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Aboard the Bounty

A hellish journey to paradise.


"White man came across the sea, he brought us pain and misery..." [Foto: Dan Kasberger, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The adventure aboard the Bounty, the British navy ship that has been covered so much by journalistic chronicles, historians and novelists, as well as film producers, does not belong only to the field of geographical exploration. Apart from the voyage and exploration, what is of interest in the history of this ship are precisely, on the one hand, the characteristics of seafaring life, with special emphasis on the behavior of its captain and crew, as well as the authorities of the Admiralty of London, and, on the other hand, the problems that arose from the establishment of the Europeans in the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Until his arrival, a true paradise on Earth of harmony and peace, where its natives surely enjoyed a quiet and simple life, with the concept of happiness possibly close to what the human being can expect, at least in the earthly world. But nowadays you can be in the most remote place on the planet, leading a simple and satisfying life, without messing with anything or anyone that... someone willing to mess with you... will always appear...

The Bounty had been built in 1785 at Hull as a merchant ship, but after being purchased for £2,000 by the British Royal Navy, it underwent considerable modifications and was outfitted for long-distance scientific expeditions. Even its original name, Bethia, was replaced. In 1787, the Government decided to take advantage of it to transport from Tahiti to the West Indies a large number of trees bread, hoping to be able to transplant them there.

Breadfruit... and Something Else

As happened before, in particular with the James Cook quests , the trip also had other objectives. Apart from the botanical experiment, it was a matter of completing the information that was possessed about Tahiti and verifying the possibilities of expanding the British presence in that area. Precisely because of the importance of the mission, command of the ship was entrusted to the captain William Bligh (1754-1817), who had been one of Cook's companions and enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as a man of the sea. In fact, although his technical competence was at all times beyond doubt, the same cannot be said about his way of commanding the crew, so that the responsibility for the failure of the expedition and the route change of the ship seem to fall on about him greatly.

However, Bligh's guilt was not established until much later, as the extraordinarily harsh and coarse naval code of the time, on the one hand, and the caste solidarity of officers occupying the highest positions in the British navy, on the other hand, for several years prevented the details of what was nothing more than a true abuse of power from coming to light. Only in 1808, when the Bounty was no longer bothered, and when Bligh, then governor of the Australian province of New South Wales, provoked a second mutiny, there was an attempt, however perfunctory, to delve into the reasons for their behavior.

Under a Despotic and Ruthless Command

Returning to the subject of the Bounty, it sailed from Spithead on November 28, 1787. A journey of months, if not years, awaited its crew. The seamen, all of them British nationals, were on the whole expert and capable, although considering the harshness of the profession and the adventures and risks that it entailed, it is entirely understandable that these men were not entirely above reproach. However, although they were sometimes short-tempered and quarrelsome, they were not criminals either. This was, however, Bligh's opinion of his men, and it motivated an attitude of absurd severity, a ruthlessness in the cruelest punishments, even from the point of view of seafaring laws and customs. To this inhumanity manifested towards the sailors, Bligh also added an evident hostility towards the officers, whom he did not hesitate to humiliate even in the presence of inferiors. On the other hand, what caused irritation in the captain's behavior was not only his harshness, so excessive that it often seemed unjustified, but also the feeling that he was taking advantage of his position to try to gain personal benefit. Shortage of crew food was an unusual practice in the British Navy; therefore, it turned out particularly outrageous was the fact that a man so rigid with others could fail in his duty, by supplying his men with extraordinarily scarce and unhealthy food.

A traumatic episode -shortly before arriving at Tahiti, in the late spring of 1788- signaled the extent of the dissension between captain and crew. First Officer Fryer refused to sign the register where the provisions consumed during the trip had been recorded, since he did not consider the figures recorded in it to be true. Only when the captain ordered the crew to form on deck and, relying on the code of war, he did order Fryer to sign, who had no choice but to agree.

From Hell on Deck to Paradise on Dry Land

The stay in Tahiti to collect the plants and transfer them to the ship was quite long, and while more than 1,000 specimens of breadfruit were carefully selected, the sailors of the Bounty had the opportunity to set foot on dry land, to meet the indigenous people and sympathize with them, to eat healthy food -fresh fruit and meat-, which they had not seen on their table for months, and to recover from the fatigue of that exhausting trip. The happy and carefree life of the Tahitians, the luxurious nature of that country and the mildness of its climate did not fail to make a deep impression on the imagination of those men who knew only the drunkenness of the ports of call and the reprimands, the whipping and the loneliness of life on board.

Shortly before the order to depart was given in March 1789, three sailors, Churchill, Muspratt and Millward, had already tried to desert, but had finally surrendered, receiving several dozen lashes in return. Finally, at the beginning of April, the Bounty started to return. As the ship moved away from the island of Namuka, where a supply of coconuts had been made, a first incident occurred. Bligh announced that some of these fruits had been stolen and ordered that the distribution of grog -diluted rum with water, without sugar, which was given to sailors- to be suspended.

[Image: Robert Dodd, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

"Take your flag with you..."

On April 28, the sailors, outraged that the captain had the audacity to confiscate the provisions that each of them had received as gifts from their Tahitian friends, mutinied under the direction of Fletcher Christian, the second mate. Captain Bligh, with 18 faithful crew members, was abandoned aboard a chalupa with very little food; however, with the exception of Petty Officer Norton, they managed to save themselves and reach Timor. A group of rebels landed in Tahiti, and some of them were captured in 1791 by the ship's sailors Pandora, sent for them; three of them were later hanged.

They Were Few and Seemed to Have it All, but...

Christian, accompanied by a dozen men and a few Tahitians, including several women, led the Bounty to a lonely island in the middle of the Pacific, between Australia and South America. Pitcairn Island was an uninhabited place, but they had already known the presence of human beings, and they decided to settle there with the almost absolute certainty that no one could ever find them. On January 31, 1790, they burned the ship, after having taken to land everything that could be used of it, and like authentic Robinsons they began to organize a free existence. Christian, who probably knew Rousseau's doctrines, tried to lead the small community -27 people in total- with a spirit of fairness and a sense of justice, but serious conflicts soon arose between whites and Tahitians, giving rise to a bitter hatred. A few years later, only four whites remained with the women and some children. Christian himself was among the victims. Finally, between the survivors and their offspring, the institution of a peaceful coexistence was achieved. Ten years later, only one Bounty mutineer remained alive, Alexander Smith, who took on the name of John Adams and became a true leader and spiritual guide to his children and those of his companions, until his death in 1829.

87 people, "large population" then

In 1808 the tiny colony was discovered by an American ship, the Topaze, but the English were not interested in the islet until 1831, when they judged that the population was too large -87 people- and transferred part of it to Tahiti. However, descendants of the Bounty's sailors expressed their bewilderment and disgust at this move, and petitioned for and obtained their return to Pitcairn.

This affection for the native islet shows that Christian had been right about the possibility of building a simple but free and happy existence on that remote rock. The destiny that had moved him to rebel against the aristocratic code of the British navy and that had not allowed him to create an existence that he could only glimpse, then seemed to confirm the accuracy of his intuition through the firm resolution of his descendants.

There are countless stories of adventures and misadventures that the sea has left us since time immemorial, some of them cruel and unfortunate memories; but there are also those on the opposite side, as it was the expedition of the Kon-Tiki raft.


[Source: Va.Aa. (1978). Bounty's Journey. In Maravillas del Saber. Consultor didáctico (Tome III, pp. 30-32). Milan, Italy: Editrice Europea di Cultura]