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The mutineers dreamed about a better life...

On April 28, 1789, Fletcher Christian, Master's Mate of the British ship HMS Bounty, led a revolt against the Bounty's acting captain, Lieutenant William Bligh. The Bounty was returning from a mission to collect breadfruit plants from Tahiti, for use as a potential food source on New World plantations. Various reasons for the mutiny have been cited and discussed, among them the legendary tyranny of "Captain" Bligh, and the desire of some crew members to return to Tahiti. For some of the crew, particularly the able seamen, Tahiti seemed a paradise, where the men were treated like nobility in the midst of plenty. Other factors include the cramped conditions on the Bounty once the breadfruit plants were stowed, and the absence of Royal Marines to guard the arms chest and quell any rebellions.

A romantic vision of Pitcairn Island's life

During the mutiny, Bligh and 18 other crew members were set adrift in an open boat, with one week's provisions and a few simple navigation instruments. Remarkably, Bligh sailed the small, crowded boat through 3,500 miles of open sea to the Dutch colony of Timor in the East Indies. Twelve of the original 19 men that the mutineers cast adrift survived the ordeal and ultimately arrived safely in England.

Once Bligh and his loyalists were removed, Fletcher Christian assumed command of the Bounty. With him were 24 crew members. Some of these people had no part in the mutiny, and fully expected to be absolved of all blame in the rebellion. The others were split between those who wanted to return to Tahiti and take their chances, and those who wanted to find a hiding place where they would not be found and punished for their crimes. Fletcher Christian was among the latter group.

After several unsuccessful attempts to settle on other South Sea islands, the Bounty returned to Tahiti to collect provisions for another try at colonizing a new home. The non-mutineers, who fully expected to be exonerated for remaining with Fletcher Christian on the Bounty, were allowed to remain on Tahiti to await a ship home. They were joined by the mutineers who did not want to go with Christian in search of a new home. In the Bounty's library, Fletcher Christian searched the maps for a possible hiding place, and found a recently-charted island that was outside of the normal navigation paths of the time. The name of the place was Pitcairn Island. The mutineers remaining with Christian decided to sail for Pitcairn, and make their final settlement there.

The Bounty left Tahiti for its Pitcairn Island quest in 1789. Accompanying the nine mutineers were 6 Polynesian men and 12 Polynesian women.
Location of the Pitcairn Island

Each of the Englishmen had a wife or female companion. It is uncertain which of the natives joined the Englishmen by choice. One theory holds that the Bounty set sail after an evening of feasting on the ship's decks, after most of the Polynesians were asleep. Other evidence indicates that at least some of the natives had established bonds of friendship or marriage with the Bounty mutineers.

In early 1790, after a two-month search, Pitcairn Island was sighted. It appeared to be an ideal refuge for the mutineers. The island was uninhabited, but well-supplied with breadfruit, coconuts, fish, bird eggs and other food sources. Remnants of an earlier, now-abandoned Polynesian settlement were found. Fresh water was available, along with a small pool for bathing. In addition, Pitcairn's topography as a steep volcanic island, with a pounding surf and no land-able beach, made it difficult for ships to land there.

After the decision was made to settle on Pitcairn, livestock and other provisions were removed from the Bounty. To prevent the ship's detection, and anyone's possible escape, the ship was burned in "Bounty Bay".

The Pitcairn island community began its life with hope for the future. There was ample food, water and land for everyone, and the climate was mild. Although many of the Polynesians were homesick, and the Englishmen knew they were marooned on Pitcairn forever, they settled into life on Pitcairn fairly quickly. A number of children were born. Fletcher Christian became the established leader of the community, and followed a policy of fairness and moderation toward all. He wanted the Polynesians to have an equal say in community affairs, and was supported in this by several of the Englishmen. Other mutineers, however, treated the Polynesians as servants, even those of high rank, and attempted to deprive them of land.

The natives resented this unfair treatment, which caused relationships between the Englishmen and the Polynesians to deteriorate. The hostility increased when Jack William's wife died, and one of the Polynesians' consorts was "given" to Williams as a "replacement". Despite Fletcher Christian's efforts to maintain peace, the Polynesian men revolted against their English oppressors in 1794. Several mutineers were killed, among them Fletcher Christian. The revolt of the natives enraged the widows of the dead mutineers. To avenge their husbands' deaths, the Tahitian women killed the remaining Polynesian men.

Christian's death caused a leadership vacuum on the island. Two of the four surviving mutineers, Ned Young and Alex Smith, assumed the leadership role, and an uneasy peace followed until William McCoy created a still and began brewing an alcoholic beverage from a native plant. The Englishmen began drinking excessively and making life miserable for the Pitcairn women. The women revolted, and some attempted to leave the island. Life in Pitcairn became progressively worse until the deaths of McCoy and Quintal, and the destruction of the still. Eventually Alex Smith and Ned Young were reconciled with the women, and the community began to flourish. After Young's death in 1800, Alex Smith, who is also known by the name of John Adams, assumed the role as leader of the community, and took responsibility for educating its members. Smith/Adams started holding regular Sunday services and teaching the Christian religion to the settlement. His gentleness and tolerance enabled the small community to thrive, and peace was restored to Pitcairn Island at last.

In 1808, the American sailing ship Topaz called at Pitcairn Island, and discovered the home of the Bounty's mutineers. From that time on, contact of some form has been maintained with the Pitcairn Islanders.


Author: ldsebastia
Source: Welcome to Pitcairn Island

Last modification: April 29, 2007



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