To the South Pacific
Far out in the Pacific Ocean, on the outer edge of the Tuamotu Archipelago, at Latitude 25º 5' S., and Longitude 130º 5' W, is a green paradise known as Pitcairn Island. About two miles long and one mile wide, it is ringed with a rugged coast of cliffs, and within their protecting care is nestled rich, fertile soil, and the mild climate and lush tropical fruit that makes the South Pacific Isles so famous.
But there is more to this little island than its location or its climate. For here is to be found the rendezvous of one of the most amazing stories in all sailing history.
Our story actually begins on July 2, 1767, when a mid-shipman climbed the ship's masthead of the Swallow and called out, "Land ahoy!" He had sighted a previously unknown island. Philip Carteret, "captain of this British sailing ship in the midst of a voyage around the world, carefully checked through his charts and not finding the island listed, recorded its longitude and latitude and named it in honor of the midshipman that first spotted it. He wrote down the name, "Pitcairn," and in his ship's log he said that it was about three thousand miles west of Chile. "It was like a great rock rising from the sea," he wrote, "about five miles round, apparently uninhabited, with trees on it, and a stream of water running down one side. The surf breaking upon the rocks rendered landing difficult. After examining it from the ship, I called it 'Pitcairn Island,' in honor of my midshipman, and sailed on."
What Captain Philip Carteret wrote in his log actually told a lot. The island was uninhabited and it had water and soil. If he had not mentioned this, the little island probably would never have entered history in the surprising way that it did.
But now, let us go on with the story. It is the year 1777, and the British government is planning to send an expedition to the South Pacific. Early explorers of the Pacific, such as William Dampier and George Anson, had brought back to Europe fascinating tales of the South Pacific islands and its peoples. One food that they particularly mentioned was the breadfruit. Later, Captain Cook, following his transworld voyage, also commented on the breadfruit plant, told of its very fine qualities and declared that it was the staple diet of the Pacific islanders and that they were able to obtain it for eight months out of the year.
In 1777 the Royal Society of Arts in London, England, offered a gold medal to whoever should succeed in transplanting the breadfruit to the West Indies in order to help feed the workers on the sugar plantations there. King George III, recently defeated in a war to retain possession of the American Colonies, now had the opportunity to give his thoughts to some other part of the world. And so the British Admiralty was given permission to fit out a ship that would win the gold medal. Its destination was Tahiti. There it was to collect a supply of young plants of the breadfruit and carry them to the West Indies in the Gulf of Mexico.
It was recognized that this would be a unique voyage, and the attention of all Europe was upon it. One of the best merchant ships obtainable was purchased by the Naval Board for this purpose—the Bethia. It was renamed the Bounty, and Lieutenant William Bligh was given command of the vessel.
Bligh was a short man, small-featured, about thirty-three years old. Naval historians tell us he was not a man to inspire love. He is variously described as irritable, truculent, overbearing, and a driver rather than a leader of men. But in those days, such qualities would not rule him out, for he knew how to command the men that manned the ships.
Forty-five men between the ages of seventeen and forty were signed on as crewmen—Instead of exploring new lands or engaging in conquest, this expedition was designed to promote good will and to exchange colonial benefits, and therefore the crew was carefully selected.
As the officer second-in-command, twenty-two year old Fletcher Christian was chosen. Christian was a man highly regarded in the admiralty, and was generally conceded to be one who would rise high in naval rank. He had earlier been a particular friend of Captain Bligh, and so by special request he was asked to join the ship's company as its chief officer. He had accompanied Bligh on two earlier voyages, and was highly regarded by him.
But something went wrong this time. Something had happened to Bligh.
The three midshipmen were Peter Heywood, Edward Young and George Stewart. They also were looking forward to higher positions in the British Navy. But little did either of them know that only one would ever return to England again. [This was Peter Heywood, and his story of pardon from execution, as a result of his sister's devotion and prayers, is something of an epoch in British naval history. Of the rest of the crew, little is known until we learn of them later in the unfolding of the story of the Bounty.
Later in the afternoon of the twenty-third of December, 1787, the Bounty weighed anchor and slowly headed down the River Thames. One of the best-known voyages in the history of England had begun.
Crossing the Atlantic and traveling down the coast of South America, the Bounty headed toward the Horn—the southern tip of the continent—planning to round it and sail into the Pacific. But at the Horn it encountered such fierce storms that Bligh feared that the ship might be lost. In his later report, this part of the voyage is quoted from his log: "Repeated gales seem now to become more violent, the squalls so excessively severe that I dare scarce show any canvas to it. The motion of the ship is so very quick and falls so steep between the seas that it is impossible to stand without man ropes across the decks."
So fierce did the weather become that Bligh was forced to turn back—and head east—and sail more than three quarters of the way around the world in the other direction, by way of Africa, through the Indian Ocean and past Australia. He was not to drop anchor in Tahiti until October 26, 1788. In ten months he had sailed over twenty-seven thousand miles.
And what those months and miles had brought to all concerned was something of a nightmare.
Lack of food, close quarters, poor water, difficult conditions, bad weather and seemingly endless months put a severe strain on the nerves and temper of everyone on board. But the breaking point was the quarter-deck tactics of Bligh combined with the short rations he gave the men.
The problem was that Bligh was not only the Master of the ship, he was also the Purser—its treasurer. It was later said that his excessive economy with the food brought on most of the problems. It has been suggested that the short allowances doled out to his own advantage.
A ringleader in the growing resentment was Matthew Quintal. He smoldered with resentment for he was the first to be "logged" by Bligh for reported insolence and contempt, and given two dozen lashes. James Morrison, a fellow shipmate, later declared before the Court of Enquiry, upon his return to England, that all that Quintal had done was to complain about the unnecessary cutting down of the regular food allowances.
On another occasion, Bligh ordered a supply of cheese to be brought up on deck and aired. When the cooper (the one in charge of the barrels) opened one of the casks, Bligh declared that two of the cheeses were missing. "They must have been stolen," he thundered.
Quietly the cooper reminded him that the cask had been opened while the ship was still lying in the Thames River, and that by order of Mr. Samuel, the clerk, the cheeses had been sent to Captain Bligh's home. At this, Fletcher Christian stepped forward and politely gave supporting evidence to this fact.
Cutting short all further discussion, Bligh ordered the cheese ration stopped from both officers and men until the man who had taken the cheeses returned them. Speaking violently to the cooper, he swore at him and declared he would be flogged if anything further was said about the incident.
After ten months of this—the ship finally laid anchor in Matavai Lagoon. A nightmare was behind them and what appeared to their weary eyes to be paradise lay before them. They had arrived at the warm and friendly land of Tahiti.
We are told that the natives of the island showered hospitality upon Captain Bligh and the crew of the Bounty. Gone were the routine and the strain of ship life. Now there was work to do on the island, preparing breadfruit plants for shipment to the West Indies. And there was time for relaxation. And especially so, since we are told that Nelson, the ship's botanist, and Brown, the gardener, did most of the slipping and potting of the 1,015 breadfruit plants that were gradually taken on board the ship and stored in the hold in a special room earlier prepared to receive them.
No one knows why the captain decided to remain so long in Tahiti—from October 26, 1788 to April 4, 1789—but it did little to lessen the final clash of wills.
When the day came to depart, it was hard to say goodbye. But at last the men boarded the ship again and bade farewell to their happy life of many months. None aboard had any Idea that within twenty-three days a mutiny would take place—a mutiny that would affect every man on board for the remainder of his life.
Slowly the ship was towed out into the sea by large native canoes, and then, setting sail, the ship slowly headed west toward the Indian Ocean. All prepared for another long, wearisome journey. And it was quick to begin. Two or three days after embarking, Captain Bligh confiscated all the food that had been given as presents to the crewmen by their many friends back in Tahiti. To this Christian objected. Bligh immediately retorted with an outpouring of foul and sarcastic language. To this, Christian replied, "Sir, your abuse is so bad that I cannot do my duty with any pleasure."
Christian had been warned by Bligh not to use arms against the natives, and so, two weeks later, when the Bounty stopped at the island of Anamooka for water and were repulsed by unfriendly natives, Christian returned to the ship without firing on them. At this, Bligh swore at him and called him a coward for not attacking them. The breach between the two men was widening.
Three days later, while still in the Tonga group of islands, the episode occurred that was the direct forerunner of the mutiny. On the afternoon of the 27th of April, Bligh came up on the quarter-deck and discovered that some coconuts were missing from a pile stored between the guns. In a storm of anger, he declared they had been stolen—and with the knowledge of the other ship's officers. To this, they replied that they had not seen anyone touch them. (These were Bligh's own coconuts; the officers and men had theirs in their own rooms below deck).
Turning to Christian, Bligh ordered him to go below and search the officers' quarters and bring up every coconut to be found. "How many coconuts do you have in your cabin?" he roared at Christian.
"I really do not know, sir," replied Christian, "but I hope you do not think me guilty of stealing yours." "Yes," Bligh snapped, with an oath, "I do think so—you are all thieves alike! You will steal my yams next. I will flog you, and make you jump overboard before we reach Endeavor Straits!" He then turned to Mr. Samuel, the ship's clerk (who later reported the incident at the official inquiry back in England), and demanded that he stop "the villains' grog" and give them only half a pound of yams for food the next day. Then turning to the men he declared that if any more nuts were missing he would reduce the rations to a quarter pound.
The effect of all this was terrific on Fletcher Christian. There was a growing question in his mind as to what effect all this would have on his service record upon returning to England. What lay ahead? Such thoughts as these were in his mind as evening drew on. He did not know that he was only twenty-four hours from the end of his naval career .