What ship defines Pitcairn more than any other? Though there are some that would have differing opinions, the vessel which is most closely associated with Pitcairn Island is the one which was like the Mayflower to Pitcairn’s America. Though already preceded in the Hall of Fame by notable ships, as the year 2012 draws to a close we induct into the “Dem Tull” Hall of Fame the H.M.A.V. Bounty.
The Bounty began life as the Bethia, which was built by Blaydes family, who were prominent shipbuilders, primarily merchant ships. She was launched in 1782. Her career consisted of the Baltic lumber trade. However, there has been some speculation that she also visited Halifax in 1786 under a Captain P. Ellis (succeeded that same year by a Captain Blair). Whether or not she was solely involved in the Baltic trade, it is evident she had an active life, which would have faded away into obscurity had she not come under consideration for purchase by the Royal Navy.
For the ill-fated expedition the Royal Navy considered six ships for the job (one of them new and still unnamed), Bethia, Harriot, Lynx, Shepherdess, and William Pitt. They chose the one with the lowest tonnage, the Bethia for £1950 in 1787. To prepare her for the voyage to the Pacific, she was overhauled and refitted, receiving armament, copper sheathing below the waterline, and various other modifications. However, her most unique modification was when her Great Cabin was converted to accommodate several hundred potted breadfruit plants. The outfitting was all done at Deptford on the Thames, and in August 1787, her commander, Lieutenant William Bligh boarded her and took his first naval command. Over the next few months, the ship was gradually crewed, with such notables as David Nelson the botanist, and John Fryer the Master, as well as William Peckover the Gunner who had been on all three of Captain Cook’s voyages to the Pacific. Several of the crew also came from Bligh’s previous command (non-naval), amongst whom was his close friend Fletcher Christian.
However, due to a number of factors and aborted sailings, it was not until December 23rd, 1787 that the Bounty finally departed England for good. She sailed through intense stormy weather that damaged her, but was quickly repaired when the ship reached the island of Tenerife and resupplied. From there the Bounty made her way down the Atlantic, and tried for almost a month to round Cape Horn in horrific weather. The ship held well, but eventually they had to turn and make for the Pacific via the Indian Ocean. Stopping in False Bay at the Cape of Good Hope, the Bounty was repaired and provisioned, and once more set off for the Pacific. Despite encountering bad weather in the Indian Ocean, she arrived in Adventure Bay in modern day Tasmania where she took on fresh provisions. It was also here that one of the first notable fights between Bligh and one of his officers (the Carpenter William Purcell) occurred. He eventually had the officer confined to quarters, and soon the Bounty made its way south of New Zealand and into the Pacific. The Bounty was most probably the first to discover an isolated set of islands which today bear the name Bounty Islands. On October 10th, the seaman James Valentine died from illness brought on by injury, the first to die aboard the Bounty.
Bounty reached Tahiti and anchored in Matavai Bay on October 26th, 1788. Here the crew was treated with the utmost hospitality and friendship, while the breadfruit trees were transplanted. They remained at Tahiti until April 3rd, 1789 during which time many of the crew formed deep attachments to the people and the place. This somewhat idyllic sojourn was marred by the death of the ship’s drunken surgeon, as well as the desertion (and recapturing) of three deserters, the ringleader being none other than the ships corporal, Charles Churchill.
The intention was for the Bounty to head back by way of Indonesia, and on the way they were probably the first Europeans to sight the island of Aitutaki on April 12th, 1789. They stopped at the island of Nomuka in modern day Tonga. After some troubles with the locals there, and some internal trouble between Bligh and various members of the officers and the crew, things came to a head soon after departing Nomuka. On the morning of April 28th, 1789, a group of the Bounty’s crew, whose ringleaders were Fletcher Christian and Charles Churchill seized the ship and set Bligh and eighteen others into the ships launch and set it adrift (they eventually reached Timor with the loss of only one man who was killed by Tongans a couple of days after the mutiny). The Bounty then turned around and headed for Tahiti, via the island of Tubuai where despite a hostile welcome, Christian and others decided they wanted to settle. Returning to Tahiti, they took on board men and women and went to try to settle on Tubuai. After a couple of months quarrelling with the locals, the situation was put to the vote and the Bounty returned to Tahiti, where sixteen of the Bounty’s original crew remained (most of them were caught and taken back to England for trial, and three were eventually hung) and during the night the Bounty’s anchor was cut and nine of the mutineers, as well as a number of Polynesian men and women departed Tahiti.
Although the Bounty travelled for several months looking for a suitable place to settle (on the way they possibly “discovered” Rarotonga), they did not meet success until they sighted Pitcairn Island on the evening of January 15th, 1790. Aboard were the nine mutineers, six Polynesian men and twelve Polynesian women (and a baby girl). They landed on Pitcairn’s west coast and went to inspect the island and found it perfect for their needs. The Bounty was then taken around to what is today known as Bounty Bay where she was mostly emptied. While there was a debate about what to do with the ship, seaman Matthew Quintal went aboard and set fire to it. The Bounty burned through her lines and was tossed about in the increasingly bad weather while she burned topside. Eventually, after taking a pounding, she ran into the rocks at the shore and was burned and broken. Fortunately for the group of people who had disembarked off her, most of the supplies they needed had already been offloaded. This marked the beginning of the Pitcairn Island community.
Over the last two hundred years the wreck of the Bounty has been the subject of excavations both professional and amateurish. Her anchor was recovered in 1957 and now sits in front of the court house in the main square at Adamstown on Pitcairn. All four of her large four-pounder cannons have been retrieved, and her rudder was raised by Parkin Christian in 1933. Ballast bars, copper bolts, copper sheathes, nails and even rope and canvas still survive today in various collections around the world. Though there is not much to see beneath the waters today, the Bounty lives on in her legacy as the ship that brought the first of the current population to Pitcairn Island.
There have been two full replicas, and one rebuild of the Bounty. For the 1935 movie, a sailing ship called Lily was converted into a passable replica of the Bounty, and was, as far as I know, eventually dismantled and/or scuttled. Then there was the replica built in Lunenburg Nova Scotia, which was larger than the original, but was nevertheless a beautiful and elegant tall ship. She was the one used for the 1962 movie, as well as in other movies (most famously “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” where she was one of the victims of the Kraken). Sadly, her long career ended October 29th, 2012 when she foundered in Hurricane Sandy with the loss of two lives. The final replica built was closer in dimensions and general appearance to the original Bounty than the other two, but is heavily modernised in many ways, and as of this writing operates in Hong Kong.
Along with the afore-mentioned replica's, Bounty is also extremely popular in the model market, rivalling model kits such as the Bismarck and Titanic. Companies such as Airfix, Revell, Billings, and Artesania Latina (who has more than one different kit of the Bounty) have marketed models of the Bounty, as well as individual models of her boats. In so many ways, the H.M.A.V. Bounty lives on.