HMS Bounty

HMS (in actuality -- HMAV -- His Majesty's Armed Vessel) Bounty was a collier (a coal-carrying merchant ship) named Bethia until she was purchased by the Royal Navy of the UK on May 26, 1787. She was a tiny ship at 215 tons, mounting only four four-pounders and ten swivels. (By way of comparison, Cook's Endeavour displaced 368 tons, and Resolution 462 tons.) She was purchased for a single mission, an experiment: to travel to Tahiti, pick up breadfruit plants, and transport them to the West Indies in hopes that they would grow well there and become a cheap source of food for slaves.

In June 1787, Bounty was refitted at Deptford. The great cabin was converted to house the potted breadfruit plants and gratings fitted to the upper deck. Lieutenant William Bligh, 33-year-old former sailing master of HMS Resolution, was appointed commanding officer on August 16. Though now routinely portrayed as the epitome of abusive sailing captains, Bligh received the appointment because he was considered an exceptionally capable naval officer -- an evaluation he was to prove correct.

On December 23, Bounty sailed from Spithead for Tahiti. For a full month, she attempted to round Cape Horn, but adverse weather blocked her. Bligh ordered her to turn about, and proceeded east, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and crossing the width of the Indian Ocean. Bounty raised Tahiti on October 25, 1788, after ten months at sea.

Bligh and his crew spent five months in Tahiti, collecting and preparing a total of 1015 breadfruit plants. Bligh allowed the crew to live ashore and care for the potted breadfruit plants, and they became socialised to the customs, and culture of the Tahitians. Master's Mate and Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian and a Tahitian named Maimiti married. Three crewmen deserted, but were recaptured. Instead of hanging them, Bligh ordered them flogged.

Bounty left Tahiti on April 4, 1789. On April 28, in the Friendly Islands, Fletcher Christian led a mutiny. Of the 44 men on board, 11 joined Christian in mutiny while 31 remained loyal to Bligh. The mutineers set Bligh and 18 of the loyal crew adrift in the ship's launch; the other 13 were forced to stay and man the ship with the mutineers.

The mutineers sailed for the island of Tubuai, where they tried to settle. After three months, however, they returned to Tahiti to put 16 of the crew ashore. Christian, eight other crewmen, six Tahitian men, and 11 women, one with a baby, set sail in Bounty hoping to elude the Royal Navy.

Meanwhile, Bligh, equipped only with a sextant and a pocket watch -- no charts or compass -- navigated the 23-foot launch on a 41-day, 3200-mile voyage to Timor. The only casualty of his voyage was a crewman who was stoned to death by the natives of the first island they tried to land on. Lieutenant Bligh went on to attain the rank of Vice Admiral.

The mutineers passed through the Fiji and Cook islands, but feared that they would be found there. (Their fears were justified; three mutineers that remained in Tahiti were found and hanged.) Moving on, they discovered Pitcairn Island, which had been misplaced on the Royal Navy's charts. On January 23, 1790, they burned the ship in what is now Bounty Bay.

When the American sailing ship Topaz, commanded by Mayhew Folger, discovered the island in 1808, only John Adams, ten women and some children still lived. Murder accounted for most of the deaths, though suicide, accident, and disease played parts. Fletcher Christian was one of the murder victims; he was survived by Maimiti and their son Thursday October Christian, the first child born on the island. In 1825, John Adams was granted amnesty for his mutiny; Pitcairn's capital, Adamstown, is named for him. On November 30, 1838, the Pitcairn Islands (which include the uninhabited islands of Henderson, Ducie, and Oeno) were incorporated into the British Empire.

The novel Mutiny on the Bounty, and the several movies and television shows based on it, relate a fictionalized version of these events.

General Characteristics

  • Displacement: 215 tons
  • Length: 91 feet
  • Beam: 24 feet
  • Complement: 44

Further reading

  • Caroline Alexander, The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, Viking Penguin, 2003, hardcover, 512 pages, ISBN 067003133X

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