The history of the Bounty’s mission and her crew has been popularized, interpreted, reinterpreted, and fictionalized in countless ways since the original late-18th Century events. The shipsearcher naval historian would like to focus on the ill-fated ship at the center of this drama. Bounty had been completed in 1784 at Kingston-upon-Hull as the merchant ship “Bethia.” Acquired by the Royal Navy as His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty in 1787, this small, gem-like full-rigged ship was 91 feet along the weather deck, with a breadth of 24.4 feet and was 220 tons burthen. Bounty received modifications to transport breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies, in a scheme to grow cheaper food to feed slaves – the ugly truth of the vessel’s purpose. Below the waterline, the ship’s hull was coppered, to help prevent marine growth which could slow the ship and eventually eat away at the wood. Lieutenant William Bligh, who had experience as sailing master on Captain Cook’s final exploration mission, commanded the expedition.
The ship had bluff bows, and a pleasing sheer (forward and aft rise to the decks). Bounty’s design was very similar to the Whitby colliers used on Captain Cook’s expeditions. She was slightly smaller than HM Bark Endeavour, from his first expedition. She also had a flush (continuous) weather deck, compared to Endeavour’s raised forecastle and quarterdeck. Forward, the head rails led to a figurehead of a woman with a riding hat (fully clothed – a rarity!), retained from her civilian service. Restrained decorative elements included badge-style quarter lights (looking very much like small bay windows) and 5 lights spanning the stern transom. The Admiralty installed an armament of four 4-pounder cannon and ten 1/2 pound swivel guns, which could be mounted atop posts sited along the gunwales.
After a journey of 10 months, Bounty made landfall in Tahiti in October, 1788. The 44-man crew got down to the business of harvesting breadfruit trees, to install in special planters fitted in the great cabin aft. Relations between the islanders and the crew complicated the vessels eventual departure, and on 28 April 1789 half of the crew, led by Fletcher Christian, Bligh’s trusted sailing master, mutinied and cast Bligh and the loyal crew members adrift in the ship’s 23′ long launch.
Bligh and almost all his crew survived an incredible open boat journey. Some of the mutineers, and a few crew who could not be accommodated in the launch, returned to Tahiti, while Christian and others pushed on in Bounty in search of a Pacific sanctuary safe from the long reach of the Admiralty. After being stripped of useful gear the ship was burned and sunk off Pitcairn Island in January 1790.
These events, the later efforts to bring the mutineers to Royal Navy justice, and the remaining lives of Bounty crew members in the South Pacific, lived on in the public imagination, and formed the basis of non-fiction, fictionalized dramatizations, plays and parodies. In the new medium of film, movies of the events were made as early as 1917. A 1935 movie starring Charles Laughton as Bligh and Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian won accolades, and is still considered one of the best interpretations. That movie used a converted schooner for filming. A quarter-century later, Hollywood executives from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were looking for a more accurate replica for their grand movie project. Our next post will pick up the story by exploring the first full-sized sailing replica.