Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Bounty of Information on the Mutiny

For our Digital History class we have been asked to write a blog entry on how to research a historical topic on the web. I deliberated over what to write on, but eventually I settled on the story of the mutiny on the HMS Bounty that took place in the late 18th century. Often lauded as the "most famous
mutiny in history," the tale of adventure on the high seas, exoticism, romance and treachery has certainly captured my imagination ever since I was a kid. After reading Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall I was, like so many others, captivated by the story.

For those who do not know the history of the HMS Bounty and its voyage, Wikipedia is of course an option but a far better site is the site Fateful Voyage. This page is a fantastic resource as it includes an extensive history, biographies of the crew members, transcripts of the Bounty's logbook and other primary source documents relating to the voyage. As well, the author makes great use of tools like Google Earth to create maps that show the routes of both the HMS Bounty before and after the mutiny, as well as the voyage of Bligh and his faithful crewmembers in the ship's launch. There is also a rich timeline that is colour-coded and broken down by month and year detailing the major events of the story. For anyone wishing to start a similar site, the author includes the resources that he or she found helpful in constructing the more complex elements like the maps and charts. Other useful pages for an introduction to the topic include the site of the HMS Bounty, the reconstruction of the ship built for the 1962 movie starring Marlon Brando. It gives an introduction and information on the ship (you can also book a berth for its next voyage if you so desire). Finally, Paul J. Lareau's site includes a basic overview as well as links to other pages, photographs and articles that answer the question, "who was at fault?" You can even check to see if there is a 'Bounty organization' in your country, region or city.

For those looking to view primary sources there are a number of sites that provide digitized versions. The State Library of New South Wales website is one example. Specific pages include the papers of Sir Joseph Banks and a section of the ship's logbook from Tahiti to Jamaica. You can also see the account that Bligh himself wrote about the voyage in the Bounty's launch from modern Tonga to Kupang on East Timor. The British National Archives are another good resource for primary sources. Visitors to the site can view a couple of pages from the Bounty's logbook.

While Bligh and his faithful crew began their seemingly impossible sail to Timor, Fletcher Christian and the mutineers headed in the opposite direction. They eventually settled on the small island called Pitcairn east of Tahiti where they would live out the rest of their lives and create a settlement whose descendants still live there today. The National Maritime Museum in Britain website includes a digitized copy of the register of the mutineers who settled on the island. This document was written by a whaler who visited the island in 1823 and recorded the story told to him by the one surviving member of the crew and the descendants of his peers. The website for the Pitcairn Islands Study Centre is also a useful resource for those who wish to know more about the island's history. It also includes a cruise ship schedule for those with a mind to visiting the site itself. You can also take a look at the Pitcairn Island website for historical information as well as photographs and information on what the people of the island are up to today.

Now, I wouldn't be a Public Historian-in-training if I didn't mention the ways in which the Bounty story is alive today (aside from the proliferation of interest on the internet). Check out an article on the Pitcairn Project, the archeological expedition in 1999 that uncovered the wreck of the Bounty, or take a look at the Bounty Boat Expedition, a reenactment of Bligh's open-boat voyage by an Australian crew of four set to launch in 2010.

And finally, for those movie buffs out there, take a look at the YouTube trailers for movies on the Bounty story. The first, Mutiny on the Bounty, was filmed in 1935 and is based on Nordhoff and Hall's book. The 1962 remake stars Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian. It's interesting to notice the differences between these epic, swashbuckling accounts and the more angst-ridden trailer for The Bounty starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins in 1984. As we discussed in our Public History class recently, our interpretation of historical events changes over time, and these two trailers are an example of how we as interpreters of that history become part of the overall narrative of that event. It's interesting to think about how we would interpret the story of the Bounty in the 21st century. Perhaps there would be more of a focus on the Tahitian people as more than just an exotic playground for the European explorers?

The links I've provided here are really just an introduction, but show how much this story is still alive today, and changing once again with the possibilities of the web.

Painting: Gordon Miller, Bounty's Arrival at Tahiti, 1788. Source: Sailing into History


  1. HI Shelagh,
    Thank you for your interesting website.
    There is now an on-line novel being serialized that uses the Bounty as a backdrop. I wrote it.
    you can find it at

    It is certainly a work of fiction, but it is a fun book, for sure.

    Best regards,
    John Hunt, MD

  2. Oh, I forgot to mention, I have been in touch with Gordon Miller, who painted the painting at the top of your website. He is making Giclee prints of it right now. Pretty cool stuff!