Mutiny on the Bounty (1790)

Mutiny on the Bounty (1790)
Mutiny on the Bounty (1790)

In 1790 the crew of the Her Majesty’s Armed Vessel (HMAV) Bounty and the Polynesians accompanying them arrived to populate Pitcairn Island. They found traces of earlier Polynesian settlements, but no indigenous people were resident at the time of their arrival.

Over 2,000 accounts of the mutiny and the subsequent settlement of Pitcairn have been told, often contradictory and must be regarded as part myth, part fiction. Also, five motion pictures have captured the tale of the Bounty. Vessels from the Royal Navy discovered Pitcairn Island in 1762, but the rough sea prevented any landings. It rose to fame from the events that unfolded on the Bounty in 1789.

The trader Bethia was armed and renamed HMAV Bounty and under command of Captain William Bligh sailed for the South Seas on December 23, 1787, with orders to collect seeds of the breadfruit tree to help feed African slaves in transit to the Americas.

After some difficulties, the Bounty arrived in Tahiti on October 30, 1788, and stayed for five months while the seeds were collected. The Bounty left Tahiti but had only been at sea for three weeks when some of the crew mutinied under the leadership of Fletcher Christian.

The Royal Navy in those days was known for its harsh discipline. Also, the pleasant lifestyle on Tahiti and the fact that several of the crew had engaged in intimate relations with local women might have inspired the subordination. The events and roles in the mutiny remain disputed.

The Hollywood version shows the captain of the Bounty, William Bligh, as a inhuman tyrant, while recent research suggests that Christian may have been suffering from a mental condition that led to irrational behavior. The captain and 18 loyal crew members were cast adrift in open boats and later picked up at sea.

The Bounty returned to Tahiti to pick up supplies, livestock, and to take some of the native Polynesians back with them. Sixteen mutineers had decided to stay in Tahiti, but Christian rightfully thought it would be too risky—the Royal Navy captured those that stayed behind. Christian and the others continued to search for an isolated island to settle on.

On January 15, 1790, the Bounty happened upon Pitcairn. Their cargo was brought ashore, and on January 23 the Bounty was set on fire so it would not be spotted and reveal the presence of the mutineers on the island.

The soil was fertile and the climate warm. A settlement was established at what is now known as Adamstown, and a kind of apartheid developed. The male Tahitians did not receive any land, were treated like slaves, and had to share the women that were left after the mutineers chose their spouses. The Tahitian men rebelled, and several mutineers were killed, Christian among them. But the rebels fell out over the women, and the mutineers killed them.

Peace was eventually maintained, but having learned how to distil spirits from local produce, drunkenness plagued the community, until John Adams, the last remaining mutineer, had a religious experience. He started holding mass and showed leadership, bringing about some order.

The community developed a unique mix of Victorian and Tahitian culture, but the outside world would reach them sooner or later. Ships had been sighted, some even having come ashore without contact being established. An American whaling vessel, the Topaz, reported the presence of the community in 1808, but it was not until 1814 that British naval vessels visited Pitcairn.

They took pity on Adams, given his place in the community and his piety. He had requested a resettlement of the islanders, since population growth made their resources meager. Adams died in 1829, and in 1831 the entire community was moved to Tahiti. There they experienced disease and discovered that their culture was too European to thrive in Tahiti. That same year, they went back to Pitcairn.

Adams and his successors had no formal powers, but increasing interaction with the outside world exposed the need for legitimate governance. A constitution was drawn up in 1838, making the islands a British colony, giving universal suffrage for the election of a chief magistrate to anyone over the age of 18 and who intended to stay on the island for more than five years.

A new emigration followed in 1856 because of overpopulation (193 people) on Pitcairn, this time to the Norfolk Island that was uninhabited. But again some chose to return to Pitcairn, first in 1858, then in 1864. Meanwhile, visitors to Pitcairn had vandalized the houses, and the gardens were overgrown.

Selling handicrafts to passing vessels and salvaging provided some extra income, but they could no longer trade any surplus crops for needed supplies. Missionaries and sailors that the islanders had rescued offered some gifts, and Queen Victoria even sent them an organ.

Religion had played a prominent part in the life of the inhabitants on Pitcairn. However, a visit by American Seventh-day Adventists caught them in a time of social crisis and with lack of unifying leadership, and the Anglican Church was replaced.

The conversion spurred social and political reform. Education was improved, a newspaper was founded, and a judiciary and parliament introduced. But the ill fortune that haunted the islanders since returning from Norfolk would not relent.

The parliament was removed, and the chief magistrate was reintroduced in 1904. In the 20th century, communications improved, with about one ship a week arriving at Pitcairn. The population peaked at 233 in 1937 but had dropped to 40 by the turn of the millennium. Most of those who left emigrated to New Zealand.