On This Day

William Bligh

On This Day: Captain Bligh Lands on Timor After the Mutiny on the Bounty

June 14, 2009 02:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On June 14, 1789, William Bligh and the loyal members of his crew, left for dead by H.M.S. Bounty mutineers, reached safety after drifting for six weeks in a tiny open boat.

Captain Bligh’s Perilous Voyage

Captain William Bligh and a handful of loyalists, starving and weak, landed at a Dutch settlement in Timor, after traveling 3,618 miles on an open 23-foot boat. They had been set adrift on the Pacific six weeks earlier by mutineers who took over Bligh’s ship.

After the mutiny, Bligh’s crew had initially headed for the nearby island of Tofua, hoping to secure food. Armed only with four cutlasses, the crew were forced to flee when the Tofuans attacked. The Tofuans started to pull the crew's boat back in by its line when quartermaster John Norton got out of the boat, ran to untie the line so the vessel could leave and was killed in doing so. Abandoning their last hope of food supplies, what remained of the Bounty crew embarked across the Pacific.

Exposed to severe weather, starving and stuffed into a vessel only made to accommodate 15, they drifted for weeks. According to the Pitcairn Islands Study Center, “Death by starvation was a constant threat, the ration, served twice daily, being only one twenty-fifth of a pound of bread and a gill (quarter pint) of water with occasional additions of half an ounce of port and a teaspoonful of rum.” By their journey’s end on June 14, Bligh and the men in his small vessel were nearly dead.

Despite these extreme hardships, Captain Bligh navigated the boat safely to Timor. The HMS Bounty Organization argues that although Bligh has been depicted as cruel, he “may be one of the greatest seamen who ever lived” as he navigated “3600 nautical miles to safety in 41 days using only a sextant and a pocket watch.”

Background: Mutiny on the Bounty

Captain Bligh and his crew were originally ordered to collect young breadfruit trees from Tahiti and bring them to the West Indies (Caribbean) as a cheap food source for the workers there. They were heading toward the West Indies when the now-famous mutiny occurred, allegedly caused by Bligh’s legendary hot temper, coupled with the crew’s resentment over their recent forced departure from Tahiti—and the women many were courting. Tension peaked when an enraged Captain Bligh humiliated his first mate Fletcher Christian over an alleged theft of coconuts from the ship’s stores.

On the morning of April 28, 1789, 17 mutineers, led by Christian, ambushed Bligh in his sleep, then ordered him off the ship, which then set sail back to Tahiti. The captain and 18 (some sources say 19) crew members who remained loyal were set adrift on the Bounty’s small launch vessel.

Later Developments: The fate of Bligh, the mutineers and Pitcairn Island

According to the Royal Navy Museum, Bligh and his men left Timor for home, where Bligh was initially received as a hero. He also published his version of the mutiny. 

Fatefulvoyage.com explains that Royal Navy sent the H.M.S. Pandora to Tahiti to arrest the mutineers. Ten of the mutineers were returned to England and court-martialed; Peter Heywood, James Morrison, John Millward and William Muspratt were sentenced to “suffer Death by being hanged by the Neck, on board such of His Majesty’s Ship or Ships of War.” After the trial, two surviving mutineers as well as Edward Christian, a Professor of Law at Cambridge and brother of mutiny leader Christian Fletcher, attacked Bligh’s leadership in written accounts, forever blackening Bligh's reputation.

Some of the mutineers escaped arrest and remained on isolated Pitcairn Island, where they founded a small community with their Tahitian wives. The population reached its peak at 233, but now consists of less than 50 people.

A Vanity Fair article explains that in 2004, allegations that the sexual abuse of children and rape were an endemic part of the island's culture reached their peak when six men, including Steve Christian, the island’s mayor and a descendent of Fletcher Christian, were “convicted under English law of 33 sexual offenses, some dating back as many as 40 years.” 

Reference: The crew and the ship


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