Down with Bligh - hurrah for Tahiti
a fresh look at the mysterious voyage of the Bounty
[Brian Hooker 2006. This article was first published in Mercator's World, vol. 6, nr. 5, Sept./Oct. 2001. Copyright is the property of the publisher of Mercator's World. Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of
private study, research, criticism or review, no part may be reproduced without prior permission.]
The story of the Bounty mutiny is too well known to repeat here; the prior incidents, the seizure of the ship, and the subsequent occurrences have been the subject of numerous books, articles, and five movies (one an Oscar winner). Following the mutiny and after almost and his supporters arrived at Timor in the East Indies, having
sailed in the Bounty's open longboat for 3,618 miles of incredible hardship. Captain William Bligh and his supporters arrived at Timor in the East Indies, having sailed in the Bounty's open longboat for 3,618 miles.
Mystery has surrounded the Bounty's movements on her final voyage.
Christian and his followers departed from Tahiti for the last time on 22 September 1789 but they failed to reach their haven of Pitcairn Island until 15 January 1790. Why did a direct crossing of only 1200 miles take four months? At the most this short voyage should have taken less than two weeks.
(Caption for the illustration below.*)
The object of the present article is to review the events on the Bounty during the eight months from the time of the mutiny, to the founding of the settlement at Pitcairn. In particular an explanation is offered for the previously unaccounted for four months of voyaging.
The sole survivor of the mutineers, John Adams, recounted his story to Captain F. W. Beechey during the visit of HMS Blossom to Pitcairn, in December 1825. Adams declared that they made for Pitcairn from Tahiti in September 1789, but he also said “the Marquesas Islands were first mentioned.” This ambiguous statement is not made any easier to understand when it is considered that he told Captain Mayhew Folger of the
American ship Topaz, of Boston, they “went in search of a group of islands, which [they saw] on the chart placed under the head of Spanish discoveries. They crossed the situation of these imaginary isles, and satisfied themselves that none existed.”
Clues revealing some details of the Bounty’s last voyage came to light only after Folger discovered the settlement at Pitcairn in 1808. Neither Christian nor any of the other sailors kept a journal on the Bounty after they seized the ship. A number of narratives written mostly by visitors to Pitcairn after 1808, provide some information
concerning the last voyage, but a considerable part of the scant evidence is contained in accounts dictated in 1817/1818 and 1821, by Jenny, the Tahitian wife of Isaac Martin, a former able seaman on the Bounty.
Books, charts, and navigational aids on the Bounty
A review of the Bounty's final voyage is given under sub-headings that follow but in this section it is necessary to mention some of the books, charts, and navigational instruments carried on the ship. Full details of the printed material are unknown but Captain Bligh later claimed that Christian prevented him “on pain of death” from
taking any charts off the ship. (Caption for the portrait below.**)
Another early visitor to Pitcairn, John Shillibeer, mentions in his narrative “several books belonging to Bligh which were taken out of the Bounty.” He describes the volumes of Hawkesworth's account of Cook’s first voyage but not the volumes of Cook's second and third voyages which were certainly Christian’s main source for details of
Tubuai, the “Spanish Isles,” and the Marquesas Islands. If the expedition carried the first edition of the narrative of Cook's third voyage, published at London in 1784, Roberts’ General Chart [of the world] was no doubt studied by Christian. In some later editions this chart is included in a separate atlas of plates.
Since Bligh’s voyage took place before the founding of the British Hydrographic Office in 1795, the Admiralty relied to a large degree on commercial charts. Almost certainly Bligh was provided with Green’s chart of the South Pacific, first published in 1753 by the London chart-publisher Thomas Jefferys, reissued with major changes in
1775, and reprinted in 1783.
Of particular interest in both Roberts’ and Green’s chart, is the depiction of Spanish discoveries and supposed sightings of islands in the Pacific. Green’s chart portrays the Solomon Islands and the Marquesas Islands, but the Solomons are grossly misplaced. Roberts’ chart ignores the Solomons but portrays Mendaña’s and Cook’s
discoveries in the Marquesas group. South-east of the islands now known as the Tuamotu Archipelago, Roberts’ chart includes a legend reading, “Isles said to be discd. by the Spaniards 1773.”
As well as being provided with the usual sextants and compasses, the Bounty carried at the insistence of Sir Joseph Banks, a marine timekeeper made by Larcum Kendall. Thus, Bligh, and later Christian, were well equipped for fixing a position at sea.
“Huzza for O Taheite!”
William Bligh and eighteen men were cast adrift in the Bounty’s twenty-three foot launch, ten leagues south-west of Tofua, one of the western Tonga Islands, to the sound of “down with Captain Bligh! huzza for O Taheite!” from the mutineers. Bligh’s log ends abruptly the previous day, Monday 27 April 1789. Fletcher Christian, master’s
mate, took charge of the ship and after listening to the views of the twenty-five men remaining on the Bounty, decided to make for Tubuai in the Austral Islands.
Christian’s plan was to investigate Tubuai and then sail north to Tahiti for provisions. Tubuai seemed suitably remote and the ideal island to select for a retreat. To deceive Bligh, the ship stood some time to the north-north-west but was afterwards put about and her course directed eastward.
Christian took over Bligh’s cabin and library, consulted the narrative of Cook’s third voyage, and noted that Cook discovered Tubuai in latitude 24o south, on 8 August 1777. Bligh had served as master on HMS Resolution at the time of the discovery but whether he mentioned details of earlier explorations in conversations with Christian
is unknown. In any case Cook had not landed on Tubuai.
It is sometimes claimed that Christian discovered Rarotonga which is close to a direct course from Tofua to Tubuai, during the month-long voyage to Tubuai. It is possible but the evidence in support of this discovery is not strong.
A short-lived settlement at Tubuai
The Bounty arrived off Tubuai on 24 May 1789, and the following day Christian with some difficulty, anchored the ship inside the lagoon. The inhabitants immediately made it known that new immigrants were not welcome, and seeing the small number of crew, they attempted to seize the ship. Christian’s visits ashore where he noticed
coconut, breadfruit, banana trees and taro, convinced him of the suitability of the island for the proposed settlement and he believed a little time would conciliate the local people. He therefore proposed to press on to Tahiti and return after procuring pigs, goats, chickens, and some women as companions for the men. Thirty-six years
later it was the need for female companions that Adams remembered as the main reason for returning to Tahiti.
Sailing from Tubuai on 30 May, the Bounty reached Tahiti and anchored in Matavai Bay on 7 June. By 16 June Christian had obtained a large number of pigs, goats, chickens, a bull and a cow, and even a few cats and dogs. The ship sailed a few days later, but with only nine Europeans and about thirty-four Tahitians including partners for a
few of the men. Sixteen mutineers decided to stay at Tahiti.
On the second visit to Tubuai, the Bounty reached the island on 26 June. With the Tahitians acting as interpreters, friendly relations were soon established between the new arrivals and the local population. However, trouble gradually developed and it was not long before the mutineers realized that only on an island without inhabitants
could they safely make their new home. Reluctantly, Christian decided to withdraw.
The Bounty set sail for the second time from Tubuai on 15 September bound for Tahiti to begin another four months of wandering in the south seas. Christian's aim was to find an island not only uninhabited but also unvisited and without a harbour.
Eastward in search of a home
On returning again to Tahiti, Christian made it clear that the ship’s stay was only for one day. And he knew it was important to find consorts for all the intending settlers. On the night of 21 September, women were invited on board and taken below to supper and bed, having been told that the Bounty would be moving to another anchorage
in the morning. But soon the anchor cables were quietly cut and the Bounty got under way. The ship later in the morning passed close to the atoll of Tetiaroa, twenty-six miles north of Tahiti.
Near Moorea a number of women went ashore in a canoe which came out. These final withdrawals reduced the Bounty’s complement to nine Europeans and nineteen Tahitians. Then, as the Bounty’s sails dropped over the horizon they vanished as far as the outside world was concerned.
An attempt at unravelling the puzzle of the drawn-out passage was made in 1958 by H. E. Maude in a study published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society. Maude believed that Christian headed for the Tonga area, not far from the scene of the mutiny, then on to the southern Lau Group of the Fiji Islands, before heading for Pitcairn.
This idea is based on one of Jenny’s accounts given to a missionary at Tahiti, thirty-two years after the event. However, Maude’s unrealistic theory fails to take into account the evidence relating to “the Spanish Isles” and the object of the cruise which was to search for a remote, unvisited, and unpopulated island for the new home.
The available evidence is strewed with red herrings and blurred recollections but a few facts stand out. Taking into consideration Adams’ remarks, “the Marquesas Islands were first mentioned,” and “they went in search of Spanish discoveries,” it makes more sense to believe that Christian headed south-east from Tahiti and away from the
scene of the mutiny in September, not west as Jenny’s account explains. The link between Adams’ remarks and the “Spanish Isles” legend in Roberts’ chart in the area of latitude 32o south, longitude 128o west, is apparent. The south-east suggestion also ties in with Adams’ remark “They crossed the situation of those imaginary isles and
satisfied themselves that none existed.”
If Christian found no sign of the “Spanish Isles’’ after searching perhaps for a week or two he headed north. In Green’s chart the Marquesas Islands are placed too far east but in Roberts’ chart their position is fairly correct. A remark made by Jenny that provides a positive clue is her reference to passing “between two mountainous
islands, but the wind was so strong they could not land.” Maude’s suggestion that the islands were Hunga Haápai (400 ft) and Hunga Tonga (490 ft), about thirty miles north of Tongatapu does not equate with Jenny’s description. There are few mountainous islands in the south Pacific but two that fit the account are Hiva Oa (3,904 ft), and
Tahuata (3,250 ft), in the southern group of the Marquesas Islands. Christian knew from reading Cook’s account of his second voyage that the Resolution passed between these two islands (Haava Strait) before anchoring in Mendaña’s port of “Madre de Dios” (Hapatoni Bay), at Tahuata, in April 1774.
William Hodges’ sketch of the port, reproduced as an engraving in the narrative of Cook’s second voyage, must have tempted Christian to visit to obtain water and supplies. However, Jenny’s statement indicates that the Bounty did not anchor at the Marquesas Islands. Probably the sight of large numbers of local inhabitants as well as the
strong winds discouraged the haven-seekers from further investigations.
Christian heads for Carteret’s discovery
Perhaps at this point, after abandoning the idea of staying at the Marquesas, the decision was made to head for Pitcairn; but if water and supplies became scarce during the voyage south it was important to find an island to replenish the casks and obtain fresh provisions. Jenny mentions an island named “Purutea” where they obtained
supplies at one point during the extended voyage. An island near the southernmost edge of the Tuamotu Archipelago named in modern charts, Marutea, is the likely “Purutea.”
Adams confirmed in his statement to Beechey that Christian consulted Hawkesworth’s account of Carteret’s discovery of Pitcairn. The text in this book, partly repeated below, includes a typographical error in the latitude figure and a serious miscalculation in the longitude reckoning. Christian no doubt checked the accompanying map, and
also Roberts’ chart, both of which provide the more or less correct latitude figure of 25o 02’ south.
||... The evening of Thursday, the 2nd of July , we discovered land to the northward ... upon approaching it the next day, it appeared like a great rock rising out of the sea: it was not more than five miles in circumference, and seemed to be
uninhabited; it was however, covered with trees, and we saw a small stream ... I would have landed upon it, but the surf, which at this season broke upon it with great violence, rendered it impossible. ... We saw a great number of sea-birds hovering, ... and the sea here seemed to
have fish. It lies in lat. 20o 2’ south: long. 133o
21’ west. It is so high that we saw it at the distance of more than fifteen leagues, we called it PITCAIRN’S ISLAND.
Since Christian realised that an approach from the east simply required him to find the twenty-fifth parallel and steer west along this line until he sighted the island, he most likely ignored the longitude issue to a large degree. However, this explanation is not to say Christian found the island without difficulty or indeed from the
east. He was aware of Cook’s failure in his search for Pitcairn in July 1773. The fact that Carteret’s position for Pitcairn is 200 miles west of the true location added a confusing ingredient to Christian's problem. Carteret sailed before the chronometer was developed in 1767 and although Kendall's marine timekeeper was giving
Christian accurate longitude reckonings he could only guess at the extent of Carteret's errors.
Jenny says Christian almost gave up the search to return to Tahiti. This remark suggests that the Bounty reached the twenty-fifth parallel from the north, but west of Pitcairn, and Christian steered west, in which case he might have sailed for some days before deciding to turn about and continue the search by heading east.
Finally, during the evening of 15 January 1790, Pitcairn was sighted but it was three days later before the intending settlers could attempt a landing in the rough seas. They off-loaded everything and the Bounty was destroyed eight days later, on 23 January. □
* A reproduction of a print after Robert Dodd's famous painting of Fletcher Christian aboard HMS Bounty bidding farewell to Captain William Bligh and eighteen loyal members of his crew on 28 April 1789.
** A reproduction of an engraving after a sketch of William Bligh produced circa 1780.
Beechey, F.W. Narrative of a voyage to the Pacific ... 2 vols (London: Colburn & Bentley, 1831; Reprint ed. Amsterdam: N. Israel, 1968).
Cook, James A voyage towards the South Pole ... 2 vols (London: Strahan & Cadell,1777.
Cook, James and James King A voyage to the Pacific Ocean ... 3 vols and folio of plates (London: Strahan & Cadell, 1784).
Hawkesworth, John, ed., An account of the voyages undertaken ...3 vols (London: Strahan & Cadell, 1773).
Jenny (or Teehuteatuaonoa) First narrative, published in the Sydney Gazette (No. 817), 17 July 1819.
............................., Second narrative, published in the Bengal Hurkaru (No. 3590), 2 October 1826.
Maude, H. E. “In search of a home. From the mutiny to Pitcairn Island (1789-1790)” Journal of the Polynesian Society 67 (1958), pp. 104-31. Reprinted as a chapter in H. E. Maude, Of islands and men (Melbourne: Oxford, 1968).
Shillibeer, J. A Narrative of the “Briton” voyage to Pitcairn’s Island [in 1814] (London: Law & Whittaker, 1817).
[The illustrations noted below are reproduced with the original printed version of this article and will be added here shortly.]
Three generations of film-makers have based movies on the Bounty story. This young Tahitian woman, Tarita Teriipaia, co-starred with Marlon Brando in the 1962 MGM film “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
Philip Carteret’s chart of Pitcairn Island, published in John Hawkesworth, An account of the voyages, London, 1773. Christian found the book with the chart in Bligh’s cabin on the Bounty.
Reconstructed track of the Bounty, 28 April 1789 to 23 January 1790.
Detail from Roberts’ General Chart, published in 1784, showing parts of Polynesia. Christian consulted this chart before investigating both the “Spanish Isles” area in the south-east Pacific, and the Marquesas Islands. The tracks and dates shown relate to Cook’s three voyages.
Tom Christian, a direct descendent of Fletcher Christian with one of the Bounty’s anchors which was recovered from the sea-bed of Bounty Bay, Pitcairn Island, by American divers in 1957. □