April 28, 1789: The Mutiny on the Bounty
William Bligh (1754-1815) will forever be remembered for the mutiny, led by his second-in-command Fletcher Christian, which occurred on 28th April, 1789, shortly after leaving Tahiti where Bligh’s mission was to collect breadfruit. Posterity’s view of Bligh has been mixed, with some regarding him as a cruel taskmaster, and the mutinous crew as rather a romantic, hard-done-by bunch. The truth as usual is somewhere in between. Life on these early voyages was not for the faint-hearted, the accommodation for the crew extremely cramped and with no privacy. It took a certain sort of man to endure this, and another sort to keep order.
Bligh was cast from the ship with 14 loyal crewmen in the Bounty's launch (see image below) with only a week’s rations and a compass. A master navigator who had served on Cook’s third and final voyage, Bligh succeeded in reaching Timor, the nearest European settlement, after a 47-day, 4000-mile voyage, with only one casualty. Not only that, he also mapped large parts of the north-east coast of Australia. It was the greatest feat of seamanship in the annals of British maritime endeavour.
There is a considerable body of literature associated with Bligh, notably A Narrative of the Mutiny on board His Majesty's Ship Bounty (1790), Bligh’s first-hand account, rushed through the press to give his side of events; and two years later, the official account, A Voyage to the south Sea undertaken by command of His Majesty, for the purpose of conveying the bread-fruit tree to the West Indies, in His Majesty’s ship the Bounty (1792), ostensibly by Bligh and based on his journals, but written by James Burney under the supervision of Joseph Banks. Both these works are very desirable, but only of medium rarity.
A book of extreme rarity however is the advance issue of the Breadfruit Voyage, which was issued with the sheets of the first edition of A Narrative of the Mutiny. No copy of this has appeared at auction since 1965.
A French edition of Bligh’s account first appeared in 1792, the same year as the Breadfruit Voyage. Here you see a superb copy in the original wrappers.
What happened to the Mutineers? They ended up in two groups, with most staying in Tahiti. These were hunted down by the Royal Navy, and eventually, after surviving the infamous shipwreck of HMS Pandora, ten were brought back to England to face court martial. Four were acquitted, three found guilty but later pardoned, and three were hanged.
This sensational trial led to three pamphlets. The first, and most substantial, was Minutes of the Proceedings of the Court Martial (1794), written by Stephen Barney, the attorney for one of the mutineers. only a handful of copies were printed for distribution among the interested parties and the ministers of state at that time. A legendary rarity, the remarkable copy found is stitched as issued.
A smaller group were led to Pitcairn Islands by Fletcher Christian, where they lived as free men for the rest of their lives, establishing a thriving settlement. The finest early views of this island paradise are provided by Conway Shipley, a young naval officer, in his Sketches in the Pacific (1851). Copies are rarely offered for sale. This example is particularly fine in the original decorative cloth binding.
The search for, and capture of some of the mutineers, is recorded in George Hamilton’s A Voyage round the World in His Majesty's Frigate Pandora (1793), a wonderful, immensely readable account of a disastrous voyage; and of course the three exceedingly rare court-martial pamphlets.