Friday, 1 June 2012

Meanwhile, Back on the Bounty

                             Of the twenty-five men left aboard the Bounty, four of them were in an odd situation. The two carpenter’s mates Charles Norman and Thomas McIntosh, armourer Joseph Coleman, and able seaman Michael Byrn, had been loyal to Lieutenant Bligh, but there had not been room for them in the 23-foot launch when it was set adrift, so they had had to stay aboard with the mutineers. As it drifted away, Bligh had called to them from the launch – “Fear not, my lads; I’ll do you justice if I ever reach England,” but this can only have been scant comfort. 

The Bounty
The breadfruit plants, the cause of the mission, were thrown overboard, the belongings of those on the launch were divided among the mutineers, and under Fletcher Christian’s command, the Bounty turned and sailed to the east, landing at the island of Tubuai, some 350 miles south of Tahiti, on May 24th 1789. There ensued quarrels among the men, largely about women, and the islanders were opposed to the intruders, so a week later the Bounty was again at sea, heading north for friendlier reception at Tahiti. The mutineers devised the lie that Bligh had met Captain Cook at Whytootakee Island, that a settlement was planned there, and that the Bounty had been sent back for provisions, (Cook had, in fact, been murdered at Hawaii, ten years earlier). The Tahitians, who regarded Cook with almost divine veneration, were delighted that he was to settle so near to them and generously re-provisioned the Bounty with food, plants and water, and nine women, eight men, seven boys and a little girl also went aboard (some hiding until the ship was underway). 

The Bounty left, again bound for Tubuai, and for three months the mutineers tried to build a fort (patriotically called Fort George, for the King), moving the four four-pounders and the ten swivel guns ashore from the ship and into their settlement. More fights followed, there were drunken brawls, and a second mutiny threatened to break out. The Tubuaians also fought with them, and in one encounter sixty-six islanders (including six women) were killed by the Bounty men. The situation could not last, so in September they departed, again back to Tahiti.  Here they divided into two factions, fifteen electing to remain, the other ten departed on the Bounty with Christian, although the loyalist Joseph Coleman, again detained against his wishes, dived overboard and swam to shore as the Bounty left. The sixteen settlers moved in with their taios or built homes of their own, married and started families. 

On the night of September 21st 1789, the men on the Bounty cut the anchor rope and slipped secretly away, carrying nine mutineers, six Tahitian men, eleven women and a baby (some of whom may have been kidnapped). They were looking for islands to the east, said to have been discovered by the Spanish, but could not find them. Instead, they sighted Pitcairn Island, spotted first by the British sloop HMS Swallow in 1767, named after the fifteen year old Midshipman Robert Pitcairn, who had been first to see it, but incorrectly charted by 3o of longitude, (in 1773, Cook had been unable to find the island due to this error). The Bounty was deliberately run aground, set alight, and then broken up. 

Landing on Pitcairn

The island was rich in food and fertile, and farms were established, the settlers building cottages for their wives and families. In the next two years, one mutineer died from sickness and another, suffering from madness, jumped from a cliff. With an almost sickening inevitability, the remaining seven Bounty men argued with the Tahitian men (or ‘Blacks’, as they referred to them), and one night six were murdered by them, leaving only Alexander Smith surviving. The widows of the murdered men revenged themselves by killing all the Tahitian men, and Smith lived with them and the children thereafter. In 1808, a passing American sealer, the Topaz, saw land not marked on the charts, and sent out a boat party. They were met, Tahitian style, by three men in a canoe, bearing gifts of food, who guided them through the surf and onto shore. 

The house of John Adams on Pitcairn

Here, the boat party, led by Captain Mayhew Folger, found thirty-five inhabitants on the island, mostly women and children. Of the young men, all of whom spoke English, one was introduced as Thursday October Christian, son of Fletcher. Reluctantly, Alexander Smith was introduced to the men of the Topaz, who told them his story. Asked by Folger if he minded that his discovery was reported, he replied, “… he did not care for all the Navy of England cou’d not find him.” Folger eventually did make a report, which in turn, made its way back to the Admiralty, but there was little interest, for in 1814, two British ships, the Briton and the Tagus, ignorant of the Topaz’s report, also found the island unmarked on their charts. Captains Staines and Pipon were welcomed ashore, and again Smith was introduced, although he revealed his true name, John Adams, to them. He had used a false name, Alexander Smith, whilst on the Bounty, and although he did explain why, he now reverted to his birth name. 

Portrait of John Adams

Now properly marked on charts, Pitcairn was regularly visited by ships, bringing welcome goods and provisions, and a meeting with the island ‘patriarch’ (although then only in his fifties) became a necessary requirement. He died in March 1829, forty years after the mutiny. There is still a population of about 48 people on Pitcairn Island.

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