Mutiny on the Bounty

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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey. Most of us know a little bit about our topic for today, the mutiny on the Bounty, and there's this outraged group of sailors, and they mutiny against their captain, and two amazing stories ensure. The first is that the mutineers, with a group of Tahitian women, end up establishing a colony on this remote Pacific island that still exists today, the island and the colony, obviously. The other is that the cast-off captain and his loyalists navigate thousands of miles to safety and make it all the way back to England eventually, but that's about all most people know.

Katie Lambert: Our understanding of the people involved isn't quite as good as our understanding of the basics. That's partly due to the misleading but entertaining portrayals of the story's two leading men in film, Captain Bligh, and our mutineer, Fletcher Christian.

Sarah Dowdey: Most of the films depict Bligh as this hard-nosed bully, and Christian is a dashing hero, but those depictions aren't necessarily correct.

Katie Lambert: Sometimes movies lie.

Sarah Dowdey: It turns out though that the films weren't the first to skew it that way, with one as the hero and one as this mean old captain. The two men's respective reputations actually started to grow shortly after the mutiny itself when some of the participants are brought back to England for justice and try to skew the story and save their hides be defaming their captain.

Katie Lambert: It's these interesting back stories and others that continue centuries after the mutiny that made our listener, Katherine in London, suggest the topic, so we're going to start our mission.

Sarah Dowdey: So the famous mutiny happens in the Pacific Islands in 1789. Before we get into that, we have to understand why the ship was there in the first place. It wasn't on your ordinary run of the mill mission.

Katie Lambert: No, it was a culinary mission. To understand, we have to go back to 1769 when Captain James Cook's ship, the Endeavor, discovered the breadfruit in Tahiti, and Joseph Banks, a famous botanist on board took note.

Sarah Dowdey: Several years after this, England had a bit of a food crisis. It wasn't about feeding their own people but about feeding their slaves in Jamaica and the Lesser Antilles. They were wondering, "What can we feed all of these people with that's cheap and easy to grow in the Caribbean?" Part of the problem was that they didn't have the North American colonies anymore producing loads of food and fish to feed these big slave populations.

Katie Lambert: So botanist Banks suggested the breadfruit, but of course, that's in Tahiti, so someone would have to go there, take saplings and cuttings, and then attempt to propagate the tree in the west Indies. By 1787, a very adamant Banks finally convinced the king to sponsor this mission. Who would they put in charge? Good old, reliable William Bligh.

Sarah Dowdey: William Bligh had been in the navy for quite some time. He was born to a customs officer in 1754, probably in Plymouth, England. He joined the Royal Navy as a teen and rose pretty fast under the service of Captain Cook, who we mentioned earlier. Bligh was even there when Cook was bludgeoned to death by natives in what is now the Hawaiian Islands. That would be an unfortunate thing to witness. He also learned a lot from Cook. After returning to England, and getting married, and having kids, he left the Royal Navy and became a commander of merchant ships, which was a really good way to make a lot of money, and to have a bit of an easier career than sailing all over the world for the Navy.

Katie Lambert: Right. But he came out of retirement to serve on this breadfruit mission, and his vessel would be the 215-ton Bethia, renamed The Bounty. He accepted the mission, but it didn't turn out to be the prestigious well-funded scientific expedition he'd hoped it would be. The ship was tiny. He didn't get the title of master and commander. He didn't have the security and commissioned officers that should've come with that kind of trip. Nevertheless, he's got a major trip underway, and one of the first men he recruits is Fletcher Christian, who's served him well before and has connections to his family. However!

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. So we have this really bizarre mission to get the breadfruit, not a particularly popular mission. Nevertheless, it sets off De cember 23rd, 1787 after delays of weeks because of unsuitable weather, so a bad start almost right away. But the ship leaves from Spithead, England. The plan is to go to Tahiti by way of South America, sailing around the Cape Horn. They near the cape by late March, but the weather is so bad they take a detour. This detour is insane.

Katie Lambert: A detour around the world.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. If you get mad about having to go a few blocks out of your way, take note here. Their detour involves going around the Cape of Good Hope, which is in Africa, obviously. It takes until May for them to get there. They stop at Cape Town, refit their ship, reload their supplies, and head on their way.

Katie Lambert: Bligh may have been disappointed with the initial expedition, but things are actually going well so far, especially considering their bad weather and the long delay. The men are in good health. There haven't been a lot of injuries. He even loans money to Christian while they're in Africa.

Sarah Dowdey: Which Bligh was a little bit of a tightwad, so that's really saying something.

Katie Lambert: That's a big deal. From the cape, they headed to Tasmania, which is where their troubles began.

Sarah Dowdey: They have a man die after a bloodletting, and some of the other men become a little insolent. Still, they press on. They get to Tahiti October 24th, 1788. When they arrive in Tahiti, the islanders come pouring aboard the ship. This is a relatively happy time. Perhaps one of the truly happy times on this mission! Bligh has been to the islands before. He really likes Tahiti. He gets along well with the native people. He even calls Tahiti the paradise of the world. He also gets to work on his mission, which is, of course, securing the breadfruit plants and trees.

Katie Lambert: So he gets permission from the island chiefs to transplant and builds a place to put the plants and let them grow, and then hangs tight for about five months to see if the plants take and to wait out the rainy season. His men don't seem to mind. Tahiti, of course, is gorgeous, and they like he native women, but not all of their tensions melt away. Three of the men go missing with arms and ammo. They aren't found for three weeks. Bligh gets grumpy, of course, to find that his orders aren't carried out. The men are lax about important issues. The spare sails rot and mildew, for example.

Sarah Dowdey: Pretty major problems happening.

Katie Lambert: Yeah. It's a big deal. Finally, on April 5th, The Bounty is ready to leave with its 1,015 saplings.

Sarah Dowdey: By the 11th of April, the ship anchors at the rather ironically named Friendly Islands because not long after they leave there, Bligh and Christian begin to argue.

Katie Lambert: Not friendly.

Sarah Dowdey: No, it's not friendly. This is according to a later account, but things get worse by the 21st. That's when Christian is heard to say, "Sir, your abuse is so bad that I cannot do my duty with any pleasure. I have been in hell for weeks with you."

Katie Lambert: By April 24th, the two are fighting again. Bligh is disappointed that Christian let native men scare him, and he's furious that the watch let a native diver make off with the small anchor. That brings us to our last straw, which was Bligh's manhunt over stolen coconuts.

Sarah Dowdey: Which sounds absolutely ridiculous, but I think you have to consider these people being in such close quarters with each other for so long.

Katie Lambert: In an already tense situation.

Sarah Dowdey: Ready to go home. Stolen coconuts become a really big deal. But Bligh specifically implicates Christian before imposing this ration on yams, and it just devastates Christian. Apparently he's seen crying. Bligh, it's not as big of a deal for him. He actually doesn't stay angry for long. He invites Christian to dine with him that night. Christian doesn't get over it so quickly though.

Katie Lambert: Because predawn on April 28th, according to Bligh's a ccount, Christian comes in with other men, seizes him, ties him up, and threatens to kill them. They haul him naked, except for a shirt, onto the deck where he's placed on the launch vessel and joined by 18 others who were loyal to the captain.

Sarah Dowdey: They're given some supplies: rum, about five days' worth of food, water, some tools, and a compass, and four cutlasses tossed in at the last minute. Three people loyal to Bligh are actually detained onboard. That'll come into play later. Bligh is there trying to reason with Christian at the last minute. He knows what's about to happen to him, and he knows it most likely means death and death for the men on this little skiff. He tries to remind Christian that he's held his children back in England, that he's been his mentor this whole time, and asks if this is proper repayment for his kindness. Christian says, "That, Captain Bligh that is the thing. I am in hell. I am in hell." So Christian is pretty tortured by this decision to mutiny against his captain.

Katie Lambert: Other men at the trial substantiate this account. It's possible that Christian had considered slipping off the ship in a raft alone, which would've been suicidal, but was talked into mutiny instead. While a movie might end there, our podcast will not.

Sarah Dowdey: First we're going to catch up with the captain post-mutiny. Things look really bleak. It's this tiny boat, lots of guys, not much food, and they're sailing through mostly uncharted water.

Katie Lambert: Certain death it would seem.

Sarah Dowdey: Yes, certain death it seems like. But even though Bligh isn't the best people person, maybe not the best captain for -

Katie Lambert: No managerial skills.

Sarah Dowdey: Negotiating with folks, he's a really great navigator. From his tiny little glimpses he's had of charted waters, the waters that actually are charted, he's able to navigate thousands of miles back to safety.

Katie Lambert: What he's done is pretty fantastic, and they stop on a volcanic island, but when one of them is killed by natives, Bligh is determined not to stop again. To Timor or death, as Sarah wrote in her outline! The problem would be that Timor is 3,600 miles away.

Sarah Dowdey: The other thing is that everyone on the boat kind of hates each other, which is going to be a running theme through the rest of the podcast. They bicker and argue with each other the whole way. Of course, they're starving, too, so they have a lot of good reasons to be on the grumpy side.

Katie Lambert: Miraculously, they reach Timor June 14th, 1789. The English Chronicle calls the navigation of his little skiff through so dangerous a sea "a matchless undertaking that seems beyond the verge of probability."

Sarah Dowdey: From there, they go on to Jakarta and eventually find a ride all the way back to England. Bligh is hailed as a hero. He writes a narrative which is very popular. He also gets a new job, still with the breadfruit. You would think he would be so sick of breadfruit by this point. This time around, the mission is going to be different. He's going to have lieutenants. He's going to have marines for security. I think the Royal Navy has realized that a mission of this size should've been managed better.

Katie Lambert: And it's payback time. The Royal Navy also wants to hunt down our mutineers, if there are any mutineers left to find.

Sarah Dowdey: Which brings us to our next question? What happened to the mutineers? In 1790, the navy commissions Captain Edward Edwards, and the Pandora to find the surviving mutineers in the Pacific. One of the Bligh skiff survivors comes along to presumably help identify the men and to talk to them and probably to bring out their guilt a little too, if this is the guy you tossed into a boat not too long ago.

Katie Lambert: Face-to-face encounter. When the ship arrives in Tahiti, three bounty mutineers swim out to it. They're so ready to go home, and they're arrested and chained while the other men are rounded up and put into the prison hut on deck, which they called Pandora's Box, which is pretty clever. One of the survivors tells Edwards how the men got there, and he pieces more together from the journals of the captured men. The basics are that hatred and jealously began immediately after the mutiny with some men thinking that Christian favored his friends among the mutineers.

Sarah Dowdey: So the ship initially anchors on a tiny island south of Tahiti. Because they're pretty short on supplies, they head back to Tahiti and load up on livestock as well as a bunch of Tahitian people, women, men, boys and one girl, and then head back to their tiny island. They try to live there for about three months before the in-fighting - again with the in-fighting.

Katie Lambert: More?

Sarah Dowdey: It gets insufferable. Christian aggress to take some of the men back to Tahiti. He takes 16 of them back, implying that he'll linger nearby the island on the ship for about a day or so before slipping off.

Katie Lambert: But he doesn't.

Sarah Dowdey: Doesn't happen. He leaves in the middle of the night, essentially kidnapping the women who were on board the ship. One even jumps overboard and swims back from beyond the coral reef when she realizes what's happening.

Katie Lambert: Sadly, of these 16 left in Tahiti, two are murdered. So back to our Captain Edwards, he keeps hunting for Christian and his band of men, but he can't find them. He eventually gives up and starts to head home, but runs his ship aground on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Thirty-one of his men drown, and four prisoners die, so only ten prisoners make it back to England where they will be tried together. The prosecution rests on three points. These men didn't try to stop the mutiny. They didn't get into the launch with Bligh, and they didn't try to get to England after the mutiny, but hid instead.

Sarah Dowdey: There's still more fighting among the defendants over who did what because obviously, this is the time to implicate your fellows. "He was the guy with the weapon. It wasn't me. I was dragged into the whole thing by Christian." You can imagine. It goes on and on. Four of the men have letters from Bligh declaring them innocent. This court martial for them is pretty much a formality. They'll be okay. Three are virtually assured death because they had all been seen with arms. Everyone can agree that these three guys were bearing arms. Three are kind of up in the air, especially one named Peter Heywood, who is the only officer charged. He was only 15 at the time of the mutiny. He's from a really well-connected family though and says that he was young and confused at the time of the mutiny, that he had been sleeping below deck so hadn't been able to react until it was a bit too late, and he didn't want to join the launch because it was so overflowed. Interestingly, too, it's his testimony that kind of helps build up the legend of Bligh as a sadistic, incompetent captain, something that'll help Heywood get off the hook.

Katie Lambert: He, of course, isn't there to defend his own name. He's on breadfruit mission Part 2, so that's the only account people are going by, really.

Sarah Dowdey: So ultimately, one of the prisoners gets off on a legal technicality. Two are pardoned, including Heywood, and then three hang at Portsmouth Harbor. Their bodies are displayed for two hours in the rain, just a warning to other would-be mutineers.

Katie Lambert: Just a message to you. So Bligh's second breadfruit mission is successful. He secures 2,126 plants. He manages to get 678 of them to the West Indies. There he delivers them to Saint Vincent and Jamaica, and he was delayed there by the start of the French Revolution, but eventually returned and continues his up-and-down career. Being gone for the trial was very unfortunate for his reputation since a bit of a pamphlet war started, not only with Heywood's claims against his character, but Christian's brother, a law professor at Cambridge, who interviews the crew members to show problems with the command. That's where he gets his nickname: The Bounty Bastard.

Sarah Dowdey: Which haunts him for the rest of his life? But catching up with Christian and his men, what happens to them? Captain Edwards is never able to find them. Presumably, they're all dead. They don't make it. But the second act of this story continues in 1810 when the American ship, Topaz, and Captain Folger find this English man, Alexander Smith, also known as John Adams, on Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific. What's he doing here? He's claiming he's a Bounty survivor.

Katie Lambert: He tells how the group of mutineers, Tahitian women, and male Tahitian servants landed there in 1790 and stripped and burned the Bounty to cover their tracks. In-fighting - once again - kills off almost everyone, with Christian getting shot in the neck with a pistol ball.

Sarah Dowdey: Although other rumors do have Christian escaping Pitcairn and returning to England, probably unlikely. It seems like in-fighting is our general trend here, and we should probably go with that.

Katie Lambert: We're going with the pistol ball.

Sara h Dowdey: But just because most of the men have killed each other off doesn't mean that this island is devoid of a population. There has been a lot of repopulating going on at the same time. The island now has 35 inhabitants, and Smith is their leader. The first to be born on the island is actually Christian's own son, so this new expedition finds a 20-year-old, Thursday October Christian, the descendent of Fletcher and a Tahitian woman.

Katie Lambert: A name we had a lot of fun with earlier today. Some of the settlers eventually immigrate to Norfolk Island east of Australia and many of them still live there today, but others still live on Pitcairn where they speak English and Pitcairn, a mix of Tahitian and 18th century English, which sounds pretty cool. They trade with ships that come by or sell their stuff online. A few years ago, they had a scandal when numerous men were arrested and charged with abusing underage girls. I'd read a big article in Vanity Fair about it called "Trouble in Paradise," which you can find online. Sarah read some other accounts.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, an NPR story about the journalist, Kathy Marks, who had unearthed this whole history, which apparently stretched back for generations - at least three generations of abuse.

Katie Lambert: That's just a side note for us. We're going to go to the more popular game of what went wrong.

Sarah Dowdey: Why was there this mutiny in the first place? That's the big popular question. One myth to debunk is that Bligh and Christian had this secret illicit relationship and that's why Christian just go so angry at Bligh and mutinied.

Katie Lambert: He was in hell. He was in hell.

Sarah Dowdey: Exactly. The historian on who first suggested this idea retracted it later after she reassessed the size of the ship and figured there was no way you could've conducted a secret affair aboard a vessel so small.

Katie Lambert: This mutiny also didn't happen because Bligh was too strict. In his captain's log, he had noted that he hadn't punished anyone until several months in. He also noted that he'd hoped to complete the journey without it. Flogging and those types of punishments weren't something he realized on. That was a sign of trouble for him.

Sarah Dowdey: He was really pretty light on corporal punishment as far as other captains in the Pacific went. He's a pretty progressive captain according to Caroline Alexander, who is a historian who's written several articles and books on the subject. She said that especially in terms of food and sleep for the men, he's extremely progressive. So it wasn't about that. It wasn't that he was this tyrannical, physically abusive captain.

Katie Lambert: But he could've been verbally and personally abusive in a way that really needled his men.

Sarah Dowdey: Alexander's biggest cause of the mutiny is Fletcher Christian himself. She says that it wouldn't have happened without him and that it happened because if his own personal breakdowns. Maybe we shouldn't look to Bligh for our problems but to Christian himself.

Katie Lambert: Sarah, was this mission for breadfruit all for naught?

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, we have to catch up with the breadfruit here since it's the whole purpose for this story. The specimens that arrive in Jamaica are practically too late because it takes a while for this exotic, strange food to catch on. By the time it does finally catch on, slavery has been abolished by the British. Today though, it's actually a really popular food in Jamaica. According to the Smithsonian, a mature tree produces 200 pounds of fruit a season, which is kind of insane. It's filled with protein, and calories, and carbohydrates, and nutrients. You can grill it, and fry it, and bake it, and roast it. I mean, I feel like I'm talking about shrimp in "Forrest Gump" or something.

Katie Lambert: I was thinking the same thing. So if you'd like to send us a breadfruit recipe, please do. That brings us to the end of the mutiny of the Bounty and our ideas about who or what was the cause of it. That brings us to listener mail. Our first postcard for today is a picture of James Joyce in Paris in 1928, and it's from Andrew in Raleigh, North Carolina, who was actually a high school classmate of mine. Go Harrison High School. He said that he loved the podcast, although he discovered it fairly recently, and that it has been excellent company during his frequent drives to South Carolina to visit his fiancée. He asked us to do a podcast about America's Stonehenge. Thank you for the suggestion, Andrew, and for getting back in touch.

Sarah Dowdey: We also got a postcard from Maddie, who is studying abroad in Strasburg. She suggested that we do a little bit of history on the city, especially the cathedral. I think it mostly made Katie and want to go check out one of the local Alsatian restaurants here in town.

Katie Lambert: Café Alsace in Decatur, which we both really love. Our last postcard of the day is a reproduction of the Boston Common at twilight. It's a postcard from Bostonian Sophie who says she's a long-time devotee of the podcast and especially loved our episode on the art heist at the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, which she says she passes every day on her way to work. She requests some more art history topics, and then asked, "P.S. Is snail mail really the key to listener mail glory?" Yes. Yes, it is.

Sarah Dowdey: Although we've gotten so much awesome snail mail, postcards, and letters, and all kinds of things in the past few weeks that we can't read them all anymore.

Katie Lambert: We wish we could show it all to you because we have some really gorgeous ones. We're trying to figure out if we could scan them and somehow share them, but so far we haven't really come up with a good strategy for that.

Sarah Dowdey: They're really pretty in our cubes though.

Katie Lambert: Yes, thank you. We love them. If you'd like to send us email, we take that too at We also have a Twitter feed which you should follow at MissedinHistory, and a Facebook fan page at HistoryClassStuff, so look for us, and stop by our home page at

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