The Court-Martial of the Bounty Mutineers
The mutiny on the Bounty remains one of the most intriguing tales of maritime adventure, inspiring literature and Hollywood screen adaptations. On 28 April 1789, disaffected crewmen, led by Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian took control of the Bounty and cast the captain, Lieutenant William Bligh and 18 loyalists adrift in the Pacific Ocean. With a new factual series Mutiny, scheduled for Channel 4 in early 2017, it is timely to look at some of the historical artefacts from the era, uniquely available for sale from Shapero Rare Books, bringing to life the psychological drama that arose on the voyage.
The Minutes of … the Court- Martial of 1794 contain a full account of the proceedings, one of “only a few copies … printed for distribution among the interested parties and the ministers of state at that time.”
How it all Began… the Ill-fated Breadfruit Voyage
In 1789, the British naval ship HMS Bounty was sent to Tahiti under the command of Lieutenant William Bligh with the mission of bringing breadfruit plants to the Caribbean as food for the slave labour force. The crew spent five months in the South Pacific island paradise, becoming accustomed to the good life. A few weeks after setting sail, a mutiny broke out with Fletcher Christian as the leader.
The mutineers cast Bligh and 19 of his loyal sailors adrift in a rowing boat before escaping to Pitcairn Island, where they planned to settle, burning the Bounty at sea to cover their tracks. But their crimes caught up with them two years later when, after news of the mutiny reached Britain, a ship was dispatched to arrest the mutineers. After rounding up 14 out of 23 of them, they were imprisoned in a makeshift cell on the deck of HMS Pandora and the surviving 10 prisoners were returned to Britain to face court martial in Portsmouth.
Court Martial Minutes of the Bounty Mutineers
This sensational trial led to three pamphlets, the first by Barney, with an appendix by Fletcher Christian’s brother, Edward, in which Christian seeks to justify the mutiny; the second by Bligh in which he defends himself, and the third by Christian replying to Bligh’s defence.
A Skilled Navigator
Bligh had already returned to England in 1790 not as the man who had lost his ship to mutineers, but as the courageous hero who The HMS Bounty Organization described as “maybe one of the greatest seamen who ever lived” as he navigated “3600 nautical miles to safety in 41 days using only a sextant and a pocket watch.”
The Minutes of… the Court-Martial is, according to Parsons, “”a legendary Pacific rarity””. The work gives an account of the trial of the members of the Bounty crew who were captured and repatriated; the minutes were taken by Stephen Barney, who was representing William Musprat.
Was Captain Bligh a Brutal Authoritarian?
The Appendix is by Edward Christian, and is a vindication of his brother Fletcher’s conduct in the affair.
Christian had represented his brother Fletcher as a tormented romantic figure, which did much to fix for posterity the perception of Bligh as a brutal authoritarian. Christian notes that the crew declared that “”Captain Bligh used to call his officers ‘scoundrels, damned rascals, hounds, hell-hounds, beasts, and infamous wretches’… that he frequently threatened them, that when the ship arrived at Endeavour Straits ‘he would kill one half of the people, make the officers jump overboard, and would make them eat grass like cows;’ and that Christian, and Stewart, another midshipman, were as much afraid of the Endeavour Straits, as any child is of a rod.””
An Offence Punishable by Death
The court-martial of the ten mutineers was held aboard the H.M.S. Duke, with Lord Hood presiding over a panel of twelve captains. Of the ten men tried, Joseph Coleman (armorer), Thomas McIntosh, Charles Norman (carpenter’s mates), and Michael Byrn (able seaman) were acquitted. Bligh had singled out the first three as loyalists but as there was no more room in the launch on which he was set adrift, they were obliged to stay aboard the Bounty. Peter Heywood (midshipman), James Morrison (boatswain’s mate), William Muspratt (cook’s assistant), and able seamen Thomas Ellison, John Millward and Thomas Burkett were found guilty and condemned to death. Heywood and Morrison were later given royal pardons; and Muspratt was acquitted owing to the fact that certain evidence had not been entered at the time of the court-martial. Only Burkett, Ellison, and Millward were hanged.
The Minutes immediately provoked a response from Bligh in the equally rare Answer to Certain Assertions, here inscribed by Bligh, in which he portrays himself, with the help of the testimony of influential friends, as an affable and humane captain. He goes on to assert that Christian acted out of insanity. The year after, Edward Christian responded with A Short Reply to Capt. Bligh’s Answer, probably the rarest of any of the three publications concerning the proceedings of the trial, in which he calls into question the testimonials of those who had supported Bligh in the previous publication.
Bligh later faced a court martial himself for the loss of his ship but was acquitted and eventually rose to the rank of Admiral. Christian Fletcher and the surviving mutineers stayed on the Pitcairn Islands where their descendants live to this day.
Rare Documents for Sale
BLIGH, Captain William. A Complete set of The Bligh Court Martial Pamphlets, one Inscribed by Bligh. 1794-1795 £195,000
Also available is Bligh’s Narrative (1790), his own account of the mutiny on the Bounty, issued in haste, fully two years before his official account of the whole voyage, in an effort to preserve his reputation.
For more information please contact Julian in our Travel Department