Life on board an 18th century sailing ship was pretty grim. If the enemy didn’t kill you, then the food and water (or lack of it) probably would, to say nothing of the diseases brewing in the festering conditions below decks.
You would be constantly fighting a losing battle to stay dry, shivering at night, sweltering in the warmer climes, and all for the ‘King’s shilling’ – wages that hadn’t risen since 1653. Not that you’d signed up voluntarily in the first place.
So imagine the relief of spending five months in a tropical paradise on the beautiful island of Tahiti. Such was the lot of the men of HMS Bounty. While there, the crew mixed well with the friendly islanders – a number of them even married the local women and started families.
HMS Bounty had been dispatched to the Pacific in 1787 with the aim of collecting breadfruit, where it would be transplanted to the West Indies as a cheap source of food for slaves. But all good things must come to an end, and with the trees safely on board, HMS Bounty weighed anchor and set a course for home. That meant several more miserable months at sea.
It didn’t help, of course, that the Bounty’s captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, had a reputation for pettiness and cruelty that often led to confrontation. Later in his career in 1808, Bligh found himself on the wrong end of the Rum Rebellion as governor of New South Wales.
It was also rumoured a loan that the ship’s sailing master, Fletcher Christian, had been forced to accept from Bligh became a bone of contention, and that Christian, who was of a similar social standing to the captain, resented his subordinate status.
Whatever the reasons, Christian was able to tap in to the discontent on board and lead a mutiny on 28 April 1789. Bligh was bundled into the ship’s launch and cast off with 18 crew members, most of whom had remained loyal. Insurrection, after all, was punishable by death. As for the breadfruit trees, they were dumped over the side.
Christian led the mutineers, and the Tahitians that accompanied them, to eventually settle in the Pitcairn Islands, where they burned the Bounty. But cut off and far from home, the honeymoon period soon ended and relations with the Tahitians turned sour. Nevertheless, many of the islanders today can trace their lineage back to the ship’s crew.
Bligh somehow managed to steer his way to the island of Timor, modern-day Indonesia, from where he returned to London. The Admiralty promptly dispatched HMS Pandora to bring the conspirators to justice.