Reappraising the mutiny on board HMS Bounty

In late December 1787, HMS Bounty set sail for Tahiti under the command of Lieutenant William Bligh, a 33-year-old career sailor who had voyaged to the far reaches of the Pacific with Captain Cook and served with distinction during several sea battles against the Dutch in the American War of Independence. Today he is known only for what happened aboard the Bounty – in April 1789 roughly half of the crew mutinied against Bligh, cast him adrift and sailed away with the ship.

Most of what we know about the mutiny comes from Bligh’s own account, in which he gives notably less space to the possible grievances that may have led to the mutiny than he does the adventure he had afterwards. After all, he and his loyal crew were cast adrift in a 23ft (7m) open launch, thousands of miles from the nearest colonial outpost, with insufficient supplies to last. Due to Bligh’s seamanship, however, he and his loyal crew sailed over 3,500 nautical miles to Timor, and almost all of them lived long enough to see England again.

The mutiny on board HMS Bounty

Meanwhile the mutineers returned to Tahiti, and then some of them continued on to Pitcairn, where they scuttled the ship. Many of their descendants continue to live on the island to this day.

Even at the time, however, William Bligh’s account raised questions and doubts. The leader of the mutiny, Fletcher Christian, was no press-ganged pauper turned pirate. Indeed, his brother Edward was a lawyer, and following the court martial of half the mutineers (and the executions of three of them), plus the complete legal exoneration of Bligh, Edward Christian began his own investigation.

He talked to acquitted mutineers and even some of the crewmen who had remained loyal to Bligh. He published a diplomatically-worded but still highly critical alternative to Bligh’s account, which began a tit for tat back and forth reappraisal of the mutiny played out in public, full of implicit insinuation and apparent contradiction from both sides.

Today Bligh’s account still remains most well known, but read together with Edward Christian’s reports, the fascinating story really comes to life. For this reason in our brand new edition of Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty, we have decided to publish them together, allowing readers to make up their own minds.

An inaugural title in our new Adlard Coles Maritime Classics series, Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty features new maps and a special Foreword by world-class yachtsman and racing sailor Pete Goss, in which he describes his own experience of a collapse in captain-crew relations as he explores the grey areas surrounding the mutiny on the Bounty.

Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty (William Bligh)

Other titles in the series currently include South (Ernest Shackleton), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne) and The Sea Wolf (Jack London). Next year we will add Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe) and Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad).

What maritime favourites would you like us to publish next?