English Captain William Bligh and 18 others, cast adrift from the HMS Bounty seven weeks before, reach Timor in the East Indies after traveling nearly 4,000 miles in a small, open boat.
READ MORE: Mutiny on the HMS Bounty
On April 28, Fletcher Christian, the master’s mate on the Bounty, led a successful mutiny against Captain Bligh and his supporters. The British naval vessel had been transporting breadfruit saplings from Tahiti for planting on British colonies in the Caribbean. The voyage was difficult, and ill feelings were rampant between the captain, officers, and crew. Bligh, who eventually would fall prey to a total of three mutinies in his career, was an oppressive commander and insulted those under him. On April 28, near the island of Tonga, Christian and 25 petty officers and seamen seized the ship. The captain and 18 of his crew were set adrift in a small boat with 25 gallons of water, 150 pounds of bread, 30 pounds of pork, six quarts of rum, and six bottles of wine.
By setting the captain and his officers adrift in an overcrowded 23-foot-long boat in the middle of the Pacific, Christian and his conspirators had apparently handed them a death sentence. By remarkable seamanship, however, Bligh and his men reached Timor in the East Indies on June 14, 1789, after a voyage of about 3,600 miles. Bligh returned to England and soon sailed again to Tahiti, from where he successfully transported breadfruit trees to the West Indies.
Meanwhile, Christian and his men attempted to establish themselves on the island of Tubuai. Unsuccessful in their colonizing effort, the Bounty sailed north to Tahiti, and 16 crewmen decided to stay there, despite the risk of capture by British authorities. Christian and eight others, together with six Tahitian men, a dozen Tahitian women, and a child, decided to search the South Pacific for a safe haven. In January 1790, the Bounty settled on Pitcairn Island, an isolated and uninhabited volcanic island more than 1,000 miles east of Tahiti. The mutineers who remained on Tahiti were captured and taken back to England, where three were hanged. A British ship searched for Christian and the others but did not find them.
In 1808, an American whaling vessel was drawn to Pitcairn by smoke from a cooking fire. The Americans discovered a community of children and women led by John Adams, the sole survivor of the original nine mutineers. According to Adams, after settling on Pitcairn the colonists had stripped and burned the Bounty, and internal strife and sickness had led to the death of Fletcher and all the men but Adams. In 1825, a British ship arrived and formally granted Adams amnesty, and he served as patriarch of the Pitcairn community until his death in 1829.
In 1831, the Pitcairn islanders were resettled on Tahiti, but unsatisfied with life there they soon returned to their native island. In 1838, the Pitcairn Islands, which includes three nearby uninhabited islands, were incorporated into the British Empire. By 1855, Pitcairn’s population had grown to nearly 200, and the two-square-mile island could not sustain its residents. In 1856, the islanders were removed to Norfolk Island, a formal penal colony nearly 4,000 miles to the west. However, less than two years later, 17 of the islanders returned to Pitcairn, followed by more families in 1864. Today, around 40 people live on Pitcairn Island, and all but a handful are descendants of the Bounty mutineers. About a thousand residents of Norfolk Island (half its population) trace their lineage from Fletcher Christian and the eight other Englishmen.