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As its commander slept, HMS Bounty sliced through the South Pacific laden with cargo vital to the economic interests of the British Empire—not gold or silver, but hundreds of potted breadfruit saplings. These young trees native to Tahiti held the promise of prosperity for plantation owners in the British West Indies who believed the fruit they would yield, which had the texture and smell of freshly baked bread when cooked, would be a cheap, highly nutritious “energy food” to fuel the slaves toiling in their fields. English botanist and naturalist Joseph Banks commissioned Bligh for the Royal Navy’s unusual mission, which departed England in December 1787 bound for Tahiti.

Although only 33 years old, Bligh was a salty veteran with a sharp tongue who had sailed the world with Captain James Cook. Among his 45 men was the friendly, familiar face of master’s mate Fletcher Christian with whom he had sailed twice before.

After an arduous 10-month journey, HMS Bounty arrived in Tahiti, an island paradise of beautiful scenery and beautiful women. Bligh described it as “the finest island in the world,” but the commander started to stew as he unexpectedly spent week after week in Tahiti waiting for the newly potted saplings to take root. As his men relaxed, Bligh grew tense at the breakdown of his crew’s discipline in a land “where the allurements of dissipation are beyond anything that can be conceived.” Already prone to outbursts of temper, Bligh increasingly lashed out at his men—in particular Christian, who had adopted the islanders’ dress and fallen in love with a Tahitian woman. Although the commander used flogging less often than most captains, he increasingly employed physical punishment on his crew.

Bounty finally departed Tahiti with its bounty of breadfruit saplings on April 4, 1789. With Bounty’s stern converted into a floating greenhouse of potted plants, the small ship was more cramped than ever, and the dark, smelly surroundings must have seemed ever harsher after the hedonistic stay in Tahiti. Although Bligh had promoted Christian to acting lieutenant during the voyage, the men’s relationship continued to deteriorate at sea. Fed up with the commander’s imperiousness and insults, Christian could take no more of it.

Before dawn broke on April 28, whispers floated in the salty air and light footsteps creaked the floors. Armed with a cutlass, Christian crept into Bligh’s darkened cabin along with three others who pointed muskets and bayonets at the ship’s commander. The mutineers tied Bligh’s hands tightly behind his back and ordered him and 17 of his loyal crew into one of the small open boats on the deck and launched the tiny 23-foot vessel into the water.

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William Bligh

William Bligh

As the sun rose, Bligh scanned the vast blue nothingness that surrounded him. Finally spotting steam rising over the horizon, the outcasts landed on an island to harvest supplies. After receiving a hostile reception from the islanders that claimed the life of one of his crew, Bligh decided their best chance for survival was to sail 3,600 miles to the closest European settlement in Timor. The wet, tired crew parceled out their meager supplies—including 28 gallons of water, 150 pounds of bread and 6 quarts of rum—and they were even forced to eat the undigested fish from the stomachs of birds they caught by hand. The harrowing journey took nearly seven weeks, but Bligh, who lacked charts or a compass, successfully commanded the small open boat to safety in Timor. “Our bodies were nothing but skin and bones, our limbs were full of sores, and we were clothed in rags,” he reported.

Meanwhile, after the mutiny, Christian had directed Bounty back to Tahiti. Despite the risk of capture by the British, 16 of Bounty’s crew (nine mutineers and seven Bligh loyalists who couldn’t fit in the launch) chose to remain there. Christian, knowing he would spend the rest of his life a fugitive and never return to England, sought a safer haven and sailed on along with 19 native islanders. After four months at sea, they landed on a two-square-mile rocky outpost 1,000 miles east of Tahiti—Pitcairn Island. The outlaws fashioned tents out of the ship’s sail and then stripped and burned Bounty in one of the bays of their island hideout. Christian’s new home proved to be anything but an island paradise. Sandy beaches were nonexistent. Fierce winds and storms raked the island. The food intended for West Indian slaves, breadfruit, now became a staple for the marooned sailors. The colony was beset by sickness and violent infighting that took the lives of nearly every mutineer, including Christian, at an early age.

Bligh returned to England in March 1790 with his sensational story. The Royal Navy seized the surviving mutineers in Tahiti and locked them in chains inside a small, dark cell on HMS Pandora to sail back to England. Off the Australian coast, however, Pandora struck the Great Barrier Reef and sank. Four prisoners died in their chains. The 10 who survived stood trial. Four were acquitted, three were pardoned, and three were found guilty and hanged for their crimes.

British authorities searched in vain for Christian and the other outlaws. The secret colony on Pitcairn Island went undetected until an American whaling ship arrived in 1808 to investigate smoke from a cooking fire rising about the island’s treetops and found John Adams, the last survivor of the nine mutineers, and a community of women and more than 20 children fathered by the outlaws, including Christian’s 18-year-old son. The island founded by fugitives from the Royal Navy was incorporated into the British Empire in 1838, and today, fewer than 50 people, nearly all descendants of the mutineers, live on Pitcairn Island.

Bligh faced a court-martial in England over Bounty’s loss, but he was acquitted in October 1790. Banks again sent him to Tahiti on a second mission to retrieve breadfruit saplings, and this time Bligh successfully delivered the goods. The mutiny appeared to have done little to change Bligh’s acerbic leadership style, however. In 1808, troops who chafed at his command deposed him as governor of the Australian state of New South Wales in an armed takeover known as the “Rum Rebellion.”

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