December 8, 2023

Mutiny on the Bounty – you’ve seen the film now buy the minutes of the 1792 Court Martial!

The mutiny on HMS Bounty is one of the best known incidents in British Naval history.  The Bounty under Captain Bligh had sailed for Tahiti in 1787 to collect breadfruit plants. While waiting for the plants to grow large enough to transport safely, Bligh allowed his crew to live ashore and fraternise with the local population. At the same time, he savagely punished any wrong doing and was particularly vindictive towards the master mate, Christian Fletcher. A few days into the return voyage in April 1789, Fletcher and his co-conspirators mutinied, motivated partly by revenge for the harsh treatment they had endured and partly by the attractions of life on Tahiti. They put Captain Bligh and 18 others out to sea in the ship’s launch and, after a few months wandering, settled on the Pitcairn Islands where they burned the ship.

By an extraordinary feat of seamanship, Bligh navigated his way to East Timor and by March 1790 was back in England. The Royal Navy despatched HMS Pandora to retrieve the Bounty – not knowing of its fate – and apprehend the mutineers, 14 of whom eventually either gave themselves up or were arrested.  Before she could set sail for home, the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef but ten of the mutineers survived to face court martial in Portsmouth.

An exceptionally rare copy of the minutes of the 1792 court-martial of the Bounty mutineers is to be sold at Bonhams Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Photographs sale in Knightsbridge London on 19 June. It is estimated at £25,000-30,000.

The proceedings were recorded by one of the defence lawyers, Stephen Barney, and produced in a very small quantity for distribution to others closely involved in the trial.  An Appendix to the minutes is particularly important, containing “a Full Account of the Real Causes and Circumstances of that Unhappy Transaction, the Most Material of Which Have Hitherto Been Withheld from the Public.”

Of the ten men on trial, four were acquitted on the evidence of Captain Bligh, two were found guilty but pardoned, one escaped on a legal technicality and three were hanged. Captain Bligh faced a court-martial for the loss of his ship but was acquitted and eventually rose to the rank of Admiral.  Christian Fletcher and the surviving mutineers stayed on the Pitcairn Islands where their descendents live to this day.

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