Folger knew the truth. He had stumbled onto what had become of the mutineers from the Bounty.
William Bligh was 33 years old.
The Bounty's mission was to travel to the south sea Islands of Tahiti,
to collect bread fruit to be replanted in Jamaica and the slave colonies.
To be sure, there were question marks by British citizens about the existence of slave colonies.
Another Bounty crewman had sailed on an earlier voyage with Bligh. They both respected the other. The crewman had spoken highly of Bligh as a commander. Bligh recommended him for the Bounty and genuinely liked him, making him his protege, inviting him to the Captain's table often. The crewman had visited the Bligh's home and had 'danced Bligh's children on his knee'. That crewman's name... was Fletcher Christian.
After long, frustrating delays in getting orders, the Bounty sailed on December 23, 1787. They made it to Cape Horn, (the tip of South America), but because of their late start, the weather and winds had turned against them. After spending 30 days in high storms trying to get around the Cape, Bligh was forced to give up and sail the other way to Tahiti. The 16,000 mile voyage would now be 28,086 miles.
Heading to their first stop over and supplies, the Cape of Good Hope, (South Africa), Fletcher Christian was promoted to acting Lieutenant.
A week later, Bligh was forced to punish a crewman for insolence and mutinous behavior. The man was sentenced to 2 dozen lashes with a whip.
Lush, tropical landscape with uninhibited women.
William Bligh had earlier visited Tahiti when he was with the famous explorer, Captain Cook.
In fact, Bligh had observed Cook being killed in Hawaii.
Tynah, the main chief of the region, remembered Bligh with warmness. Bligh and his crew were in the hands of good friends.
Up to this point, Bligh had gotten along very well with his crew.
Because the Bounty had arrived at a later date than planned,
they would be forced to spend five months at Tahiti...
Over the months breadfruit plants were collected and prepared for the voyage. The crew made the best of the Island, with some becoming involved with the women to the point of marriage.
Discipline was enforced. A total of six men had been flogged since the voyage had begun.
( I want to point out that floggings were common on British ships. It was expected. )
Desertion was somewhat common in Tahiti.
The very popular Captain Cook had sailed three times to Tahiti.
Each time... he had men desert.
Several weeks later, something happened...
Days later, they stopped at an Island for water and wood. Bligh had visited the Island before with Captain Cook. Cook had encountered problems with the local natives and so did the Bounty crew. The natives were stealing, harassing and threatening.
Christian was sent ashore to refill the water barrels.
Bligh had ordered that no firearms were to be used, because of his previous experience with Captain Cook. In Bligh's opinion, the use of firearms had made a bad situation much worse, with the end result of Captain Cook being beaten to death.
Christian's water gathering group was threatened.
Bligh criticized Fletcher's perfomance on the Island.
Christian countered that the order was to not use firearms.
They had more serious words.
Bligh called Christian a coward...
Hollywood Murder Mystery!
Tomorrow and Tonight
The physical description of Fletcher Christian sounds like he really did look like actor Clark Gable.
Here is a scene from the 1935 film with Charles Laughton.
Bligh came on deck one evening and noticed that the piles were lower. He accused the officers of helping themselves to them. Fletcher admitted that he had taken one. Bligh called the officers thieves and threatened to have half of them thrown overboard.
He threatened to cut back on their allotment of yams, (they were already receiving more than their allotment).
Note: William Bligh swore a lot in his career. He would threaten, but he actually treated his crews well.
Bligh cooled down and didn't even mention the coconut incident in his personal or ship's logs. Bligh invited Fletcher to have dinner with him, as he had throughout the voyage. Fletcher refused.
Suddenly, Fletcher Christian and other men grab Bligh, tying his hands behind him.
Bligh shouts out, "Murder!"
He is led past men with firearms and swords and taken to the deck. Fletcher Christian orders that a small launch (boat) is prepared. Crewmen pointed out that the launch is too small and leaky. So the large launch is prepared and lowered to the water.
Christian gave the crew a choice. Stay with him or join Bligh in the boat.
He is surprised when many of the men elect to join Bligh.
Christian refuses to let the armorer and carpenter leave, knowing that he might need them.
Bligh shouted that not everyone who wanted to leave the Bounty could get into the boat.
Bligh also said, "Mr. Christian. You have danced my children on your knee".
Christian repeatedly said, "I have been in Hell. I have been in Hell."
Supplies were lowered to the launch. Bligh would try to survive with 18 other men. The launch had a small sail and oars. It measured 23 feet in length, less than 7 feet wide and less than 3 feet deep. It was hopelessly overloaded, showing only 7 inches above the water line.
Over 2 years later, at the court martial, in all the confusion, men would be unable to remember where they stood on the Bounty, who had weapons, what had been said. But, they all remembered Bligh shouting out to the men who wanted to join him but couldn't, "Never fear, my lads. I'll do you justice if ever I reach England!"
And thus, began the epic journey of William Bligh. It was an impossible journey, trying to reach a civilized land where they could get help. Stopping at one Island in hopes of supplies, they were attacked by natives; one of Bligh's men was killed.
But William Bligh and the 17 remaining men survived.
It was an impossible journey... and they succeeded.
They reached the Dutch settlement at Timor, North of Australia.
William Bligh was proclaimed a hero.
Some months later, Bligh attended his own court martial, which was common and expected for a commander who had lost his ship.
Of course, he was found not guilty.
Later, Bligh wrote and published, for sale, his account of the mutiny. It was widely read by the public.
The people of Tahiti were delighted that the Bounty had returned. They were told a lie by the Bounty crew.
The Bounty had encountered the famous and popular Captain Cook, (who had died years before). Cook was starting a new settlement and asked the people of Tahiti to help provide supplies. Bligh had stayed with Cook.
The natives were delighted to help.
When the Bounty departed Tahiti it had pigs, supplies and nine women. Also, there were some Tahitian men and boys.
Back on the Island of Tubuai a defensive fort was built.
But, there were problems already. The Bounty crew was arguing and fighting among themselves.
There had been continuing problems with the natives there.
One day, there was a big battle between the Island natives and the people of the Bounty. Because they had muskets and sabers, the Bounty people won decisively.
Sixty-six Tabuai natives, including 6 women, lay dead on the ground.
But, Fletcher and the others realized that the situation on Tabuai was not going to get better.
The Bounty didn't even stay a day at Tahiti.
Fletcher Christian did not even get off the boat.
During the night, with women and some Tahitian men aboard, the Bounty quietly sailed away.
It should be noted that years later, one of the women would tell people that she and the others did not know that the Bounty was leaving that night.
She said that they had been kidnapped...
Peter Heywood and some of the other crewmen were delighted to see the ship and rowed out to greet her.
Note: These acts of greeting the British ship were later used to indicate that these men felt that they were innocent of the mutiny.
Sixteen men had been left on the Island by the Bounty.
One of them had killed another. He in turn, was killed by the angry Tahitians.
The 14 remaining men from the Bounty, including those that William Bligh had specifically told the British were innocent of the mutiny... were all arrested and imprisoned.
Captain Edwards' instructions were to arrest all of them.
The prisoners were put in irons in a very small prison on the Pandora.
They would reman there for months.
The Pandora spent several months sailing to various Islands in the Tahita area hoping to find the Bounty.
Finally, the Pandora sailed home.
Peter Heywood was from a poor but very influential family. They provided him an attorney and new clothes.
And more importantly... they talked to other people of influence.
A major witness, the Master's Mate John Fryer, who had written to his wife that Peter Heywood was one of the men that had grabbed Bligh on the morning of the mutiny, now testified that Heywood was not one of the men.
One of Heywood's defense moves was that he was extremely young, not quite seventeen years old, and groggy during the early morning mutiny.
Note: His age was not a good defense. Back in those days it was quite common for boys as young as ten to start their maritime career. The judges at the court martial had all started at early ages.
A good defense that they all used was that the launch was overloaded and that to climb in meant certain death.
Afterall, hadn't Bligh himself said that they couldn't all get in?
Two common questions at the court martial: When a man did as Fletcher Christian or one of the other mutineers told them, were they working with the mutineers or just relunctantly taking orders from men with weapons?
When they helped get the large launch ready, were they helping the mutineers or helping Bligh and the others to stay alive?
A number of them claimed that it was 'he' who argued for the larger launch.
Obviously, everyone was trying to save their necks.
One main point was in all of the prisoners' favor.
The chief witness, William Bligh... was not there. He was back in Tahiti.
Upon his arrival back in Tahiti, Bligh was warmly received by the Chief and the Tahitians.
They were very happy to find that he had lived through his ordeal.
Bligh looked at the home that Peter Heywood had built for he and his Tahitian wife.
Bligh wrote in his journal...
"... The villain who assisted in taking the Bounty from me."
The wife of one of the men of the Bounty brought their daughter to meet Bligh. She said that her husband always cried when he spoke of Bligh and the mutiny.
She said Peter Heywood had been perfectly satisfied. She said Heywood and some of the others deserved to die.
The other six, including Peter Heywood, were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.
But, in consideration of various circumstances, Heywood and another man were recommended His Majesty's mercy.
A third man awaited a special ruling.
Some weeks later, Peter Heywood and James Morrison were pardoned.
Sometime later, three men were hanged.
Months later, the last man was pardoned.
Newspapers reported the events sympathetically, saying that these men had suffered much in their long confinement and harsh treatment as prisoners.
Newspapers also suggested that the mutiny was deserved, afterall, "40 men were put on the rations of 12".
Of course, this last part was a lie and no one knows where it came from, but it was the beginning of false reports that would start changing people's minds about William Bligh and the mutiny.
The families of Peter Heywood and Fletcher Christian had started a misinformation campaign to clear the names of their two sons.
People began to look on the mutiny with romantic eyes.
The charismatic and likable Fletcher Christian, (they even liked his name), had been forced to mutiny against the despicable William Bligh.
Even though many of the reports were found to be untrue, it's obvious that some of the mud stuck.
Why else would Hollywood portray Bligh in such a bad manner?
There was a growing perception in the British people's minds
that Fletcher Christian, a man of high principles, had escaped... to paradise.
There were 9 mutineers, 11 women, 1 child and 6 Tahitian men.
They drove the ship into a creek that was surrounded by high cliffs.
They unloaded everything they could, and then they burned the Bounty.
Watching the ship burn, some of the mutineers, perhaps all of them, greatly regretted the actions that they had taken.
When the American ship, Topaz, found them in 1808, there were 35 inhabitants, most of them women and children.
There was only one mutineer left alive. His name was Alexander Smith.
He told the Topaz crew what had happened to Fletcher Christian and the others.
However, in the years to come, a number of British ships arrived, and when it had become clear that the British had no interest in arresting the surviving mutineer, he became more comfortable in talking.
The problem is, he told a number of different stories and versions.
Fletcher Christian had killed himself, went insane, was murdered or died of natural causes.
A later British ship was shown the diary of Edward Young, the second to last surviving mutineer, and a more clear picture began to form.
One story was that Fletcher's wife had died shortly after arrival and that he had simply taken the wife of a Tahitian man.
After they had become settled on Pitcairn, serious divisions among everyone started forming.
The Tahitian men were looked upon as servants, even slaves.
Fletcher spent a lot of time sitting in a cave, looking out to the sea.
Two of the mutineers died in the first two years.
Several years later, there appears to have been a mini 'civil war'.
Sides had formed, with the intent to kill the other.
The 'first massacre' took place...
Fletcher Christian and four other mutineers were killed.
Fletcher was tilling his yam fields when he was shot.
The remaining mutineers were shocked to find that the women refused to bury the five dead mutineers.
The women hated living there.
They had become angry.
The women began to hate the white men.
As stated earlier, one of the women later told of being kidnapped from Tahiti.
It's not clear what exactly did take place on Pitcairn, but eventually just one man survived on the Island.
Note: It has been suggested that the reason that the sole survivor among the men told different versions of the events...
was because it was he who had killed Fletcher Christian...
The last mutineer died in 1829.
Because of the families of Peter Heywood and Fletcher Christian, the public had become comfortable with the idea that the mutiny had happened because of the tyranny of the infamous William Bligh.
Bligh had a hard life, and I honestly believe that he was an honorable man who always treated his crews well.
He was a Vice Admiral, living with his daughters on a comfortable estate that he had bought, when he died in 1817. He was 63 years old.
Of course, he was right.
After five months on the Island, the idea of a long and difficult voyage back to England, and a harder life, must have been weighing heavily on them.
Fletcher Christian's older brother wrote that, "Had Fletcher been absent from the boat for one day, perhaps just one hour, none of this may have happened..."
For the complete story, I recommend the book that I based this essay on,
'The Bounty', by Caroline Alexander.
Adventures in the Evil Empire!
Return to Main Page