The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch

Larry Holzwarth - March 6, 2020

On April 4, 1789, HMAV Bounty left Tahiti after a sojourn there of five months. The ship carried 1,015 breadfruit plants in pots, its great cabin fitted as a floating nursery. Bounty was already nearly 17 months out from England, and the voyage would likely last at least another year before it was likely to return to Portsmouth and home. They were bound for Jamaica. The breadfruit plants were intended to create a new food source for the slaves on the sugar plantations on that island, and others in Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Bounty‘s captain, Navy lieutenant William Bligh, was the only commissioned officer aboard the ship. His second in command, Fletcher Christian, had been appointed an acting lieutenant but held a warrant as Master’s Mate.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
The Mutiny on the Bounty has been made into several motion pictures, all of them romanticizing the story at William Bligh’s expense. Wikimedia

The cause of the mutiny less than four weeks later has ever since been debated. Christian’s rebellion against mindless tyranny and cruelty, exhibited by Bligh, was a romantic tale created by the former’s family in the mutiny’s aftermath. Some say Christian’s desire to return to the comfortable life offered in Tahiti, a sentiment shared with some of the men, was the cause. What is known for certainty is the Captain and 18 loyal members of the crew were set adrift in the vast Pacific, more than 4,000 miles from the nearest European settlement, with little to sustain them. That any of them survived to tell the story was a miracle. Here is how they did.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
The 1935 film was the first to depict Captain Bligh’s voyage in the Bounty’s launch. Wikimedia

1. Bounty‘s launch was almost hopelessly overcrowded

The mutiny divided the crew of Bounty into three parties. One was loyal to Captain Bligh, and included his clerk, John Samuel; Bounty‘s gunner, William Peckover; the ship’s sailing master, John Fryer; and two Midshipmen, John Hallet and Thomas Hayward. Another group were neither active in the mutiny nor overly anxious to accompany their Captain, including Peter Heywood, boatswain’s mate James Morrison, and another Midshipman, George Stewart. Finally, there were the active mutineers, led by Fletcher Christian and Midshipman Edward “Ned” Young. The mutineers decided who was to be cast into the ship’s largest and most seaworthy small boat, its launch.

The launch was designed to accommodate a maximum of fifteen men, for short journeys, such as from ship to shore to replenish water barrels and foodstuffs. As Bligh stood on Bounty‘s main deck, those the mutineers wished to rid themselves of were ordered into the boat. Many grabbed what supplies they could; salt pork, ship’s bread, drinking water, and clothing. The ship’s carpenter, William Purcell, took the smaller of his two tool chests. By the time Bligh was ordered into the boat, 18 souls occupied its thwarts, and there were less than six inches of freeboard – the distance between the top of the boat’s gunwales and the surface of the sea.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
An 1841 depiction of the mutiny, which shows violence which was not part of the event. Wikimedia

2. The mutineers let Bligh retain some navigational instruments

Samuel managed to bring aboard a quadrant, and Christian provided Bligh with a sextant but ordered no timekeeper be provided, nor any charts. Bligh had a small compass. Navigation in the vast Pacific was based on his memory of the islands and currents, acquired through his several voyages with Captain Cook. The mutineers veered the launch to trail Bounty, while they debated over the fate of the Captain and the men with him. During the argument men loyal to Bligh, denied the opportunity to join him in the boat, continued to hand down supplies to their fellows, which included four cutlasses.

At length, the launch was cast off and Bounty bore away to the west. In Bligh’s mind, all the men who remained in Bounty were mutineers and pirates, though he later exonerated a few of the men, forced by the mutineers to remain aboard. Taking stock of the situation and the supplies on hand, Bligh decided to row to the island of Tofua (also called Tafoa, and Tufoa) roughly 35 miles distant, where he hoped to obtain additional water and other supplies before sailing into the so-called Friendly Islands and the island of Tongatabu, which he had visited with Cook. There was no debate among the crew, which rowed in silence across the calm Pacific.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
In 1935 Clark Gable portrayed Fletcher Christian, of whom no images created from life have ever been found. Wikimedia

3. Bligh speculated over the causes of the mutiny as they rowed to Tofua

Among the items rescued by Samuel during the mutiny were some – but by no means all – of Captain Bligh’s personal papers and journals. Their presence allowed Bligh to keep a journal of the voyage of the launch, as well as the circumstances surrounding the mutiny. Bligh recorded his thoughts regarding the mutiny, the mutineers, and its possible causes in his journal as the launch approached Tofua. He blamed the extended stay at Tahiti as the chief cause, an island where, “they need not labour, and where the allurements of dissipation are beyond any thing that can be conceived.” He speculated that had he a detachment of Royal Marines the mutiny could likely be prevented.

Bligh was unknown at Tofua (he was familiar with other islands of its group), though well known to King Poulaho at Tongatabu. He decided to stop at Tofua, obtain additional supplies of water and breadfruit, and journey to the latter island. Breadfruit had to be cooked before consumption, accomplished by baking it in wetted banana leaves or simply roasting it in an open fire. The requirement meant a longer stay on the island, as well as the need to build a fire, likely detected by natives. On previous visits to the Friendly and Society Islands, Bligh was told of islands to the west inhabited by cannibals, the Fiji Islands. Tofua was not one of the Fiji Islands, but its inhabitants were unknown to Bligh, and he hoped to avoid an encounter with them.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
The launch was considerably lower in the water, and more crowded, than depicted here. Wikimedia

4. Bligh located a cave in which to shelter on Tofua

At dawn on the day following the mutiny, the men in the launch discovered a cave in the northwest area of Tofua’s coastline. A party of men landed to search for a supply of fresh water, and whatever sustenance they could find. Bligh remained in the launch. The weather, which had been clear and calm, worsened rapidly, with high winds and seas, preventing Bligh from standing off the island when the party returned. On Friday, May 1, 1789, Bligh and his men were still exploring the island looking for breadfruit, coconuts, and a source of fresh water, when the weather became stormy and wet. It was on that day they first encountered natives on Tofua. Soon a large party gathered.

Bligh had a smattering of the language of Polynesia, in the Tahitian dialect, and was able to converse with the local chiefs, who insisted that he remain ashore that night. The sailors had been using the cave as a base during the day, but Bligh was determined to sleep in the launch. By late afternoon the sailors had moved nearly all their gear, and the few supplies they had found on the island, to their boat. The natives surrounded Bligh on three sides, with the sea and the launch at his back. They demanded he either remain ashore or surrender the magnifying glass the Englishman carried, having observed him using it to start a fire earlier in the day. Bligh knew it was the only means he had of starting fires, and refused to surrender it to the natives, who began clacking large stones together in their hands.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
The natives of Tofua were aware of the death of Captain Cook, and were unimpressed with Bligh’s claims to the contrary. Wikimedia

5. The natives attacked the party as it attempted to withdraw

A small group of sailors went ashore, armed with the four cutlasses provided to them by the mutineers, to escort their Captain to the launch. The ominous sound of the clacking stones was made more fearsome by the screams of the natives. Bligh and the party withdrew to the launch, with the natives momentarily keeping their distance. As Bligh reached the boat one of his party, John Norton, ran back toward the shoreline, an attempt to recover the grapnel (a small anchor) to which the launch was moored. A stone thrown by a native struck him down, and a swarm of natives attacked his prone body, with one using a large rock to pound in his skull.

The sailors were stunned at the death of their companion. Bligh exhorted them to row for their lives, while others not at the oars attempted to shield their shipmates from the stones thrown at them. Bligh wrote in his journal, “I did not conceive that the power of a man’s arm could throw stones, from two to eight pounds weight, with such force and exactness as these people did”. The Captain ordered the men to throw bundles of clothing into the water, hoping it would distract the men in the much faster canoes to stop and take them as trophies. The ruse worked, and the men pulling at the oars hauled the launch past the breakers and out to sea.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
Page one of a list of the mutineers and their descriptions, in Bligh’s own hand, prepared on Tofua. Wikimedia

6. The attack at Tofua caused Bligh to change his plans

The natives’ attack had occurred after they realized that Bligh had no ship, and was thus helpless. As Bligh considered that fact, he realized there was every reason to expect a similar reception at Tonga. Tofua was not the first time Bligh was attacked by what he referred to in his journal as Indians. He was present during the attack in which James Cook was killed by the natives in Hawaii; he had led the party covering the retreat from the beach. Bligh concluded without a ship at his back, he should expect treachery from the natives of any of the Pacific Islands, with the exception of Tahiti, and possibly even there.

He was also aware the nearest European settlement was on the island of Timor, though he was not aware of its precise location on the island, or even if it was still there. Timor lay 4,100 miles to the west. The route to reach it went through the rumored Fiji Islands, which were known to the British only through information given to them by the Polynesians. They were said by the latter to be peopled with cannibals. After passing Fiji, the route lay through the Great Barrier Reef, still poorly charted, and dotted with islands resorted to by natives also rumored to be cannibals. Bligh ordered the men to put the boat in order and inventory what stores and supplies they had as he considered his options.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
Illustration from a work describing Bligh’s voyage from Coupang to Batavia in 1789. Wikimedia

7. Bligh presented his plan to the men of the launch before embarking for Timor

Bligh took stock of their meager provisions before outlining his plans to the men. “Our stock of provisions consisted of about one hundred and fifty pounds of bread, twenty-eight gallons of water, twenty pounds of pork, three bottles of wine, and five quarts of rum…”, he recorded in his journal. There were in addition, “a few coconuts” as well as some breadfruit, acquired and cooked at Tofua. Unfortunately, the breadfruit was trampled underfoot during the scramble to escape the attack by the natives. Nonetheless, they scraped it together and preserved in a bread bag for future consumption during the voyage. Bligh extracted a promise from every man to subsist on “one ounce of bread, and a quarter of a pint of water, per day”.

The rest of the food was dispensed as Bligh saw fit during the journey, in the best interests of the crew. After receiving their solemn promise, sworn to by each, Bligh turned the launch toward Timor, through a largely unknown sea. In his journal he wrote they embarked, “in a small boat, twenty-three feet long from stem to stern, deep laden with eighteen men; without a chart, and nothing but my own recollection and general knowledge of the situation of places, assisted by a book of latitudes and longitudes, to guide us”. His next step was to make the craft as seaworthy as possible and to restore naval discipline to the crew.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
Detailed drawing of Bounty’s launch, prepared by its builder. Wikimedia

8. Bligh turned toward Timor under sail that same evening

The launch was equipped with two masts, fore and main, each equipped with a lugsail. They were under a freshening wind, with following seas, as the boat turned onto their course. Bligh divided the men into three watches. Those not on watch were to lie in the bottom of the boat, or on store chests, as out of the way as possible. William Peckover, the Bounty‘s gunner, had managed to bring his pocket watch with him out of the ship, and though its accuracy was questionable it was better than no timepiece at all. Bligh used it to assist him while navigating by dead reckoning. In order to assist him further, he needed a means of measuring the boat’s speed. Accordingly, he directed the carpenter, William Purcell, to make a log with which to measure speed.

Purcell formed a triangular piece of wood from the tray of his tool chest, with a hole bored in one angle. He attached a piece of lead, to weight it, on the opposite side. He attached a line to the chip, with knots tied into it at measured intervals. When the chip was cast over the stern it trailed aft, the line passing through the fingers of the man casting it while others counted the seconds which elapsed. When the predetermined time had passed the line was clamped in the hand, and the number of knots which had passed was reported to the Captain. The speed of the boat was measured in such manner. Though primitive, when Bligh’s journal of the voyage was examined it proved to be extremely accurate.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
The launch being cast off by the mutineers, 4,000 miles from European settlements. Wikimedia

9. The weather and heavy seas were the first enemy to overcome

The voyage of the Bounty‘s launch took place during the antipodean autumn, with its attendant storms and heavy rains. By the morning of the second day, the launch was in a full gale. The seas marched by in towering waves. When in the troughs between them the wind was blocked from the sail, and the waves threatened to swamp the boat. When on the crests, the winds threatened to capsize it when the sail caught them. Following seas entered the boat from astern. At the same time, heavy rains poured into the vessel. The men were obliged to bail constantly, ironically much of the water which threatened to sink them during sudden rain squalls were fresh water, of which they had little, but which they were obligated to throw over the side.

On several occasions some of the men followed the water over the side, to lighten the craft in particularly treacherous conditions. Bligh ordered most of the clothes, spare sails, and other items deemed superfluous cast into the sea to lighten the boat. Flooding threatened the supply of bread, their main foodstuff. The carpenter’s chest again was useful. Purcell remove all of his tools and put them at the bottom of the launch. One by one, bags of bread were removed from storage in the bow, passed hand-to-hand, and placed in the chest. The movement had to be timed to coincide with the breaking waves. Though some of the bread was damaged, most was saved. The damaged bread was retained, it being agreed that it was to be consumed first.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
The track of the voyage of the launch, drawn by William Bligh, from his observations. Wikimedia

10. Bligh calculated the consumption of provisions to last the men eight weeks

Bligh was uncertain where the settlement of Coupang was located on the island of Timor, or even whether it was still there. Accordingly, he planned to use the available provisions at a rate which would give them eight weeks before they were exhausted. Though he intimated to the men they would likely find deserted islands once, inside the Great Barrier Reef, where they could re-provision somewhat, he wasn’t sure, and the possibility did not affect his rationing. To make sure of the measurements allotted at each meal he fashioned a scale-out of coconut shells, with a musket ball of known weight to serve as a reference. He measured the men’s daily bread with the device.

The bread with which the launch was supplied was not soft bread. It was ships biscuit, the mainstay of navies and merchant ships around the world. It was hard, dense, with the texture of crackers, though much tougher to bite through. Often it could only be ingested after soaking in liquid. Some of the men in the launch did just that, soaking their small morsel in their allotment of water before consuming both. Others gnawed at it as they had aboard ship. The salt pork was usually just as tough to chew. Bligh issued the salt pork sparingly, both because it was in short supply and because heavily salted meat added to the distress of constant thirst, with little advantage from the minimal increase in protein.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
Bligh’s charts of the Fiji Islands from a small boat were extraordinarily accurate. Wikimedia

11. The Fiji Islands were encountered on May 6

On Wednesday, May 6, the men of the Bounty‘s launch became the first Europeans to see the Fiji Islands. By then the men were cold, hungry, wet, and exhausted by the buffeting they endured from the gyrations of their boat in the heavy seas. The need for constant bailing and working the oars added to their physical discomforts. Several importuned Captain Bligh to stop at one of the smaller islands to rest and possibly find fresh water. Bligh reminded them of their promises, but the sight of the lush islands, which they continued to pass for the next two days, was tempting in the extreme. Bligh used the sextant to chart the positions of each of the islands they passed, drawing them on a page in his journal. His chart proved to be extremely accurate, and can be used to sail the archipelago safely over two centuries later.

The pleadings of the men to stop at one of the islands came to an abrupt halt when a canoe emerged from one, the natives aboard paddling lustily while others capered with excitement while pointing at the launch. It was joined soon by a second canoe, and the intentions of the natives were clear to the Bounty‘s men. They rowed with increased vigor despite their weakened condition. It was well that they did. Several of the Fiji tribes manned sentinel posts on the islands, intent on preying on the canoes of the other islands which came to close to their homelands. The chase continued through the afternoon of Friday, May 8, through constant rain and lightning, before the natives abandoned the pursuit.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
Bligh’s boat did not encounter heavy seas until long after Bounty was over the horizon. Science Photos Library

12. The launch was able to replenish fresh water while at sea during the night

That night the winds and sea subsided, but the heavy rains continued. The men were able to catch the fresh water in various vessels and increase their supply to 34 gallons. More importantly, they were able to drink as much as they wished simply by turning their open mouths upward. It was the first time since leaving Tofua that they no longer suffered from thirst, albeit temporarily and at a cost of another misery. The launch and all in it were necessarily soaked, with little respite from the cold which came with the rain. Bligh directed his men to remove their clothes, immerse them in the sea, wring them out, and put them back on. The salt left in the clothes gave them slight relief from the cold, until the rain rinsed it out and they had to repeat the evolution.

An issuance of a teaspoon of rum per man the following morning was restorative. A hook and line were rigged to trail behind the boat, baited with various pieces of cloth and shiny items from the carpenter’s tool chest. Only once during the journey did a fish take the bait. It was lost as the men attempted to pull it into the boat. The following day Bligh directed the men in cleaning and reorganizing the launch, Saturday being traditionally a day for such activity in the Royal Navy, followed by Captain’s inspection on Sunday. It was during the cleaning that a box of 25 musket balls was found, marked as weighing one pound. One musket ball was thus one 25th of a pound, and became the basic weight for Bligh’s scale.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
A Bounty replica, for use in the film and tourist industry, at launching. Wikimedia

13. The men continued to make improvements to the launch’s seaworthiness

On Sunday, May 10, Bligh directed the carpenter, Purcell, and boatswain William Cole to construct a weather cloth. The cloth, made of canvas supported by wooden strakes nailed to the gunwales, raised the freeboard of the launch by several inches. Seats of the stern-sheets were cannibalized to add additional height to the boat’s stern quarters, where most of the following sea entered. The shrouds which supported the masts were strengthened. For the next several days the improvements were tested by the sea, as miserable weather and cold further weakened the exhausted, hungry men. Another small archipelago was sighted and passed, with no discussion of stopping, though many glances at them with longing.

Bligh had no intention of stopping at any other islands until inside the Great Barrier Reef. The men were far weaker than they had been at Tofua, as was readily evident. For most of the month of May, they were wet from heavy rains, heavy seas, or both. Some of the men developed open sores on their bodies from the chafing salt, aggravated by the lack of nutrition. On May 20, Bligh noted in his journal, “some of my people seemed half-dead”. Men who lay down to sleep in the boat did so in cold water. All of the men complained of pains in their limbs and bowels. Bligh was obliged to shorten rations even further on May 25, to the point where what remained would last another 43 days. The weather continued foul, other than brief periods of sunlight when they attempted to dry the rags which were all that remained of their clothes.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
Charles Laughton portrayed Captain Bligh as an overbearing tyrant, but capable seaman. Wikimedia

14. Bligh rationed the wine and rum to restore the men’s strength

The season deepened and the weather grew steadily colder as May dragged on. Bligh used the meager store of alcohol in the launch as a restorative after especially difficult nights. The only solace taken from the near-constant rain was its alleviation of the men’s thirst. The price was constant, numbing, cold, with few calories of nutrition with which to ward it off. On May 26, the day which followed Bligh’s reduction of the bread ration, seabirds hovered around the launch, an indication they were near as yet unsighted land. One of the birds, a booby about the size of a small duck, flew too near the boat, and was caught by one of the men.

After killing the bird, and serving its blood to the three men Bligh considered to be the weakest among them, it was divided and meted out through the seamen’s tradition of “Whom shall have this?” Two sailors sat back to back. One held up a single serving, and asked “whom shall have this?”. The other, unable to see the portion offered, called out a name. The entire bird was divided, including head and entrails, and consumed in that fashion. The 18 portions of the booby were accompanied by the usual ration of 1/25 of a pound of bread, along with water, and Bligh referred to the repast as “a good supper, compared with our usual fare”. The following morning, they caught another and distributed it in the same manner.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef from space. NASA

15. Several other birds sustained the men on the journey

By May 27 it was evident that they were near land, though what land it was Bligh could only guess. They caught additional boobies, and upon cutting them up on at least two occasions, fish were found in their stomachs. According to Bligh, “all of which I saved to be divided for dinner”, in the same manner as before. Unsurprisingly, several stomachs rebelled, and the men suffered from severe cramps. Meanwhile, the launch continued steadily westward, by May 29, it was navigating through the islands and shoals of the Great Barrier Reef. Bligh, from memory and sightings using the sextant, sought Providential Channel as the means of penetrating the reef.

Once inside the Great Barrier Reef, the men found calmer seas, and Bligh promised they would land at the first island which appeared to offer the possibility of food and shelter. On Friday, May 29, they took shelter in a small inlet of an island which appeared deserted. Bligh refused to allow the men to disembark, despite the appearance of being alone, and the sight of oyster beds along the shore. The men remained in the launch for the night, sleeping for the first time of the voyage in relative peace. The water was calm, the boat was dry, and were it not for the cold they could almost have said to have been comfortable.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
Bligh witnessed the death of James Cook in Hawaii, and was determined not to be attacked by surprise by natives. Wikimedia

16. Bligh named their resort Restoration Island

On May 30, Bligh and the men of the launch went ashore. Many could barely walk, after weeks of their limbs being forced to remain in cramped conditions. The only way a man could fully stretch out in the launch was to stand erect. Lying down required a fetal position, and even then, there was contact on all sides. Walking about the island was a tottering, painful affair, as the men worked the kinks out of weakened legs. Some of the men were so weakened by their ordeal in the boat they could not walk at all, and were carried to the beach, where they could lie on the ground. Those that could search for food.

Bligh’s magnifying glass soon produced a fire, and the men felt its warmth for the first time since leaving Tofua. The carpenter and boatswain repaired the weather cloth, and having discovered a damaged rudder pintle (which could have led to the loss of the rudder) they repaired that too. Forage parties returned with a large number of oysters, pried from their beds with cutlasses. The launch was equipped with a copper pot, brought aboard by one of the ship’s cooks. With the agreement of all, the day’s bread ration was added to the pot with the oysters, and the result was a stew “that might have been relished by people of more delicate appetites”. Each man received a full pint of stew.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
Sir Joseph Banks ensured a botanist accompanied Bligh to the South Seas. Wikimedia

17. The men found evidence of natives on the island

By Bligh’s reckoning, the island which undoubtedly saved several of the men from dying of starvation left a remaining voyage of 1,300 miles to Timor. He wanted to be on his way as soon as possible, but recognized the need for several of the men to recover their strength. David Nelson, a botanist who sailed with the Bounty for the benefit of Sir Joseph Banks, was one of the weakest, but he regained his strength quickly. Bligh ordered the men not to eat any berries or other vegetation found on the island until Nelson cleared them as safe. The men found several fruits and berries, ignored the Captain’s orders, and several became sick.

It was the sickness which comes from overeating, rather than poisoning, and the men recovered. It was also the first sign of rebelliousness against Bligh since the boat was cast adrift from Bounty. When Bligh announced it was time to depart their sanctuary and promised that there would be similar islands found during the rest of their journey, several of the crew complained that it was too soon to leave. Purcell, the carpenter, was chief among them. There were several encounters between Purcell and Bligh during the remainder of the voyage, among them a near mutiny of the Bounty‘s launch.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
A handmade model of the launch showing each crewman involved in an activity described by Bligh during the voyage. Pacific Union College Library

18. Bligh discovered pilferage of food while at Restoration Island

When Bligh readied the launch for sea after a day on Restoration Island, he discovered that one of the crew had been pilfering from the store of salt pork. After questioning each shipmate personally and individually, none of whom admitted to any knowledge of the missing pork, Bligh decided to use all that remained in that afternoon’s oyster stew. He so informed the crew, along with the information that they would resume their journey the following day. The next morning, May 31, Bligh inventoried the remaining stores in the boat. There were 38 days of bread remaining (at 1/25 of a pound), and 60 gallons of water. When the crew assembled, they brought aboard with them a few oysters.

As Bligh was getting the men into the boat, “twenty natives appeared, running and holloaing to us, on the opposite shore. They were armed with a spear or lance, and a short weapon which they carried in their left hand: they made signs for us to come to them”. Any arguments against leaving the island were dropped quickly, and the launch got underway, the men pulling the oars with renewed strength while others rigged the lugsails. As promised by Bligh, they stopped at several more islands to renew their dwindling strength before again braving the open sea on the final leg to Timor.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
William Bligh, as he appeared when he sailed with Captain Cook. National Portrait Gallery of Australia

19. The carpenter mutinied against Bligh while seeking food on another island

The numerous small islands passed as the launch bore westward were the subject of discussion among the men. Many of them wanted to stop at several, while Bligh demurred, based on the number of natives he saw. After two days of full stomachs, the idea of privation rations was unacceptable to some of the crew, when surrounded by islands which offered sustenance in plenty. Bligh noted the questioning of authority in the launch in his journal, but it was an instance ashore which he recorded, in which a member of the crew threatened him and forced the Captain to assert his authority.

Bligh did not identify the crewman, but the subsequent memoirs of others in the launch revealed it was Purcell, the carpenter. After landing to obtain whatever supplies could be found at a place Bligh named Sunday Island, Bligh ordered Purcell and a party to reconnoiter for food. Purcell refused, told the Captain he had done enough, and that he was as good a man as Bligh, who had done little. The Captain grabbed two cutlasses, thrust one into Purcell’s hand, and told him to defend himself. Purcell backed down. The launch again headed to the west.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
Admiral Samuel Lord Hood headed the courts-martial which exonerated Bligh and convicted several of the mutineers. Wikimedia

20. Further acts of disobedience to orders occurred in the final leg of the journey

The launch continued to the west, stopping at islands which Bligh deemed safe to obtain what food they offered, as well as badly needed rest. During the brief stopovers, members of the crew acted contrary to Bligh’s orders, endangering all. Several of the men obtained food on the various islands, including oysters, clams, wild beans, fruits and berries, wild birds, and eggs. Some of the men ate what they found on the spot, rather than returning with it to share with their shipmates. In the first week of June Peckover’s watch stopped, and Bligh was reduced to estimating the time based on his celestial measurement of noon, with the sun at its zenith.

By June 10, several of the men were weakened to the point of being near death, including Lawrence Lebogue, an able seaman and sailmaker, and Thomas Ledyard, a surgeon’s mate. Bligh administered the remaining wine to them in teaspoonfuls, hoping to ease their sufferings. On June 12, the island of Timor was sighted from the boat, though the men were too weakened to cheer. A party landed on the island, to explore for signs of where the Dutch settlement of Coupang could be found. Natives were found, one of whom was brought into the boat to guide them. On June 14 Bounty‘s launch arrived at Coupang, having completed a voyage of 4,163 miles. Other than John Norton, killed by the natives at Tofua, not a single man was lost during the voyage.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
The Dutch settlers welcomed Bligh and his men and did all they could for their comfort. Wikimedia

21. The Dutch provided the Bounty crew with food, shelter, clothing and medical care

Bligh wrote of his reception in Coupang, “Our bodies were nothing but skin and bones, our limbs were full of sores, and we were clothed in rags; in this condition, with the tears of joy and gratitude flowing down our cheeks, the people of Timor beheld us with a mixture of horror, surprise, and pity”. The Dutch settlers made every effort to aid the Bounty crew. They lodged together in a small house provided by the governor, were given medical attention, and fed several small meals a day until, as their strength returned, they resumed a normal meal schedule. All showed signs of recovering before the malarial climate of the area wreaked its havoc.

The crew of the launch was too weak to resist the disease-laden region, and nearly all the voyagers, including Bligh, were stricken with various tropical ailments. Bligh suffered from malaria, which would continue to give him bouts of ill health for the rest of his life. Several of the launch’s crew died at Coupang, including Nelson, the botanist, Lawrence Lebogue, William Elphinstone, and others. Of the 19 men who were cast adrift from Bounty, 12 eventually made it home to Great Britain, including William Bligh, who was given a hero’s welcome when he arrived on March 14, 1790, at Portsmouth. The news of the mutiny and his voyage preceded him.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
Peter Heywood, convicted of mutiny, was pardoned and had a distinguished naval career. Wikimedia

22. Bligh was sent a second time to Tahiti to obtain breadfruit

Lieutenant William Bligh was court-martialed for the loss of His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty, with other survivors of the launch called to give testimony. He was “most-honorably acquitted”, and was widely celebrated in Great Britain when his account of the mutiny and Fletcher Christian’s treachery was made public. Peter Heywood, the scion of a wealthy Manx family (as was Christian) was condemned for his role in the mutiny almost as roundly as Christian. Bligh was presented to King George III by Sir Joseph Banks and Lord Hood before being commissioned to return to Tahiti on a second breadfruit mission. The two vessels of the expedition were accompanied by a detachment of Royal Marines.

Bligh departed on the second breadfruit mission in 1791 as a national hero, with a reputation of being one of Britain’s greatest navigators and explorers, a worthy successor to Captain Cook. When he returned his reputation was in tatters; he was regarded as a sadistic tyrant and brute. During his absence, the powerful Christian and Heywood families had published accounts of the voyage of the Bounty which presented Bligh in that light, creating the myth of the heroic and noble Fletcher Christian’s stand against mindless cruelty and Captain Bligh’s love of cruel punishments.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
A wooden house built by the Bounty mutineers on Pitcairn Island, photographed in 1908. Wikimedia

23. John Fryer, Bounty‘s master, contributed to the defamation of William Bligh

John Fryer was Bounty‘s sailing master, and left Portsmouth as the ship’s second in command. After Bounty failed to navigate Cape Horn Bligh did not demote Fryer, but he promoted Christian over his head as his second-in-command. During the voyage of the launch and its aftermath, Bligh was frequently displeased with Fryer’s actions (or lack of them). During his court-martial, Bligh made it clear that Fryer had done little or nothing to oppose the mutineers, failing to even protest verbally. In short, William Bligh had little use for John Fryer, nor his brother-in-law Robert Tinkler (another veteran of Bounty‘s launch), and made his opinions clear.

During his absence on the second breadfruit voyage (which was completed successfully) Bligh was roundly criticized by Fryer in his own account of the mutiny and its aftermath. Fryer’s highly self-serving account gave credit for the voyage of the launch to himself and even obliquely accused Bligh of being the one pilfering food. Purcell, another with an axe to grind with Bligh, agreed with Fryer’s account. So did Robert Tinkler. None of the other survivors of the launch did, and records of Bligh’s naval career, before and after the Bounty, establish that he was an enlightened naval officer of his day, concerned with the health and welfare of his men. His record also establishes him as one of the greatest seamen, navigators, and cartographers of all time. But to posterity, he remains the symbol of tyranny and cruelty, Captain Bligh of the Bounty.

The Mutinous Voyage of William Bligh and the Bounty’s Launch
In the 1962 film Mutiny on the Bounty, Bligh’s epic open-boat voyage was scarcely mentioned. MGM

24. The truth of the mutiny and its aftermath is shrouded in myths

Fletcher Christian and some of the mutineers, accompanied by their Tahitian wives and six men, eventually settled on Pitcairn Island in the Pacific Ocean. When the American sealing ship Topaz discovered their refuge in 1808 only one mutineer was alive, John Adams, who claimed Christian was murdered by the Tahitian men during a violent revolt on the island. His grave has never been found. Some claim he returned to Great Britain; among those who claimed to have seen him there was Peter Heywood. Heywood was tried, convicted, and condemned to death, but family influence enabled him to obtain a pardon from the King.

Among the materials saved by John Samuel when he was forced into the launch was Bounty‘s log. It was introduced as evidence during Bligh’s court-martial, as well as that of the mutineers, including Peter Heywood. It is held today at the State Library of New South Wales, viewable in transcript form. Bligh’s account of the open-boat voyage is also available in transcript form on several websites, and the original pages can be viewed online as well. Together they provide an in-depth record of one of the most remarkable tales to be found in the annals of the sea.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“A Voyage to the South Sea”. William Bligh

“Transcript: HMS Bounty Log, April, 1789″. William Bligh. 1789. Online

“Testimony of John Fryer (9/12/1792)”. Trial transcript, John Fryer. 1792. Online

“The Voyage of the Bounty‘s Launch: John Fryer’s Narrative”. John Fryer. 1792

“The Voyage of Bounty‘s Launch”. Sven Whalroos (excerpt), Pitcairn Islands Study Center. Online

“Letter, William Bligh to his Wife Betsy, written in Coupang, Timor”. William Bligh. August 19, 1789. Online

“Testimony of William Cole at the Bounty Court Martial”. Trial transcript, William Cole. 1792. Online

“Testimony of William Purcell at the Bounty Court Martial”. Trial transcript, William Purcell. 1792. Online

“Log of the Proceedings of His Majesty’s Ship Bounty, Lieut. William Bligh Commander from Otaheite toward Jamaica”. William Bligh. April 5, 1789 – March 13, 1790

“Innocent on the Bounty: The Court Martial and Pardon of Midshipman Peter Heywood, in Letters”. Peter Heywood and Nessy Heywood. Eds. Donald Maxton, Rolf E. Du Reitz. 2013

“‘The Bounty‘: Fletcher Christian was the villain”. Mark Lewis, Baltimore Sun. October 26, 2003

“Blighs vs. Christians: the 209-year feud”. Tim Minogue, The Independent. March 22, 1998

“The Journal of James Morrison”. James Morrison. 1935

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