Saturday Special from the Vaults: The Bounty Mutiny: From the Court Case to the Movie

One of the more interesting projects I undertook for Enslow Publishers was a history of the famous Mutiny on the Bounty, comparing the real-life events to the way they were portrayed in the movie starring Anthony Hopkins as William Bligh and Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian that came out in the 1980s. I’ve always enjoyed reading about life at sea in the 19th century, so this was a natural fit. And honestly, what other book of mine is likely to have Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson on the cover?

I came away from the project with a great admiration for William Bligh, who is surely one of the more grievously wronged-by-history men in the history of the British Empire.

Here’s the introduction and about half of the (very long) first chapter of The Bounty Mutiny: From the Court Case to the Movie.

And, of course, a link to where you can buy it on Amazon!




The single cannon shot from HMS Duke rang out over the choppy gray water of England’s Portsmouth Harbor. It was 8 A.M. on Wednesday, September 12, 1792, and the Duke had just hoisted a flag indicating that a court martial was in process.

Thirty minutes later, ten prisoners were led from the gun room of HMS Hector and loaded aboard one of the Hector’s boats. British Marines in bright red uniform jackets stood at attention as the boat’s crew dipped their oars and began the journey to the Duke, moored in the outer harbor.

More than an hour later, with the Marines still standing at attention, the boat reached the Duke. The prisoners were formally taken aboard, and then led into the captain’s great cabin at the very stern of the ship to face the twelve captains who would serve as their judges and the Judge Advocate who would run the court. Also present were the prisoners’ counselors, and various witnesses.

The Judge Advocate, Moses Greetham, began reading from the “Circumstantial letter” which laid out the details of the case: the ten men were accused of mutiny, a crime punishable by death.

Specifically, they were accused of the most famous mutiny of all time: the mutiny on His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty, the ship once commanded by Lieutenant William Bligh.

For more than two centuries now, that mutiny has captured the imagination of the world, inspiring histories, plays, novels, at least one stage musical, and five motion pictures.

Oddly enough, it all started with breadfruit.


Chapter 1: The Voyage of the Bounty

In 1688, while sailing around the world, a naturalist (and occasional pirate) named William Dampier noted an interesting new fruit from the island of Guam:

“The bread-fruit (as we call it) grows on a large tree…The fruit…is of a round shape and has a thick tough rind. When the fruit is ripe it is yellow and soft; and the taste is sweet and pleasant. The natives of this island use it for bread: they gather it when full grown while it is green and hard; then they bake it in an oven…the inside is soft, tender, and white.”[i]

Later explorers, including Captain Cook (the first European to visit Hawaii and Australia) also extolled the virtues of the breadfruit. The fruit was so much like bread that sailors actually preferred it to their own bread. (That’s not surprising, since the bread served in the middle of a long voyage was a kind of cracker made of flour, water, and salt known as “hardtack” or “ship’s biscuit.” Ship’s biscuit was so hard it often had to be soaked before it could be eaten. It was also occasionally infested by the worm-like larvae of beetles.)

As early as 1775, the Society for West India Merchants saw the potential in breadfruit as a source of food for slave on the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. The Society offered a hundred pounds to the first person who could bring living breadfruit trees to England.


A Passion for Botany

Among those with businesses interests in the West Indies was Joseph Banks. Born in 1743, Banks was independently wealthy and passionately interested in natural history—particularly botany, the study of plants. When he was twenty-one he collected numerous never-before-seen specimens of plants along the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, England’s top scientific society, when he was just twenty-three.

He next joined Captain James Cook aboard the Endeavour when he set sail in August 1768 to carry British astronomers to Tahiti to observe the planet Venus crossing the disk of the sun.

The ship’s visit to Tahiti seized the public’s imagination upon the Endeavour’s return to England in 1771, even though the island had first been reached by an English ship four years earlier. Banks had a lot to do with the public’s sudden interest. He returned with thousands of specimens, drawings and paintings.

In 1778, after a final voyage to Iceland, Banks was elected president of the Royal Society. For decades, very few expeditions of science or exploration were undertaken without his consultation.

Banks wrote and received tens of thousands of letters from all over the world, full of questions and scientific observations. More than a few urged that the breadfruit tree be imported as a new food source for the West Indies.

Banks could see the fruit’s potential. He convinced the British government to mount an official expedition, announced in February 1787, to bring back specimens of the plant.

A former merchant ship called the Bethia, approved by Banks, was purchased and renamed His Majesty’s Armed Vessel (HMAV) Bounty. (The Bounty was too small to qualify for the designation His Majesty’s Ship [HMS]).

Command of The Bounty was awarded to Lieutenant William Bligh.


Enter William Bligh

William Bligh, born September 9, 1754, was the son of Francis Bligh, customs officer at Plymouth, and Jane Pearce, a widow Francis had married just ten months earlier.


Reality vs. the Movie: A Cabin Boy at Age Seven?

Throughout this book, we’ll be comparing real-life events to the way they were described or depicted in the 1984 movie The Bounty, produced by Dino de Laurentiis. In that movie, Bligh (Anthony Hopkins) tells Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson) that he has been at sea since he was twelve.

In fact, William Bligh first appears in naval records as a ship’s servant on the Monmouth at the age of seven—but it’s unlikely he actually went to sea at that age.

In the 1700s, Royal Navy captains would often enter youngsters from well-connected families onto the books, providing them with valuable “sea time.” Sea time was important because, to become a lieutenant, a young man had to appear on a ship’s roster for six years, and serve as a midshipman or master’s mate for at least two years of the six.[ii] Appearing on a ship’s roster at a young age allowed the boy to step straight into a midshipman’s position and take his lieutenant’s exam sooner.

Bligh probably first went to sea for real at age sixteen, shortly after his mother died.


In 1770 Bligh signed on to the Hunter as an able seaman. This was a typical classification for potential officers on ships where all the positions for midshipmen—officers in training—were filled. Six months later a midshipman’s position opened up, and Bligh was promoted.

From ages seventeen to twenty Bligh served as a midshipman on the Crescent, sailing to Tenerife and the West Indies. In 1774 he joined the Ranger, temporarily reduced to able seaman again, as she hunted smugglers in the Irish Sea.

At age twenty-one, Bligh learned that Captain Cook had selected him as sailing master of the Resolution for Cook’s third expedition. Cook must have heard a good report of Bligh’s navigational capabilities. He may also have known of Bligh’s talent for drawing. Cook wanted all his officers to be able to construct charts and accurately sketch the various places in which the ship might anchor.[iii]


Sailing with Captain Cook

With Cook, Bligh sailed to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), New Zealand, Tahiti, and various Pacific islands. Cook also sailed up the west coast of North America in a failed search for the Northwest Passage (a more direct route from Europe to the Pacific that would avoid the stormy seas around Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America).

Bligh must have paid close attention to Cook’s methods for keeping his crew healthy on long voyages, because he later implemented some of those methods on the Bounty. Second to Cook himself, he was responsible for creating charts and surveys, and also drew accurate sketches of birds, animals, and landscapes.

On February 14, 1779, at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, Bligh witnessed the murder of Captain Cook by natives. In Bligh’s view, the murder happened because the Marines guarding Cook did not do their duty.[iv] The tragedy affected Bligh not only personally but professionally. Bligh’s family connections were just good enough to get him into the Navy as a midshipman, but he had been counting on Cook’s influence to help further his career. (In the Royal Navy in that era, who you knew was often more important than what you knew.)

In February 1781, Bligh married Elizabeth Betham on the Isle of Man. After serving on a variety of ships for a few months near the end of the American Revolution, Bligh ended up on the Isle of Man with his wife and new daughter. In the scaled-back peacetime Navy, no officer’s berths were available.

The peacetime Navy paid only two shillings a day, so Bligh had to find work. The Navy granted his request for permission to sail on merchant ships. From mid-1783 until he was appointed commander of the Bounty, he commanded ships belonging to his wife’s wealthy uncle, Duncan Campbell, carrying goods from England to the West Indies and returning with rum and sugar.

His careful drawings and proven navigational skills probably recommended him to the Admiralty as commander of Sir Joseph Banks’s breadfruit expedition. Navigational skills were important because, once he’d retrieved breadfruit from Tahiti, the Admiralty wanted him to chart the Endeavour Straits, a narrow, dangerous passage separating Australia (then called New Holland) and New Guinea).[v] Cook had run aground there. The Admiralty hoped Cook’s sailing master might do better.

There’s no evidence Banks ever met Bligh. But Bligh, knowing the career value of a powerful patron, thanked Banks profusely for command of the Bounty, and wrote: “I can only assure you I shall endeavour, and I hope succeed, in deserving such a trust…”[vi]


HMAV Bounty

The Bounty was a three-masted merchant vessel, built just 2 1/2 years earlier. She was 85 feet, 1 1/2 inches long on the upper deck and 24 feet 4 inches wide. At just 220 tons, she was much smaller than any of Cook’s ships had been.

Because she was so small, she was rated as a cutter. That mattered because a cutter did not rate a captain or a commander as a commanding officer, but only a lieutenant. That, in turn, meant Bligh would not be getting a promotion, as he had hoped.

On a voyage expected to last at least two years, the difference between a lieutenant’s and commander’s pay was considerable. Bligh would earn just £70 a year. (As a merchant captain under Duncan Campbell, he’d been earning £500.) All the Navy offered was the assurance that that he would be promoted upon his return.[vii]

The Bounty was unusual in other ways, thanks to modifications Joseph Banks had insisted upon. All that mattered to Banks was the return of breadfruit, and, he wrote, “…the Master & Crew of her must not think it a grievance to give up the best part of her accommodations for that purpose.”[viii]

The most notable modification from Bligh’s point of view must have been the loss of the great cabin, the commanding officer’s private quarters. Normally the great cabin was as wide as the ship and extended from the stern almost to the main mast, with windows on three sides providing plenty of light. But on the Bounty, the great cabin had been turned into a breadfruit nursery. It was filled with shelves, cut with holes to receive 629 pots. It had special ventilation, a stove for warmth, a drainage system that caught and recycled excess water, and more. Bligh had to make do with a windowless cabin, eight by seven feet. He would eat in a small, cramped pantry.

The Bounty’s small size meant a smallish crew. Bligh would be the only commissioned officer. Warrant officers would include a master, boatswain, carpenter, gunner and surgeon. Bligh decided not to hire a purser, who normally bought provisions from the Navy Board, tracked them and doled them out on the voyage, and sold back unused ones at the end. Instead, Bligh would look after the disbursement of stores himself.

Most fatefully, the ship would not carry any Marines, who on most Navy ships served as the captain’s security and police force.



[i] Dampier, William. A New Voyage Round  the World. (London: Adam and Charles Black 1937.)  <>  (January 17, 2008).

[ii] “Patronage and Promotion,” Broadside – Home of Nelson’s Navy. <>  (January 18, 2007).

[iii] Alexander, Caroline. The Bounty. (New York: Penguin Group 2005). p. 44.

[iv] Ibid, p. 46

[v] Bligh, William and Christian, Edward. The Bounty Mutiny. (New York: Penguin Books, 2001.), p. 198

[vi] Hough, Richard. Captain Bligh & Mr. Christian: The Men and the Mutiny. (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1973).  p. 64.

[vii] Ibid, p. 67

[viii] Alexander, p. 49

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