So captain and faithful crew make it home eventually, and what happens to the mutineers? Famously, some started a colony on the uninhabited Pitcairn’s Island. Save them for later. Because the rest decide to stay in Tahiti, where they’re sure to be caught, and after a while they are.
Fletcher Christian, the ringleader of the mutineers, has a brother back home in London, Edward, who decides to publish the minutes of the court-martial of the mutineers brought back from Tahiti (Christian not among them), along with an appendix by himself. The minutes are fascinating. The survivors from the launch are interviewed about what happened that morning on the Bounty, and the main question at hand is, which of the defendants were participating in the mutiny and which, if any, were in fact being held on the Bounty against their will.
I should note something about the nature of mutiny. Nearly every document presented has a reminder that there is no justification for the crime of mutiny. The captain is the autocrat of the ship, period, and his rule is law. No kind of ill treatment by a captain, illegal activity, etc., nothing at all can be used as an affirmative defense against the charge of mutiny.
So of course none of the men try to mount such a defense, instead opting to claim they didn’t want to mutiny and were just stuck on the ship under the power of Christian and others. The prisoners get to ask the witnesses questions, and so many are of a single pathetic type: Don’t you remember I told you I didn’t want to mutiny? Don’t you remember my saying we could take back the ship? Don’t you remember I tried to put my clothes in the launch but Christian prevented me? Almost uniformly, the harsh answer of no rings out from the defendants—or an almost more damning “I do not remember.” And everyone is very serious, of course. Mr. Hayward, for example, testifies regarding Mr. Millward:
…saw him on the taffrail jeering us, and saying, Go see if you can live upon a quarter of a pound of yams per day, or something to that purpose.
I commend Mr. Hayward for his careful speech, and note that it’s never a good idea to go around taunting people who might later appear at your trial.
The court-martial minutes in themselves represent multiple documents to be reconciled. Each witness’s testimony must be compared and contrasted with the others, and eventually a general picture emerges. These guys were definitely up to something, these definitely weren’t, and these other ones just seem a little sketchy. Amazingly, my three-way split lined up exactly with the outcome of the case—the first group was convicted and hanged, the second acquitted, and the third convicted and pardoned. I was frankly astonished at how just the outcome seemed.
I don’t think Edward Christian would argue that, either. His appendix is concerned only with vindicating the honor of his brother—not with claiming his innocence. On the contrary, it is amazing how much he emphasizes Fletcher’s guilt and the unforgivable nature of the crime. He only wants to retrieve a shred of dignity for the brother he knew as a competent and faithful sailor and an honorable man. But to do so, he’s going to have to throw some muck at Bligh: the captain’s mistreatment of Christian is to be blamed, and no man could have supported such abuse. Edward Christian seems eminently reasonable:
And though public justice and the public safety can allow no vindication of any species of Mutiny, yet reason and humanity will distinguish the sudden unpremeditated act of desperation and phrenzy, from the foul deliberate contempt of every religious duty and honourable sentiment; and will deplore the uncertainty of human prospects, when they reflect that a young man is condemned to perpetual infamy, who, if he had served on board any other ship, or had perhaps been absent from the Bounty a single day, or one ill-fated hour, might still have been an honour to his country, and a glory and comfort to his friends.
At this point we get a lively he-said/he-said series of pamphlets between Edward Christian and William Bligh, both enlisting their friends in their cause. The mud-slinging is delicious. Bligh’s humble servant Ed. Harwood, late surgeon of his Majesty’s ship Providence, “trust[s] that this imbecile and highly illiberal attack, directed by the brother of the Arch-mutineer, will be received by the world with that indignation and contempt it so justly deserves.” Snap! And there is great controversy over whether Captain Bligh threatened to make his men “eat grass like cows” (!)—nearly everyone has something to say about that.
By the end of the exchange neither Bligh nor Christian had much credibility with me. To the one I wanted to say, “Sorry, your brother was a mutineer, suck it up.” And to the other, “Come on, were you really that much of a jerk about some cocoa-nuts?” No one’s coming out of this smelling like a rose.
And what of the men on Pitcairn’s Island? Another not very straightforward story, and frustratingly vague. Much more romantic to make off with some Tahitian women and start a secret colony in paradise than to go before a court-martial. Which I suppose is why I’ve saved it for last.