enough to be freed and make it onto one of the ship’s boats, before the Pandora sank out of existence.
In those open boats, we set sail to Samarang, where we found none other than the crew that we’d been separated from on the Matavai. They told us of how they’d arrived in Surabaya many weeks earlier, and had since been making their way to Batavia under the watchful eye of a Dutch navel escort; whom believed the crew may be escaped Bounty mutineers, owing to their hand-crafted vessel. After the devastation and loss of life from the sinking of the Pandora, the crew celebrated jubilantly at the survival of their comrades.
When we finally arrived in Batavia, the schooner that I’d laboured on for eight months was sold; the proceeds from which I would not receive a penny.
When I finally returned to Britain, I gave my honest account of the mutiny; I explained in detail the cruelty of Captain Bligh, and the events which precipitated the rebellion; however, I also rightfully vilified the dastardly behaviour of the officers who had taken an active part in the mutiny. After the court-martial proceedings, I was pardoned and allowed to return to naval service, joining Admiral Sir Thomas Troubridge on the HMS Blenheim; a ship I’d served on before the events of the disastrous Bounty Voyage.
I stood on the edge of the cliff. The rope around my neck held a heavy stone, which would force me to fall headfirst. I’d followed Fletcher Christian everywhere, and now it had led me here.
I remembered the weight Christian had strapped around his neck on the night when he’d forced Captain Bligh to the deck; he’d told me later that he’d worn it should his mutiny fail, that he might throw himself off the ship and drown, rather than face the arduous punishment and humiliation that Bligh would undoubtedly thrust upon him, followed by his execution at the hands of the British government.
I looked out at the remoteness of the island; this tiny little rock in the middle of nowhere. No more than two miles wide; we’d escaped the tyrannical rule of Captain Bligh, escaped the punishment of the British navy, and yet, for men so adept at escape, we had become trapped; doomed to spend the rest of our lives on this godforsaken island.
After failing to settle and colonise the Tubuai, we’d returned to Tahiti. A British ship had already passed and informed the natives of our deception; they told them that Captain Cook was long dead, and there were no such plans to establish a settlement on Tubuai. It became clear that we were no longer sailors commissioned by the British Navy, but untrustworthy fugitives.
When Christian decided to flee to an uncharted island, I had followed him. We took with us a group of consorts; native Tahitian women and a handful of Tahitian men, along with four elderly women for which we had no use.
We left the elderly women on a neighbouring island, and set out to find a suitable location in which we could build a community, and hide from the vengeful British Navy. After months of traveling, we began to run low on supplies, and settled on this remote and tiny island. Due to a longitudinal error, the island had been incorrectly mapped; even Captain Cook had been unable to locate it.
I took one of the Tahitian women as my consort; her name was Teio, and together we’d had a son and a daughter. Shirking Tahitian names, I’d called them Daniel and Catherine. For a while, things seemed as though they might work. It was after we burned the Bounty; our only means of escape, that things began to change. With the burning of the Bounty, it became clear that –under no circumstances- would we ever leave this island. Rivalries and fighting began to break out; that was when a group of the Tahitian men set about systematically murdering the mutineers. First they killed Christian with an axe, and then they murdered Williams, Martin, Mills, and Brown. We took revenge on them, killing all of the perpetrators.
Of the original group of mutineers, only four of us remained; Young, Adams and the vicious animal Quintal. Our quest to emancipate ourselves from the constraints of Captain Bligh and the British Navy, and live in the heavenly Tahiti had led us straight to into the jaws of hell. I found a fruit from which alcohol could be distilled, and began to drink heavily.
I looked out at the tiny island one last time. There was no place left for me to go.
I tightened the rope around my neck, closed my eyes and leapt from the cliff.
I’d been drinking with McCoy the night he took a dive off a cliff. McCoy’s ability to turn the native fruits into a stiff drink was the second best thing that had ever happened to us since we’d arrived on this island. The best thing was hacking up those treacherous Tahitians who’d killed five of us. We should have never brought them with us.
I choked back another mouthful of the bitter alcohol, gripping the axe in my hand tightly and striking it against the stone ground and listening to the echo reverberate about the island, before casting it down beside me.
“I’m in hell!” I screamed, “I’m in hell!”
The words echoed Fletcher Christian’s words to his former Captain as he drifted away.
As I listened to my voice echo across the island and fade away, I heard a pair of footsteps approaching in the distance. I clutched the axe tightly, bashing it against the floor once more before throwing it haphazardly across the ground.
The figures appeared in the darkness; Alexander Smith and Ned Young. I grabbed my cup and finished the rest of my drink before the pair had a chance to share it with me. At once they stopped, staring at me with disgust.
“What are you two looking at?” I slurred, “I’ve got nothing left.”
“We heard you shouting.” said Smith.
“I heard you preaching. I heard you praying.” I sneered, “Prayers from hell never make it to heaven.”
“This place is not hell,” Young spoke, “It is our home now. We will never return to England, and if we do, it will only be for our execution.”
I tried to stand, but stumbled to the floor, “Let them execute me,” I spat, “Let them execute me before I execute everyone on this island.”
Young walked behind me, grabbing my arms and lifting me to my feet. At once, Smith grabbed the axe from the ground and walked towards me. Young tightened his grip on my arms, holding me back. A dull thud echoed across the island as Smith swung the axe down upon my head.
I had done everything to survive, that was why I’d refused to let myself be set adrift in that cramped and overloaded vessel; that was why I’d fled to this tiny island to avoid the British Naval fleet; that is why I killed Quintal, and that is why I’d changed my name.
To everyone on the voyage, I was Alexander Smith. I’d found it fortuitous to use a false name where possible, until such point as you can be assured of the fidelity of your friends. Here on Pitcairn, such fidelities have been tested numerous times.
When we first arrived on the island, we’d subsided on fishing and farming. But on an island in which we were in such close proximity to one another, and with an imbalance of men and women, fighting broke out regarding land rights, and wives.
Some of the mutineers began to treat the Tahitian men as though they were slaves, denying them living space. Such intolerant attitudes were particularly exhibited by Williams and McCoy; this eventually led to a rebellion, in which five of the mutineers were slain, including Williams. The retaliation was vicious. Quintal and McCoy murdered one, whilst Young murdered another; the rest fell to infighting. I abstained from any such conduct, trying to create peaceful ties between the mutineers and the Tahitians. We had not survived for this long to fall to war amongst ourselves.
Many of the Tahitian women attempted to build a boat and escape the island; when this failed, some of the women became violent, attempting to kill some of the men. I managed to calm the situation down, but in doing so, it became clear that –if we were to survive in the long term- we would have to remove those who would promote violence.
McCoy eventually began to brew an alcoholic beverage from the local fruits; which led to both Quintal and McCoy becoming idle and vicious, spending their days drinking and fighting. Ned Young and I, as two of the last four living men on the island, determined that McCoy and Quintal could not contribute to the collective good of the people of Pitcairn and elected to have them killed.
McCoy was the first to go; but it was not by our hand, but by his own. He’d strung a rock around his neck and thrown himself from a cliff.
One year later, after Quintal had made drunken threats to massacre the entire island, Ned and I waited until he’d fallen into one of his many drunken stupors. Approaching him in his inebriated state, we restrained him and killed him with an axe, burying his body in an unmarked grave.
After this point, I revealed my true name to the island, and gave my children the surname ‘Adams’. Ned and I turned to Scriptures, not just as a way of keeping order, but also to teach English so that the community could flourish in peace and harmony.
When Ned died from complications related to an infection of the lungs, I was left as the last of the mutineers whom had moved to Pitcairn, and continued in my mission to create a harmonious society in which we could all survive comfortable.
After eighteen years of building a community on Pitcairn, an American ship came upon our shores. The ship was called Topaz, and the crew members seemed impressed with the society we’d created. For the first time in so long, I was acquainted with fresh faces, including the ship’s Captain, who went by the name Mayhew Folger.
Folger told me of the events of the last twenty years. He spoke of the execution of the French aristocracy and the rise of Napoléon Bonaparte, a French general who had defeated the Austrians. In the U.S, they spoke of Washington’s Farewell Address and John Adams election to presidency; they spoke of a scientist named Edward Jenner, who’d created a vaccine for smallpox and of the first successful steamboat trip on Clermont between New York City and Albany, set to revolutionise the age of sail.
After leaving the island, Folger promised that he would speak favourably of the community we’d created, and sure enough six years later, a vessel from the British Navy arrived on Pitcairn. They deemed that it would be unjust to capture me after creating such a morally upstanding society, and allowed me to remain on Pitcairn.
© JC Axe 2016