Two hundred and twenty-five years ago today, on April 28, 1789, 20 men of the British warship HMS Bounty mutinied against their captain, William Bligh, and took over the ship. This is probably the most famous nautical mutiny in history, having been the subject of countless books and three big-budget movies (one in 1935, one in 1962, one in 1984), and the term “Captain Bligh” has passed into our language as a synonym for a tyrannical, overbearing authority. There’s no need to retell the whole Bounty story here, even as it is different than pop culture would have us believe–Captain Bligh, for instance, does not appear to have been as tyrannical as he’s often been portrayed. There are many lesser-known aspects of the mutiny that deserve attention, in my opinion, and one of them is the interesting fate of what happened to nine members of the Bounty’s crew who eventually settled on Pitcairn Island, the Pacific paradise that will forever be associated with the ship whose remains still lie there to this day.
Although a society evidently flourished on Pitcairn centuries ago, the island was uninhabited when the Bounty, under the command of chief mutineer Fletcher Christian, sailed into its harbor on January 15, 1790, eight and a half months after the mutiny. There were 28 people aboard: Christian plus eight other former Bounty crewmen, twelve Tahitian women (some of whom were married to the Britons), six Polynesian men, and a baby. Christian had chosen Pitcairn because it was a very obscure island on the British charts, believed to be uninhabited, and he thought the chances of the British Navy finding them there were nil. Christian and his men took everything useful off the Bounty and then set the ship on fire. It sank there; its wreckage still lies at the bottom of the harbor. Now knowing they were marooned on Pitcairn Island for the rest of their lives, the mutineers and their families got to work trying to build their own small civilization in this very out-of-the-way corner of the world.
The cove on Pitcairn Island where the famous ship burned and sank–and where its rudder was eventually discovered years later–is called “Bounty Bay.”
At first they had some success. They gathered fruits and vegetables to eat and began some rudimentary cultivation. But this was not an egalitarian society. Some of the white men looked down on the Polynesian men, treating them virtually like slaves. They were not allowed to own property or attain any real status in the community. There were also too few women. Twelve arrived that day in January 1790, including Mauatua, Christian’s wife, whom he married in Tahiti while the Bounty was laid up there before the mutiny. (The desire to stay with their Tahitian wives was one of the major factors that motivated the crew to mutiny). Before 1790 was over two of the women were dead of accidents. Fifteen men and ten women, all bottled up together on an otherwise deserted island, with no hope of escape and no likelihood of new people coming into the community–what do you think is going to happen in this situation?
It did happen. Violence began to break out among the men of Pitcairn Island. The racial incidents evidently escalated, and two of the Polynesian men were killed on the order of some of the white men. This triggered a cycle of revenge. In September 1793, four of the Polynesian men remaining alive decided to massacre the Britons. Fletcher Christian was killed in this fighting, some say shot through the head while working next to his wife’s home. The little war on Pitcairn’s Island left only a few of the Polynesians and four of the white men still alive. Then the Polynesians turned on each other. At one point it seemed nearly everybody on Pitcairn Island wanted to kill everybody else. Nearly half the island’s population had died of murder since their arrival.
Things got even worse when one of the surviving mutineers, William McCoy, figured out how to distill liquor from fruits on the island. McCoy built a makeshift still and quickly he and his friend Matthew Quintal became alcoholics. Liquor was a poison that nearly destroyed the community. McCoy jumped to his death in a drunken stupor in 1798. The next year, as things went sour again, the two remaining mutineers, John Adams and Ned Young, killed Quintal when they believed he was planning to kill the whole rest of the community. Again, the cycle of murder continued.
John Adams, the last surviving mutineer from the Bounty, died in 1829. His grave is still visible on Pitcairn Island.
Ned Young died of asthma in 1800, leaving John Adams the only surviving Briton on Pitcairn Island. Adams called himself “Alexander Smith.” By now the women and children were finally starting to build a community that approached stability. In 1808, nearly 20 years after the mutiny, the outside world finally found Pitcairn Island. The American ship Topaz rediscovered the island on February 8, 1808. The ship stayed only 10 hours, but during those 10 hours the captain and crew learned the fate of the Bounty mutineers and even salvaged the Bounty’s chronometer to bring back to England. Adams did not want to leave. Granted amnesty for his actions in the mutiny, he died peacefully on Pitcairn Island in 1829, having spent more than half his life there.
Today Pitcairn Island is much more peaceful than it was in the 1790s, but the community there still faces challenges. Charges of systemic problems with sexual abuse rocked the island in the last decade, and out-migration has reduced its population considerably. Officially annexed by Great Britain in 1887, Pitcairn Island remains one of the most unique and interesting societies on planet Earth, made so by its tiny size but also by its very unusual history. That history did not begin with the Bounty and certainly doesn’t end there, but that word looms large in Pitcairn Island’s past.