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This edited article about HMS Bounty originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 145 published on 24 October 1964.
Mutiny on the Bounty . . . most of us have seen the film, most of us know the story of the savage and hasty-tempered Captain Bligh, who ruled his officers and men with such brutal discipline that finally many of them revolted and put him over the side of the ship in a small boat with eighteen men who remained loyal to him.
We know how, with superlative seamanship, Bligh navigated his tiny boat over 3,600 odd miles of the Southern seas, until, finally, he and his small party came to the safety of the island of Timor, part of the collection of islands that was then called the East Indies, and is now Indonesia.
We know that Captain Bligh eventually returned to England, that some of the mutineers were captured and hanged, that others were drowned at sea, that one small party sailed on to found a community on Pitcairn Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and that their descendants are there to this day.
The story of the mutiny on the Bounty must be one of the best-known in British naval history. Not so well known is that the whole tragic affair began in the peaceful setting of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, near London.
Two plant experts from Kew were on the ship. The object of the voyage was to collect breadfruit trees from Tahiti in the Southern Pacific and carry them across the seas to be replanted in the West Indies.
In the West Indies in those days of the late eighteenth century were vast plantations of sugar, coffee, tobacco and spices, all run by slave labour. In 1787 the plantation owners were looking for a cheap way of feeding their slaves, and breadfruit, they thought, would do the job.
It was known that breadfruit grew in Tahiti. Captain Cook had seen it there on his various voyages of exploration, and William Dampier, a buccaneering sailor-of-fortune, had seen and described it a hundred years before, in 1688.
“The breadfruit, as we call it, grows on a large tree, as big and high as our largest apple trees,” he wrote. “The fruit grows on the boughs like apples. It is as big as a penny loaf when wheat is at five shillings the bushel.
“It is of a round shape, and hath a thick tough rind. When the fruit is ripe it is yellow and soft, and the taste is sweet and pleasant. The natives use it for bread.
“They gather it, when full grown, while it is green and hard; then they bake it in an oven which scorcheth the rind and makes it black, but they scrape off the outside black crust and there remains a tender thin crust; and the inside is soft, tender and white, like the crumb of a penny loaf. This fruit lasts in some eight months of the year.”
No wonder the rich plantation owners saw breadfruit trees as a cheap and easy way of feeding their slaves – if only they could get the trees to grow in the West Indies plantations.
So King George the Third, having agreed with them, turned to Sir Joseph Banks, a great botanist of the day who had sailed round the world with Captain Cook, and was now very interested in the botanical gardens at Kew.
A ship was fitted out at Deptford which Sir Joseph named the Bounty. To command her he recommended Lieutenant Bligh, who had also sailed with Captain Cook, and the records show that, “to the crew of 44 were added two skilful and careful men, recommended by Sir Joseph Banks, to have the management of the plants intended to be carried to the West Indies, and others to be brought home for His Majesty’s garden at Kew; one was David Nelson, who has served in a similar situation in Cook’s last voyage, the other William Brown as an assistant to him.”
On December 23, 1787, the Bounty sailed from Spithead and ten months later, on October 26, 1788, arrived at Tahiti. The natives were friendly and apparently had no objection to some of their young breadfruit trees being dug up.
By March 31, 1789, Captain Bligh was able to record in his ship’s log: “Today all the plants were on board, being in seven hundred and seventy-four pots, thirty-nine tubs and twenty-four boxes. The number of breadfruit plants were one thousand and fifteen; besides which we had collected a number of other plants which I was particularly recommended to collect by my worthy friend, Sir Joseph Banks.”
Obviously Nelson and Brown, the men from Kew, had done their job well, and on April 4, 1789, the Bounty set sail for the West Indies.
As we all know, she never got there. Extracts from Captain Bligh’s reports tell the story:
. . . “While steering to the westward with ship in most perfect order, all my plants in a most flourishing condition . . . while I was yet asleep Mr. Christian and some others came into my cabin and seizing me, tied my hands behind my back . . . I was hauled out of bed and forced on deck in my shirt . . . the master’s mate and Nelson were kept confined below. . . .”
Later Nelson was brought up on deck, and forced into the small boat with Captain Bligh and 17 others. They were then cast adrift.
Nelson, the first of the men from Kew, unquestioningly chose to throw in his lot with Captain Bligh. What of William Brown, the other gardener? Somehow he got mixed up with the mutineers. Not, it appears from the records, because he actively wanted to be with them, but rather because he was slow of thought and before he realized what was happening a rifle had been thrust into his hands, and he was joining in.
Whatever the reason Captain Bligh was able to make a mental note that “Brown was among those who bore arms.”
What happened to the two of them? Nelson went all the way on that epic voyage of 3,618 miles in the small open boat with Captain Bligh, but three days after they reached safety he died, worn out by all that he had gone through.
“The loss of this honest man is much lamented,” Captain Bligh wrote in his journal. “He had with great care and diligence attended to the object for which he was sent, and had always been ready to forward every plan that we proposed for the good of the service for which we were engaged.”
Brown died, too. He was among the party of mutineers who landed eventually on Pitcairn Island. There were many fights among them. Because of one of these troubles Brown was murdered – while working in his garden on the island.
Alas for the breadfruit trees that started the whole thing. . . . The one thousand and fifteen trees so carefully collected in Tahiti by Nelson and Brown were thrown overboard soon after the mutiny.
Nevertheless, the West Indies eventually did get its breadfruit trees. When Bligh got back to England and all the aftermath of the mutiny had been sorted out, he was sent off to do the same job again.
By February, 1792, he was back in Tahiti recording that, “our botanists were zealously employed and have travelled back as far as the top of Nelson’s Hill, which I named after Mr. Nelson who was botanist on my last voyage and the first man ever on it.”
This time he succeeded in delivering his trees. The slave owners were happy, and though, of course, slavery has long since gone, breadfruit is still eaten in the West Indies.