Few accusations in maritime history were more serious than the charge of mutiny. Yet that didn’t stop countless sailors from attempting open rebellions on the high seas. Most of these mutinies were violent outbursts provoked by poor morale or mistreatment, but others helped inspire revolutions and even toppled governments. Get the facts on six of history’s most ferocious naval rebellions.
The 1789 mutiny on the Bounty saw a rebellious crew hijack their ship and build their own island community. Commanded by William Bligh, HMS Bounty left England in December 1787 on a mission to collect breadfruit saplings in the South Pacific. During a five-month layover in Tahiti, many of the ship’s crew became enamored with island life and even married the local women. They also became increasingly dissatisfied with Bligh, who often flogged his men for dereliction of duty. Shortly after the Bounty left Tahiti in April 1789, a group of disgruntled crewmembers revolted and took their commander prisoner. Led by master’s mate Fletcher Christian, the mutineers forced Bligh and 18 loyalists into a small launch and abandoned them at sea. Amazingly, Bligh eventually led this dinghy on a 3,600-mile voyage to a safe port in Timor. He would go on to weather two more mutinies during his long naval career.
Now in command of the Bounty, the mutineers sailed for the island of Tubuai before returning to Tahiti. Some of the men remained on the island and were later captured by the Royal Navy, but Christian and a small band of followers continued sailing in search of a safe place to hide. Along with a group of Tahitians, in January 1790 the men settled on Pitcairn, an isolated island in the South Pacific. The last of the rebels died on Pitcairn in 1829, but descendants of Bounty mutineers still live on the island to this day.
Although it was initially sparked by a mundane argument over food, the Potemkin mutiny became one of the pivotal events in the 1905 Russian Revolution. The revolt occurred during the Russo-Japanese War when the 700 crewmen of the battleship Potemkin were given rations of borscht made from maggot-ridden meat. Told to eat the tainted broth or face extreme punishment, the sailors rebelled. Under the leadership of a revolutionary mariner named Afanasy Matyushenko, the crew killed nearly half the ship’s officers in a bloody shootout before commandeering Potemkin and the torpedo boat Ismail.
Russia’s Black Sea fleet was soon mobilized to crush the mutineers, but their crews were sympathetic to the plight of the Potemkin sailors and refused to fire on them. Matyushenko and his triumphant rebels would go on to sail for a total of 11 days before finally surrendering the battleship in Romania. Most of the crewmen remained in exile there, but some—including Matyushenko—later returned to Russia only to be arrested and executed. The Potemkin mutiny was later immortalized in the 1925 silent film “Battleship Potemkin,” and was a significant influence on the 1917 revolution that led to the Soviet Union’s creation.
On the night of September 21, 1797, the Royal Navy vessel Hermione was trawling the Caribbean when the crew initiated the bloodiest mutiny in British naval history. Furious at the draconian punishments meted out by their captain, Hugh Pigot, roughly 30 men split into groups and launched a coordinated attack on their superiors. The rebels—many drunk on rum—stabbed Pigot to death in his cabin and then proceeded to brutally slaughter several officers with cutlasses and tomahawks. Once in control of the ship, they dragged the rest of the officers to the main deck. Those whom the crew approved of were spared, but the rest were simply tossed overboard. In total, 10 officers were murdered during the uprising.
Knowing they could never return to England, the mutineers sailed for La Guaira in modern-day Venezuela. Claiming they had merely marooned their officers in a dinghy, they agreed to turn Hermione over to the Spanish in exchange for asylum. British authorities later apprehended a few dozen of the mutineers based on tips from informants, but over 120 evaded capture. Hermione would go on to sail under the Spanish flag until 1799, when the British HMS Surprise recaptured it in a daring night raid.
The British explorer Henry Hudson made four famous voyages to the United States and Canada, but his tireless efforts to locate the Northwest Passage ultimately provoked his crew to rebel against him. In 1610 Hudson led his ship Discovery to the frozen waters of modern-day Canada in an attempt to find a new western route to Asia. While the explorers succeeded in locating the Hudson Bay—later named in Hudson’s honor—their ship became lodged in pack ice, forcing them to spend a treacherous winter ashore.
By time the ice had finally cleared in early 1611, the men’s morale was dangerously low. Hudson wanted to continue searching for his passage, but he’d alienated his crew, many of whom believed the captain was hoarding food. Starving and desperate to return home, the crew revolted. After commandeering the ship, the sailors forced Hudson, his son and seven other men into a small boat and abandoned them in the Hudson Bay. The mutineers then steered Discovery toward England, but along the way all but eight of them succumbed to disease or were killed by natives. The fate of Hudson and his fellow castaways remains a mystery. A subsequent expedition found a small shelter that may have been built by the marooned explorers, but their bodies were never recovered.
Germany’s Kiel mutiny began as a sailors’ rebellion and eventually sparked the German Revolution and the end of World War I. The uprising began in October 1918 when Germany’s exhausted sailors learned of a plan to launch a last-ditch attack against the British Royal Navy. Unwilling to take part in what they saw as a suicide mission, crews at the port of Wilmershaven simply ignored their orders and refused to prepare their ships for battle. When the protest’s ringleaders were rounded up and arrested, it triggered a bloody mutiny that soon spread to the nearby city of Kiel.
These early demonstrations succeeded in scuttling the German Navy’s attack plans, but by November 3 the mutinies had blossomed into a revolution. In Kiel, thousands of people occupied ships and buildings and eventually seized control of the whole city. Inspired by the communist revolution in Russia, they also formed councils that demanded rights for soldiers and workers. The rebellion proved contagious, and similar uprisings soon sprang up throughout Germany. Within a matter of days the German war effort crumbled and Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated his throne, paving the way for the eventual rise of the Weimar Republic.
One of the only shipboard mutinies in American history occurred during the Vietnam War. In March 1970 two merchant marines named Clyde McKay and Alvin Glatkowski held their captain at gunpoint and commandeered the supply ship Columbia Eagle. Abandoning most of the crew in lifeboats, the two hijackers changed course and steered toward the neutral nation of Cambodia. After arriving in the port of Sihanoukville, the mutineers informed authorities that they had seized the ship and its cargo of 10,000 tons of napalm as an act of protest against the Vietnam War.
Unfortunately for McKay and Glatkowski, their arrival in Cambodia coincided with the start of a civil war that later led to the rise of the pro-American Khmer Republic. Initially given asylum, the two hijackers soon found themselves prisoners of Prime Minister Lon Nol’s right-leaning government. Glatkowski was later released and surrendered at the U.S. embassy, and Columbia Eagle was returned to American authorities. McKay, however, escaped from Cambodian custody along with a U.S. Army deserter named Larry Humphrey. The two fled north hoping to join the communist Khmer Rouge as freedom fighters, but were reportedly executed by the guerrillas in 1971.