We love classic movies at the RedState Department of History (why wouldn’t we?) and last week we caught ourselves watching 1984’s “The Bounty.”
Not a bad cast, we thought — Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier, Daniel Day-Lewis, Bernard Hill, Liam Neeson — not a bad way to spend the afternoon.
Of course, in the weekly coincidence that seems to follow this diary, today is the anniversary of the event which made making this film necessary — 230 years ago today, Fletcher Christian led the now-famous “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
You probably know the story — or at least, the way it is traditionally told. Lieutenant William Bligh commanded the HMS Bounty on a two-year voyage- first to Tahiti, where the ship was to pick up breadfruit trees — and then to the West Indies, where they were to be transplanted. One of the people Bligh wanted at his side was his then-friend, Fletcher Christian.
Bligh wanted to give Christian rank but was denied permission due to the latter’s lack of seagoing experience. But as the voyage proceeded, something soured the relationship between the two men.
The traditional story had it that Bligh’s sadistic treatment of his crew led Christian, considered an “Acting Lieutenant”, to consider mutiny, though some sources dispute this. However, the mutiny was exceptionally well-documented due to ten of the mutineers eventually writing down their recollections, and they note that Bligh disciplined Christian the night before the mutiny.
Bligh did have a famous temper. On the voyage, he once withheld rations from the ship’s carpenter, William Campbell, because Bligh didn’t like the way Campbell cut logs. A later protege remarked:
“He was prone to violent Tornadoes of temper, yet never without soon receiving something like an emollient plaister to heal the wound.”
For his part, Christian, whose family was bankrupt, was in personal financial debt to Bligh, and apparently suffered some sort of mental breakdown leading to mutiny. Before the mutiny, he was heard to repeatedly exclaim, “I am in hell…I am in hell.”
In any event, on this date 230 years ago, a party of armed men led by Christian awoke Bligh at musket-point, hustling him and 18 others of the crew who either supported Bligh or whom the mutineers just didn’t like, into the ship’s launch, setting it adrift.
In a letter to his wife, Bligh remembered the event:
Know then my own Dear Betsy, that I have lost the Bounty …on the 28th April at day light in the morning Christian having the morning watch. He with several others came into my Cabin while I was a Sleep, and seizing me, holding naked Bayonets at my Breast, tied my Hands behind my back, and threatened instant destruction if I uttered a word. I however call’d loudly for assistance, but the conspiracy was so well laid that the Officers Cabbin Doors were guarded by Centinels, so Nelson, Peckover, Samuels or the Master could not come to me. I was now dragged on Deck in my Shirt & closely guarded—I demanded of Christian the case of such a violent act, & severely degraded for his Villainy but he could only answer—”not a word sir or you are Dead.” I dared him to the act & endeavored to rally some one to a sense of their duty but to no effect…
The Secrisy of this Mutiny is beyond all conception so that I can not discover that any who are with me had the least knowledge of it. Even Mr. Tom Ellison took such a liking to Otaheite [Tahiti] that he also turned Pirate, so that I have been run down by my own Dogs…
The remainder of the crew made for Tahiti aboard the Bounty under Christian’s command — which might have been the real goal of the mutiny in the first place. The crew liked Tahiti, especially after a five-month layover there earlier in the voyage, and doubly so due to the island’s pleasures of the flesh, shall we say.
But once there, things started to fall apart. The mutineers fell to fighting with each other, but meanwhile Bligh had a different task — simply surviving on the open sea.
As such, in an amazing feat of seamanship, Bligh led his marooned sailors on a westward voyage of 3,618 nautical miles across the open ocean, and a ‘by memory’ passage through the Great Barrier Reef, which he had learned by sailing as chief navigator aboard Captain James Cook’s HMS Resolution. Bligh himself noted that this wasn’t easy:
“Not a Star to be seen to Steer by and the Sea breaking constantly over us…we are covered with Rain and Sea that we can scarce see or make use of our Eyes.”
Bligh landed in Timor, though not before threatening to kill one of his crewmen with a cutlass after an argument. When he reported the mutiny, the Royal Navy’s search for retribution began. Many, but not all of the mutineers were eventually captured on Tahiti, and three were eventually hanged for mutiny from the yardarm of HMS Brunswick as it lay at anchor in Portsmouth Harbor.
Bligh eventually became a vice-admiral in the British Navy but suffered the uniquely rare distinction of having three of his commands mutiny from under him.
But the authorities never found eight of the hardest-core mutineers, who left with Christian and a small group of Tahitians to discover, and settle, the Pitcairn Islands after a voyage of over 1,300 miles.
The islands, which still have a population of only about fifty, are primarily populated by descendants of the mutineers, and the vast majority of the island’s leaders were either descended from mutineers or relatives of Fletcher Christian. They remain a territory of the United Kingdom though due to distance from London, are mostly self-governed. The capital is Adamstown, which is reached by climbing what the locals call “Hill of Difficulty Road.”
Seems fitting. Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!