Mutiny on the Bounty: the Story of the Bethia from Blaydes Yard

One of the most famous – or perhaps infamous – stories of the sea is that of the Mutiny on the Bounty. The ship the world knows as the Bounty began life as the Bethia. She was built by the Blaydes Family. The Blaydes family was significant in the port of Hull for upwards of two hundred years. The family were engaged in a range of maritime activities, including shipbuilding, shipowning, and the movement of cargoes inland and overseas. They were based at Blaydes House on High Street, now the home of the Maritime Historical Studies Centre of the University of Hull.

Shipbuilding was of particular importance to the Blaydes family and for many years they leased the North End Yard, about a hundred yards north of Blaydes House, now a semi-derelict dry dock as well as another yard at Hessle Cliff, close to where the Humber Bridge now crosses the Humber estuary. The Blaydes were probably Hull’s biggest eighteenth century shipbuilders and built a number of vessels for the Royal Navy as well as many merchant ships.

Bligh and some of the officers and crew of the HMAV Bounty were cast adrift by mutineers on 29 April 1789

The Bethia was launched in 1782 and initially used for the Baltic timber trade. She was a basic three masted sailing ship of some 400 tons burthen and usually carried a crew of fifteen when on trading voyages. The vessel was plucked from obscurity in 1787 when she was purchased by the Admiralty and modified at Deptford Dockyard on the Thames for a voyage to the South Seas to collect breadfruit. These plants were then to be taken to the West Indies where the intention was to grow them as food for the slaves on the plantations.

Instead of a crew of just fifteen, the vessel was altered to accommodate more than forty men and the breadfruit plants. The modifications included the reduction of the officer’s space and the construction of a kind of arboretum on the quarter deck. She was much smaller than either the Resolution or the Endeavour used by Captain Cook on his earlier voyages of discovery. In the event she sailed from Britain with a crew of forty six, there were probably too many men confined in too small a space for too long a time and the tensions created by such living in such close quarters must have contributed to the tensions which eventually erupted in mutiny.

Her commander for the voyage was Lieutenant William Bligh who had been sailing master on the Resolution during Cook’s third voyage and had proved himself a most capable officer. The renamed Bounty left Spithead two days before Christmas 1787 under the Command of Captain Bligh and headed into the South Atlantic. On reaching the tip of South America she tried for over a month to battle her way around Cape Horn but was thwarted by atrocious weather and Bligh eventually ordered the vessel to the east; she crossed the Indian Ocean by way of the Cape of Good Hope before reaching the Pacific. The exhausted ship’s company finally dropped anchor in Tahiti – then named Otaheite – on the 26th October 1788, over ten months after leaving the River Thames.

The world that the Bounty’s crew found on Tahiti was such a contrast to the cramped conditions they had experienced on their ten month voyage. They were allowed to live on shore whilst they collected and potted the breadfruits and were entranced by the Tahitian way of life. They found a land of plenty and were well received, some became tattooed like the locals, many formed liaisons with the local women and acting lieutenant, Fletcher Christian, married a Tahitian called Maimiti. To many of the crew, used to harsh conditions at sea and struggling to make ends meet ashore in Britain, it seemed as if they had reached paradise.

All told, the Bounty and her crew spent five months at Tahiti, collecting a total of 1015 breadfruit. Three of the crew found the way of life so alluring that they deserted and although the crime for desertion was usually hanging, Bligh ordered them to be flogged when they were recaptured.

Many of the crew had heavy hearts when the Bounty finally weighed anchor and sailed for the West Indies on the 4th April 1789. Some probably resented being plucked from their apparent Garden of Eden and forced to face the rigours of a long sea voyage to the West Indies. Moreover, the ship, being full of breadfruit, was an even more cramped place. In short, the Bounty was not a happy ship and, after about three and a half weeks at sea the tensions erupted into outright mutiny. On the 28th April 1789, off the Friendly Islands, some 1300 miles from Tahiti, Fletcher Christian and armed group entered Bligh’s cabin and took him prisoner. Bligh was pushed out on deck wearing only his nightshirt: the mutineers had taken over the ship. Despite the drama, high words and frayed temper, Fletcher Christian and his supporters sized the ship without bloodshed.

Eighteen of the Bounty’s crew sided with Fletcher Christian; two others were later described as being passive, whilst 22 remained loyal to Bligh. The armed mutineers then ordered Bligh and his key supporters into the Bounty’s launch. A number of other loyalists also got into the launch as it was recognised that those remaining on board, whether loyal or not, were likely to be regarded as mutineers under the Articles of War. Eighteen of the crew crammed into the launch but there was no room for another four of the loyalists who had no choice but to remain on the Bounty.

There seemed little hope for Bligh and the others, left to fend for themselves on the high seas in a twenty three foot open launch, thousands of miles from any known European settlement. Bligh initially sailed the thirty nautical miles to the island of Tofua where the launch’s party sought refuge in a cave but the islanders proved hostile and one of the crew, John Norton, was stoned to death. Unable to find help Bligh set off for the distant Dutch settlement of Timor and in what must rank as one of the most remarkable feats of seamanship he covered over 3,600 nautical miles in 47 days, with only a sextant and pocket watch to assist with navigation, arriving in Timor on the 14th June 1789. Two of the loyalists passed away shortly after arrival and another three crewmen died over the following months.

Fletcher Christian and the rest of the mutineers had meanwhile sailed for Tubai but their attempts to settle proved unsuccessful and after three months they sailed back to Tahiti where sixteen of the Bounty’s crew were put ashore. The remaining nine, led by Fletcher Christian, then set sail for the south accompanied by six men and eleven women plus one baby from Tahiti. They passed Fiji and the Cook Islands but then headed down south and found the remote island of Pitcairn. Here they set up a settlement by the shore and on the 23rd January 1790 they burned the Bounty.

Bligh in the meantime voyaged back to England and was able to report the details of the mutiny to the Admiralty in March 1790. The Pandora, under Captain Edward Edwards was despatched to the South Seas in November 1790 with orders to track down the Bounty and the mutineers. Edwards arrived at Tahiti in March 1791 and the round up of the Bounty’s crew began. Two were found to have died and another four came on board the Pandora shortly after it arrived. A further ten were rounded up over the following weeks. All fourteen, loyalists and mutineers alike, were imprisoned in a makeshift cell on the Pandora’s deck, soon nicknamed Pandora’s Box. The Pandora left Tahiti in early may 1791 and spent the next three months searching for the Bounty but found little more than some promising flotsam on Palmerston Island.

After heading west through the Torres Strait, the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef on the 29th August 1791 and the next day she sank taking four of the prisoners and 39 of her crew with her. The 89 crew and ten prisoners who survived made their way in four small launches to Timor where they arrived in the middle of September.

After they all arrived back in England the ten mutineers were put before a naval court. Three men were hanged but the four men who Bligh had said were innocent were acquitted. Bligh and Edwards also faced technical court martials for the loss of their vessels and both were acquitted. Bligh, by now a captain, was sent to Tahiti once more, this time with HMS Providence and her tender Assistant. This time the breadfruit were successfully transported to the West Indies and grown but the slaves refused to eat them so ultimately the project was a failure.

Bligh pursued his naval career and, being an able hydrographical surveyor he was responsible for carrying out important work charting the River Humber in around 1797. He was made Governor of New South Wales where he faced another challenge to his authority, being arrested by troops in an incident known as the Rum Rebellion.

The fate of the mutineers was not discovered until 1810 when the crew of American whaling ship, Topaz, landed on Pitcairn Island. Only one of the original mutineers, John Adams, together with nine women and a host of children, was still alive. Many of the others had been killed between fighting between the mutineers and the Tahitian men in 1793. In 1825 John Adams was granted an amnesty by the British government and Adamstown, Pitcairn’s main settlement, is named after him. In 1830 Pitcairn was incorporated into the British Empire and today is classed as a British Overseas Territory with a population of around fifty.

Some remains of the Bounty such as ballast stones, still lie in the bay and the rudder is in a museum in Fiji but several reconstructions have been made for the various films which have been made of the story. Existing vessels were adapted for the 1935 film but a new vessel was constructed for MGM’s 1962 film starring Marlon Brando and Charles Laughton. This vessel, which visited Hull in 2007, has also featured in films such as Pirates of the Caribbean. Another replica, built of steel and clad in wood for the 1984 film, the Bounty is currently based in Darling Harbour, Sydney Australia. The story still attracts world wide attention, well over two hundred years after the original Bethia was launched into the River Hull behind High Street in 1782.

Select Bibliography

William Bligh, The Bounty Mutiny: William Bligh, Edward Christian (UK: Penguin Classics, 2001)

Bengt Danielsson, What happened on the Bounty (UK: Allen & Unwin, 1963)

A.M. Ferrar, ‘Navigation and Charting of the Humber’ in N.V. Jones (ed) A Dynamic Estuary: Man, Nature and the Humber (UK: University of Hull Press, 1988)

John McKay, The Armed Transport Bounty (UK: Brasseys, 1998)

On-line References

Mutiny on HMS Bounty. HMS Bounty, The Mutiny, HMS Pandora and the Pitcairn Islands. The Royal Naval Museum.

Mutiny on HMS Bounty. A Large number of links to other related sites and discussion.