|Bounty mutiny, Chris Mayger
Captain William Bligh, Fletcher
Christian. Bounty. Names
indelibly connected with the most famous mutiny in history. Which could have
been brought to a head by an ongoing volcanic eruption in Tonga.
had arrived in Tahiti on October 24, 1788, her mission to collect saplings of
breadfruit trees. The atmosphere on board was strained before they arrived, and
when the ship sailed from the idyllic island five months later, the morale was
even worse. Several of the men had formed attachments with Tahitian maidens.
Tahitians had stolen pieces of vital equipment, but instead of punishing them,
Bligh had punished the seamen for not preventing the thefts.
The day the
anchor was weighed was stormy, with black clouds and threatening rain and
gales, not a good augury for the voyage back to England. Then, fatally, the ship made a call at the
Tongan island of Nomuka, where Bligh had been before, with Captain James Cook.
It had been a provisioning landcall that had not gone well. Cook’s temper had been so inflamed by the
constant thieving that he had had a chief flogged, and then, humiliatingly, had
exchanged him for a pig.
It had happened
more than a decade before, but memories are long. The inhabitants were hostile, and much of the
aggression was taken out on Christian, who had been sent ashore with a party of
seamen to collect fresh water. He and
his gang ran away when attacked, leaving an adze and an axe behind, which Bligh
thought the act of a “cowardly rascal.”
And that night,
while tempers were hot, a volcano on the nearby island of Tofua flared up in
the darkness, accompanied by a stench of sulphur, and a constant ominous
rumbling. “As we near'd Toofoa we observed Vast Col-lums of smoke & flame
Issuing from the Volcano which appear'd to be a very large one," wrote
James Morrison, one of the seamen. Other mariners have recorded the vicious
headaches caused by volcanic smoke. But,
despite the general bad temper, there was no sign of mutiny. The ship’s log
recorded pleasant weather. “Everything very quiet on board,” it reads.
At four in the
morning, the situation exploded. Bligh was forcibly hauled out of bed by
Fletcher Christian and three co-conspirators. “On the 28th April at day light in
the morning Christian having the morning watch,” the captain wrote to his wife.
“He with several others came into my Cabbin while I was a Sleep, and seizing
me, holding naked Bayonets at my Breast, tied my Hands behind my back, and
threatned instant destruction if I uttered a word.”
Bligh, with 19 companions, was set
adrift in the ship’s launch. With the loss of only one man (to native attack at
Tofua), he made it to Timor, stumbling ashore on June 12, 1789. The 5,098-kilometre
open-boat journey is recognized now as one of the most outstanding feats of
navigation in the history of the sea.
The mutineers sailed back to Tahiti,
where some stayed to be recaptured and put on trial, while others formed a
settlement at Pitcairn, where Christian was most probably murdered.
The question is why the mutiny ever
happened. Theories abound. “I have been
used like a Dog all the voyage,” said Christian. Bligh blamed the charms of the
“handsome, mild and cheerful women of Tahiti.”
But it seems very possible that simmering tempers on board the ship were
inflamed to violence by the stench, the strange flickering, and the ominous
rumblings of the erupting volcano on Tofua.