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World Voyage 7

Pitcairn’s Island and the Bounty

Pitcairn Island is a pretty small spot on a very big ocean. First discovered by Europeans in 1767 and named for the midshipman who sighted it. They came close, looked about, recorded its location inaccurately due to not having sorted longitude quite yet. By the time Bounty sailed this had been solved. The island had been a thriving Polynesian community between 700 and about 1400 AD. It seems as if Pitcairn was part of a very extended supply trade network producing stone adzes found all over Polynesia today. At 25-04S and 130-06W it is at the very spear tip of the eastern end of the Polynesian triangle apart from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) some very long and lonely 1,000 miles to the east. One and three quarter miles long and almost a mile wide makes it pretty small as islands go. But it is 1,200 feet high making it visible over an 80 mile circle in best visibility. And it’s almost 1,200 miles to windward of Tahiti. All this Fletcher Christian knew and more and no doubt contributed strongly to his choosing this ever so remote island to settle with his fellow mutineers and the men and women from the islands that had joined them. He was rightly confident that the Royal Navy would send a ship out sooner or later to search for either the lost Bounty expedition or, should Bligh ever so unlikely reach England, search for the mutineers. Bligh did reach England in a feat of seamanship, willpower and endurance almost unprecedented in maritime history. And a ship did come and search for the mutineers and the Bounty. Perhaps I should back up.

After Captain James Cook’s expeditions to the South Pacific, word came back of this marvelous vegetable or fruit that grew on trees to the size of a volleyball called breadfruit. It was described are nutritious, filling, tasty like a rich dense starchy bread. I can testify that these are all true. And it fell off trees with no labour in particular. Mana from heaven. Free food. Would that it could grow in England but it was a tropical plant. It grew on large shade trees and was all over the South Pacific. The famous naturalist and companion to Cook, and highly well placed in society, Sir Joseph Banks, sang its praises in the great houses of the elite in England. Now many of these same houses owed their extreme wealth to the extreme misery meted out to enslaved Africans and their descendants on Jamaican and other West Indian island sugar plantations. Stolen land, stolen resources and stolen labour in the form of people from Africa in chains. Some 20 million Africans had been captured and sold into slavery before it was all over in the mid-19th century with only half surviving the grueling trek across Africa to the slave ports followed by the deadly passage to the West Indies to begin a typically short and brutal life in the charnel house that was West Indian slavery on the sugar plantations. These islands had been razed of their natural flora and almost to an acre converted to some form of plantation to produce a cash crop to make Europeans wealthy. Sugar, a product with no redeeming health qualities or intrinsic value at all, was the product of choice. It worked and great wealth was amassed by a narrow few funding the Industrial Revolution and much else besides. Wealth that exists to this day in one form or another. While slaves on a tropical plantation do not cost much to keep, they do need to eat. The system that evolved was, and in order to save money, that the slaves would grow their own food in some corner of the plantation. But this took time. Time away from working the crops. And thus took away profits from the owners of these plantations, most of whom lived far from the heat and fevers of Jamaica and Barbados, safely in England. So, word was about of this magical food that fell off trees. If these trees were all over the Caribbean slave plantations maybe one more day a week of labour could be squeezed out of those so brutally enslaved. The notion quickly developed among these absentee plantation owners in England that it would be a brilliant idea to get some of these wonder trees and put them to work to make the extremely wealthy of England, including so many members of Parliament, just that much more so.

How to do this? Well, it would be a simple matter for a small consortium of these wealthy planters to put together a small ship, hire the right crew and sail to Tahiti with some appropriate gifts and trade items and get some breadfruit plants. Would have been maybe a two or three million dollar project in today’s coin, a small financial commitment for such an incredible bounty. Some risk to be sure, but the rewards would be high. But no, this is not what happened. They had a much better idea that was risk-free. In the grand tradition of getting the government to pay for things to advance the elite, these members of Parliament, with Sir Joseph’s enthusiastic pushing, got the job handed to the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy was not very interested in this assignment. They did not see themselves as fetchers of vegetables for anyone. They were the Wooden Walls of England not some grocer’s cart. They also had a few wars on the go or nearly so. The American Revolution was not long over and you never knew what those pesky French were going to do next. But orders are orders. While never quite seeing the breadfruit acquisition task as much of a Naval priority they did set about finding a little ship and refitting her for fetching these breadfruit trees. The ship was of course, renamed the Bounty. For a commander they pulled William Bligh off his well paying merchant marine master’s job sailing back and forth to the West Indies. Bligh had been a very young and capable sailing master under Cook and was a logical choice. And Bligh was very keen to sail in the wake of his mentor, James Cook, perhaps too keen. This would be his first naval command and if I am not mistaken, he had been out of the active Navy for quite a few years. His rank was lieutenant. He wisely if a bit arrogantly asked to be made a “post captain” for the sake of authority and discipline but this was denied, just run along and get yer bread fruities and come back, what can go wrong? We shall see. His sailing master was a man named Fryer. Fryer was older than Bligh and did not see himself as inferior to Bligh and barely subordinate to him. The famous Fletcher Christian – evidently a young man who had sailed with Bligh quite a bit but as a civilian – it is well believed that they were on quite friendly and cordial terms, even bonds of affection, from their previous experience together. Later this mutual affection would be destroyed by Bligh in his stress of command. It is one thing to hate a man you never knew or cared for, its another thing altogether to come to hate someone you once called a friend. The pain is so much deeper. And far as I understand, most, if not all, of the rest of the crew were volunteers, this in the day of brutal impressments into the Navy. What does this mean? Sounds good at first glance, what better than men who wish to be there? On second thought under these conditions there would likely be in the midst of the Bounty crew sailors with no hope in England, many who longed for the already legendary South Pacific and with no particular ties to the notion of returning to England. Why return to England to be impressed in a Navy ship to die a gory death in a battle with the French or starve unemployed and unemployable in grungy seafront towns ashore in England when you could live out your days as a minor island king in this paradise you have heard so much about?

The fault lines begin to show themselves to those that could see but still too early to be plainly seen by all. Then, once all ready to sail in the autumn of 1787, no orders to sail were forthcoming from the Admiralty. The ship sat in port and swung at anchor losing precious time to make southing in decent weather out of the English Channel. The Admiralty could not be bothered to send the ship off. Minor layers of bureaucracy kept her in port. Such a small ship on such an un-naval-like mission. No one bothered to send her along her way. Of course, eventually she sailed, but with no marines to enforce discipline and Bligh the only Naval officer aboard the Bounty, and no lofty rank to lord over his sailing master. A large crew, a good number of whom might not care if they ever returned to England’s shores, sailing for paradise. And tens of thousands of miles between his ship and any other Royal Naval vessel or base. Bligh was on his own. Again, what could go wrong? Ordered to sail in December, finally she was sent by way of Cape Horn, but it was too late in the year to pull this off in such a little ship, try as Bligh might. After valiantly fighting to the westward into the endless storms at the brutal Horn he had to give up and turned the ships head east and sailed for Cape of Good Hope, south of Australia and eventually, Tahiti after many many months.

The ship would spend about six months in Tahiti. This long visit was in part due to her late arrival thus necessitating waiting out cyclone season there before pushing on west and perhaps something to do with nurturing the 1,000 odd breadfruit fingerlings to a point they could safely travel transplanted into pots. At any rate spending six months in a place like the Tahiti of the day was a very hazardous prospect with respect to maintaining ship’s order and discipline. I can speak with some authority when I say that even a two or three week visit to any port at all takes its toll on a ship’s order – imagine six months in Tahiti where the seamen were so well treated back in the day? And remember, Bligh was the only naval officer aboard. So they sailed for the west with all their breadfruit plants after half a year in Tahiti. We can only guess what the Bounty crew were feeling that day. But we can guess pretty well I think. Bligh was carrying out his mission as assigned and could look forward to honours in the Royal Navy, to be made Post Captain, earn the respect of Sir Joseph Banks and the Royal Society and such. Christian could expect to be made a Royal Navy Lieutenant upon return to England, an excellent bump up the ladder. The rest of the gang? Harder to say but safe enough to say some aboard the Bounty were not pleased at the idea of sailing for England.

Bligh was not the flog-happy tyrant portrayed in some of the films, on the contrary it appears that he was lenient on corporal punishments. But it does seem that he was under enormous personal stress to make this voyage a success, had little help from the powers that were to do so and last but not least, Bligh had a famously vile temper. A vicious nasty temper and one that visited itself on those it would damage the most and hurt Bligh’s ability to maintain command even further. Bligh had raised Christian to second in command, a vast honour yet evidently Bligh did not hesitate to upbraid his second in command in front of all the men and to do so over the most minor of incidents in which Bligh found Christian wanting. This a completely unacceptable breach of sound management in a ship today, but more to the point, this was just as much the case in the Royal Navy at the time of Bligh and Bounty. Bligh’s temper did him in. A good man in a pinch, the attempt at rounding Cape Horn showed that well enough. His open boat voyage from the stern of the Bounty off Tofua, Tonga 3,700 miles to west Timor through uncharted waters without losing a man at sea clinches this assessment. But in smooth waters in tradewinds in a well found ship homeward bound after a successful portion of his mission complete he was irascible and the architect of his own overthrow. Apparently this mutiny lead by Christian had no long planning, it all happened, planning, such as it was, to execution in almost a matter of minutes. A transcript of the events even reads as if Christian had second thoughts on the whole affair as Bligh was getting in the longboat – but he knew there was no going back.

To make a very long and interesting story far too short, a little over half the Bounty‘s crew got in the longboat with Bligh rather than stay with Christian in the ship even as it was logically presumed that this was to their certain deaths. The longboat sailed with 19 and got to Timor and only then did the men start to die off from disease. Bligh and many of the Bounty crew got home to England. He was exonerated at his court-martial for losing the ship and after a long career, not without controversy, he retired an Admiral. Christian and the mutineers had quite an argosy for many months with many half started attempts to settle here and there. But first they went back to Tahiti. After these near-misses at finding a place to go and not get caught Christian found reference to this small island well to the southeast of Tahiti, with ample water, trees and all manner of flora and it seemed an island that the Navy would never find. To get to Pitcairn’s Island the Bounty would have most likely sailed far south to reach the westerlies in those higher latitudes and then turn north on a starboard tack to fetch the latitude of this little island, but he would have done so well to east of its given position in the papers among Bligh’s books. He knew that the Royal Navy did not have a good longitude for the island but that the latitude would have been good. He knew that any Royal Navy ship sent after them would sail around the southern tip of South America, right past Pitcairn, and make straight for Tahiti first, but that would put that ship very far downwind from Pitcairn. He may have reasonably presumed that any search for the Bounty would take place downwind, to the west of Tahiti and it would not occur to anyone to look to the eastward and to windward. He was right. There would not be a British Royal Navy ship to visit Pitcairn for about 25 years, and that is another story.

The Bounty got to Pitcairn in 1790, quickly landed as much as they could, ran the ship on the rocks in Bounty Bay and then she was set afire to get rid of any telltale masts and obvious wreckage that might be seen from a passing ship. The Bounty mutineers, and women and men from the islands settled down for what was to come. Eventually by the early 19th century there was a community of children, women and one remaining mutineer before the world heard about what happened to the Bounty. To this day descendants of the Bounty voyage live on Pitcairn Island and on an island called Norfolk near Australia. And we are sailing for Pitcairn Island. The story does not end there but I will.

PS: Straight away the Navy sent Bligh out on a second breadfruit expedition, with two ships, lots of Navy officers and Marines and they got their breadfruit. Delivered it to St. Vincent and Jamaica. Perhaps an effort by the Royal Navy to make things right. All the breadfruit in the West Indies today is descendant from that voyage. Bligh’s temper was as crusty but more under control or so says his nephew who made that voyage. Breadfruit failed to become the mana from heaven in the West Indies it was supposed to be. It is too seasonal and does not keep well once fallen from the tree. Oh well. It is pretty tasty though, fire roasted, cut up and boiled like potatoes, makes great fries and chips. My friend Meralda, 7th generation descendant of the Bounty gang makes a divine “Breadfruit Puff”. I can’t wait.