In 1788, the British Admiralty vessel Bounty sailed from England to Tahiti, with a mission to collect breadfruit seedlings, intended to provide a cheap source of food for Britain’s plantation slaves in the West Indies. But the stay in Tahiti’s mellow climate proved so much better than life on board the Bounty, that on the return journey in April 1789 the crew mutinied, led by the officer Fletcher Christian. Along with eighteen crew who refused to join in the mutiny, Captain William Bligh was set adrift in a longboat far out in the Pacific, while the mutineers returned to Tahiti, intending to settle there.
Things didn’t go as planned, however. After an incredible feat of navigation over 3600 nautical miles of open sea, Bligh and all but one of his companions reached the Portuguese colony of Timor in June, emaciated but alive, from where Bligh lost no time in catching a vessel back to England, arriving there in March 1790. His report on the mutiny immediately saw the Admiralty dispatch the frigate Pandora off to Tahiti under the cold-hearted Captain Edwards, with instructions to bring back the mutineers to stand trial in London.
Meanwhile, in Tahiti, Christian and seven of the mutiny’s ringleaders – knowing that sooner or later the Admiralty would try to find them – had, along with a group of Tahitians, taken the Bounty and sailed off into the Pacific. Fourteen of the Bounty’s crew stayed behind, however, and when the Pandora arrived there in March 1791, they were rounded up and incarcerated in the ship’s brig, a 3m-long wooden cell known as “Pandora’s Box”.
Having spent a fruitless few months island-hopping in search of the Bounty, Captain Edwards headed up the east coast of Australia where, on the night of August 29, the Pandora hit a northern section of the Great Barrier Reef. As waves began to break up the vessel on the following day, Edwards ordered the longboats to be loaded with supplies and abandoned the ship, leaving his prisoners still locked up on board; it was only thanks to one of the crew that ten of them managed to scramble out as the Pandora slid beneath the waves.
In a minor replay of Bligh’s voyage, the Pandora’s survivors took three weeks to make it to Timor in their longboats, and arrived back in England the following year. Edwards was castigated for the heartless treatment of his prisoners, but otherwise held blameless for the wreck. The ten surviving mutineers were court-martialled: four were acquitted, three hanged, and three had their death sentences commuted. Captain Bligh was later made Governor of New South Wales, where he suffered another mutiny known as the “Rum Rebellion”. To add insult to injury, the Bounty’s whole project proved a failure; when breadfruit trees were eventually introduced to the West Indies, the slaves refused to eat them.
Seventeen years later, the American vessel Topaz stopped mid-Pacific at the isolated rocky fastness of Pitcairn Island and, to the amazement of its crew, found it settled by a small colony of English-speaking people. These turned out to be the descendants of the Bounty mutineers, along with the last survivor, the elderly John Adams (also known as Alexander Smith). Adams told the Topaz’s crew that, having settled Pitcairn and burned the Bounty, the mutineers had fought with the Tahitian men over the women, and that Christian and all the men – except Adams and three other mutineers – had been killed. The other three had since died, leaving only Adams, the women, and their children on the island. After Adams’ death, Pitcairn’s population was briefly moved to Norfolk Island in the 1850s, though many of their descendants returned and still live on Pitcairn.