Saturday, July 7, 2012

The fascinating fate of the Bounty's mutineers ...

The story of the mutiny on the British ship Bounty in 1789 doesn’t end with the near-miraculous voyage to safety of Lieutenant William Bligh and the men loyal to him after mutineers set them adrift in a small boat. The fates of the mutineers are fascinating too.

After the mutiny, 27 men remained on the Bounty. A small number of them had been loyal to Bligh, but were either kept on the larger ship because their skills were needed or there was no room to put them into the smaller craft with the captain. Still others still on the Bounty hadn’t been aligned with the mutineers, but took no action to help Bligh. So the crew manning the troubled ship wasn’t a tremendously harmonious group.

Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutineers, first took the Bounty to the island of Tubuai, about 350 miles south of Tahiti. But within a week, the Bounty sailed to Tahiti, remembered fondly by the crew as a paradise, for food. They returned to Tubuai with some Tahitian women and men, and spent three months trying to establish a settlement there. But arguments, especially over women, and other differences doomed that endeavor. The Bounty and its crew and the Tahitians returned to Tahiti once again. There, the crew split, with some taking up life on the island while Christian and the eight sailors most closely aligned with him left for the high seas on the Bounty.  With them were nine Tahitian women, six Tahitian men, and one Tahitian child.

Upon finding lonely and small Pitcairn Island at a different place than indicated on sea charts, the mutineers decided to settle there – and ensured it by running the Bounty aground, salvaging supplies and equipment from her, and burning the ship.

No one in the rest of the world knew what became of the Bounty and the mutineers who sailed with her on that final voyage until 1808, when an American ship named the Topaz stumbled across Pitcairn’s Island and noticed signs of habitation. Further exploration by the Americans revealed a settlement led by one Alexander Smith (whose real name was John Adams), the sole surviving mutineer, who told the visitors of the others’ fate.

“The colony … prospered, although two of the mutineers died in the first two years, one of ‘sickness,’ one by jumping off the towering rocks in a fit of insanity,” wrote Caroline Alexander, author of the 2003 book The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, in summarizing Smith’s account. “Four or five years later, six of the seven remaining mutineers, including Fletcher Christian, were killed in the night by their ‘Otaheite [Tahitian] servants,’ who had risen against them. Only [mutineer] Alexander Smith had been left alive, although badly wounded. The [Tahitian] widows of the mutineers then in turn killed their Tahitian kinsmen in revenge, and so Smith had been left with all the women, and their various offspring.” Of course, there’s no good way to verify Smith’s account, but no good reason to doubt the gist of it either – although he reportedly offered conflicting details in later retellings of his story.

The captain of the Topaz reported his find to British authorities, but Britain didn’t pursue it. And a when couple of British ships happened up the Pitcairn Island colony in 1814, they had no clue that it had been discovered years earlier.  This re-discovery brought much attention, however, and John Adams [aka Alexander Smith] was granted amnesty in 1825. Pitcairn and surrounding islands were made part of the British Empire in 1838.

But many of the mutineers who remained on Tahiti when the Bounty took its last voyage to Pitcairn weren’t as fortunate as Adams/Smith. After Bligh returned to England and reported the mutiny, British authorities sent another ship – the Pandora – to hunt down them down.  Fourteen former Bounty crewmen were found on Tahiti, arrested, and placed in a cage on the Pandora’s deck. A search for the other mutineers on neighboring islands proved fruitless, so the Pandora set sail back to England. Tragedy struck when the ship ran aground and sank with the loss of 31 crewmen and four of the prisoners.

When the ten surviving prisoners finally arrived back in England, they were court martialed. Three were found guilty and hanged, three were found guilty but pardoned, and four were acquitted.

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