True Crime in the Pacific: HMS Bounty and the Dark History of Pitcairn Island

True Crime in the Pacific: HMS Bounty and the Dark History of Pitcairn Island

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A Tiny Island in the South Pacific

You may, or may not, have heard of the Pitcairn Islands – a small rugged volcanic outcrop in the South Pacific with an area of just 10 square kilometers (3.9 square miles); its widest point being only 2 miles long and 1 mile wide. However, it is not known for its rugged beauty but for its history of adventure and intrigue, mutiny, murder, people trafficking, and survival. And it all began with the Mutiny on HMS Bounty.

Bounty’s Botanical Mission and a Tahitian Paradise

In 1787, HMS Bounty (a.k.a HM Armed Vessel Bounty), set sail to the South Pacific Ocean on a botanical mission – to collect breadfruit trees from Tahiti, which were to be brought back to the West Indies and planted as a cheap source of food to feed slaves on the plantations.

And since it was embarking on a peaceful mission, the Bounty sailed alone with only one Commissioned Officer on board, Captain Bligh, 46 crew members, and no marines to enforce discipline.

After 10 months and 27,000 miles, the Bounty reached Tahiti, where her crew was welcomed by the Tahitians – who traded with them, invited them into their homes and – although some sold sexual favours in exchange for goods – there were some stronger bonds formed between the island women and crew members; with Master’s Mate, Christian Fletcher, reportedly falling in love with a woman called Mauatua.

5 months later the Bounty departed Tahiti, filled with breadfruit saplings, but all was not well between its crew and its Captain.

The Tyrannical Captain Bligh and His Mutinous Crew

The captain of the Bounty was William Bligh, who had served as an officer in the Royal Navy for many years with a reputation for being a strict disciplinarian along with a quick temper, often taking it out on his fellow officers, including Fletcher.

Since departing Britain, tensions between Bligh and Fletcher had already emerged. Bligh has been reported to have enjoyed belittling and humiliating his officers in front of the rest of the crew and was intent on ‘fault-finding’ and was ‘insulting, petty and condescending’ throughout the journey.

After enjoying Tahitian life, the beauty of the islands and its climate, not to mention the women, many of the crewmen did not want to return to Britain, where they would not enjoy such comforts. They were not prepared to return to the Bounty’s conditions, the treacherous sea and Bligh’s discipline.

On April 27th 1789, Bligh singled out Christian Fletcher, accusing him of stealing coconuts from the Bounty’s stash and punished the entire crew. It seems this was the final straw for the Master’s Mate and so twenty-three days after the Bounty had departed Tahiti, Fletcher and his men burst into Bligh’s cabin in the middle of the night and forced the Captain at bayonet point on deck.

Bligh was ordered by the mutineers, along with 18 of his loyal crewmen, to board the launch boat which was then cast off into the expanse of the Pacific Ocean – Fletcher probably hoped it would never be seen again.

Trickster Crewmen and Human Trafficking in the South Pacific

But don’t jump for joy at the actions of Fletcher and the crewmen that remained onboard, for their tale and their deeds get darker.

With the Bounty seized by the mutineers, she set sail for the Tongan Island of Tubuai, in the hopes of building a permanent settlement. When they landed in Tubuai, they were met with hostile islanders, whom they killed before returning to Tahiti to seek supplies and labour.

But knowing the Tahitian chiefs would be displeased with them, they hid the mutiny from them and lied about their new settlement. Back on Tubuai, the hostilities between themselves and the islanders, and the increasing tensions and divisions among the crew made their colonizing mission unattainable, and so the mutineers tried to return to Tahiti.

By now the Tahitians had discovered what they had been up to and in desperation, Fletcher and eight members of his crew tricked a group of Tahitians – six men, 12 women and a child – onto the Bounty for a party, took them captive and set sail in search of a safe haven, and out of reach of British retribution. 14 mutineers remained in Tahiti.

In January 1790, the Bounty’s crew, after some months of trying to find it, landed on Pitcairn Island.

Pre-Mutiny – A Short History of Pitcairn Island

Pitcairn Island and its history is a relatively short one. Situated at the southernmost tip of the Tuamotu Archipelago, it used to be inhabited for several centuries by Polynesians. But was then abandoned around the 15th century.

It was then discovered by the British in 1767, when sighted by HMS Swallow. On board was fifteen-year-old midshipman, Robert Pitcairn, who was the first on board the sloop to set eyes on the uninhabited island – it was not to be seen again until the mutineers of the Bounty found it 1790.

Turns out, the reason Fletcher and his crew took so long to locate the island was due to an error in HMS Swallow’s nautical calculations – it was 180 nautical miles from where they had originally recorded it to be.

Ever the optimists, this miscalculation was an advantage to the mutineers because it would make it harder for the British Fleet to find them. And so, when they arrived, they sunk the Bounty in the bay – not only would it not give them away to passing ships, but their Tahitian captives would also not be able to escape.

Bligh and the Long Reach of the Noose

But back to Captain William Bligh and his loyal seamen, who did not die … well, not immediately anyway.

Being a skilled navigator, Bligh did not get thrown off the Bounty empty-handed. This veteran was armed with books containing mathematical, astronomical and geographical information, a magnetic compass, a 10-inch sextant and a quadrant (navigational tools to you and I) which he and his men used to navigate across the pacific.

First, they headed to Tofua to replenish their supplies, then to the Dutch East Indies and the island of Timor – some 3618 nautical miles. They did however lose their quartermaster along the way, who was stoned to death by some hostile islanders. Once they had fully recovered, they set sail for Britain and reported the mutiny.

Yet Bligh did not get off scot-free. For the loss of the Bounty, he was court-martialled on his return to England, and though acquitted, his reputation was forever tarnished and at one point he could not get work on a ship for 18 months.

As for the mutineers that had remained in Tahiti, refusing to go with Fletcher, HMS Pandora on the orders of the British Admiralty set sail in pursuit of the Bounty and the mutineers to bring them back to face trial. But Pandora’s voyage was not without its own perils. Having captured and imprisoned the 14 mutineers that remained in Tahiti, Pandora became wrecked upon the Great Barrier Reef. 35 lives were lost, including four of the mutineers who drowned.

The 10 surviving mutineers were eventually brought back to England in 1792. Six were sentenced to hang, whilst four were acquitted. Three of the men due to hang were eventually pardoned but the remaining three died by the noose on 29th October 1794.

Polynesian Uprising and Murder in Paradise

And the mutineers on Pitcairn Island lived happily ever after … just kidding!

Now, depending on which historical source you look at there are a few reasons for what unfolded next on Pitcairn Island – be that ‘drunkenness’, jealousy or rebellion from the Tahitian captives, and who killed who.

Tensions had built up between the mutineers and rivalries for the Tahitian women. The Tahitian men – who had been enslaved by Fletcher and his men – resented the abuse of their women at the hands of these English men, who were held captive for sex. It was thought that one of the women had taken her own life because she could no longer take the abuse.

Whatever the catalyst, by September 1793, the Tahitian men had killed four of the mutineers, including Fletcher (although some sources state one of Adams’ men had murdered him). And by 1808, when Pitcairn Island was visited by an American whaling vessel, Topaz – having been alerted to it by smoke from a fire – only one man was left, a mutineer by the name of John Adams who headed a small community of women and children.

It Only Gets Weirder, It Only Gets Worse …

Now doesn’t the above paragraph make it all sound like the story ended on a happy note? Because it didn’t, and it’s from here that the story turns creepier to downright nasty.

Weirdly, instead of punishing John Adams – whose accounts of why he was the only man left kept changing – the British, who sent a ship to the island in 1825, granted Adams amnesty and ‘held up Pitcairn Island as a symbol of Victorian virtue.’

Adams died in 1829 and the Pitcairn islanders were resettled on Tahiti, only to return to Pitcairn after being unsatisfied with their relocation. In 1838, Pitcairn was incorporated into the British Empire and by the mid-1850s its population had grown to nearly 200 people.

But being so small, the island was unable to provide for its growing population and they were relocated again, 4,000 miles west, to Norfolk Island. Still, some of them missed Pitcairn and by 1864 some of the islanders had returned to re-establish the community.

The only and glaringly obvious problem here is that these men and women were in a small community of which most could trace their lineage back to the same people – Fletcher and the eight other mutineers. The high percentage of inbreeding was seriously high, but it only gets worse.

In 2004, seven of the Pitcairn Island men – that is one-third of the adult male population on the island – were charged with sexual abuse against the children on the islands, going back decades. Their excuse for this was the result of an ingrained culture to re-populate the island, blaming Tahitian culture, and the legal ambivalence of the island that let them get away with it.

The case rocked the island and divided the islanders, with many of them choosing to leave. And the men that were convicted, instead of being jailed on another island, had a jail on the island built for them because their knowledge and skills were still needed to help operate the long boats which is the only way for the islands to retrieve goods from the ships delivering to them.

The Bounty’s Legacy and Pitcairn Island Today

Today, Pitcairn Island is part of a group of islands that also comprise of Henderson, Ducie, and Oeno, with Pitcairn the only inhabited island out of the four with a population of around 50 people. You can also still see the remains of the Bounty off the coast of Pitcairn in Bounty Bay.

Although making a living is hard on the islands, one of its main exports is honey made by ‘the world’s best population of disease-free bees’, and 80% of its revenue comes from tourism. However, be warned, if you want to travel to Pitcairn today and you’re bringing a child under the age of 16 with you, due to the 2004 abuse trials, a clearance application has to be completed to allow them in. In all seriousness though, don’t be so irresponsible!

The Bounty and Pop Culture

I want to end this dark and twisted story on a much lighter note – if that’s possible – through the Hollywood camera lens, which inevitably leaves out all the horrible stuff and makes out all the white colonialists are hard done by and the saviors of Pacific savages (I proceed to choke on a piece of fried breadfruit).

The Mutiny on the Bounty has been made into a film on a few occasions: the award-winning Clark Gable, 1935 black & white version which is deemed to be the less realistic; Marlon Brando’s 1962 remake and the most recent 1984 film starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, The Bounty.

And when it comes to reading material, there is a plethora of books so I’ve included some here to choose from:

More recently, Harrison Christian – Aotearoan author and direct descendant of Fletcher (his 6th great-grandfather) – was interviewed by the History Extra Podcast (episode 1,478) and his book, Men Without Country: The True Story of Exploration and Rebellion in the South Seas is out now.

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Author of The Benaghar Series, and wannabe crime writer.