In 1787, the ship HMS Bounty sails from England to Tahiti (then called Otaheite) under the command of Captain William Bligh (played by Trevor Howard, an old-looking 49 at the time). Bligh, the historical figure, was 33 and the former sailing master with the great explorer Captain James Cook. ƒBligh's mission was to pick up breadfruit plants from Tahiti and transplant them to Jamaica as a food for the slaves there.
Bligh's second-in-command is 1st Lieutenant Fletcher Christian (played by Marlon Brando, 38 at the time). Fletcher was of the gentry. His father's side could trace their ancestry back to William the Conqueror and his paternal grandmother could trace her family to King Edward I – though none of this is elaborated on in the movie. But Bligh is shown with some resentment toward Christian's aristocratic aires.
During the long and difficult sea voyage, Christian disapproves of Bligh's treatment of both officers and common crewmen. But they make it to Tahiti (on 26 October 1788) where the crew and Christian enjoy the hospitality of the Tahitians, especially the Tahitian women. Wikipedia describes the real history as follows:
Bligh allowed the crew to live ashore and care for the potted breadfruit plants, and they became socialized to the customs and culture of the Tahitians. Many of the seamen and some of the "young gentlemen" had themselves tattooed in native fashion.
William Bligh, the good captain of His Majesty's Ship (HMS) Bounty
The film depicts the clash in values between a staid and inhibited Bligh and the more relaxed Tahitians, Christian and crew. Bligh feels like a fool trying to please Tahiti's king by dancing. He is not as loose as the others. But despite what appears to be a Puritan streak in Bligh, he orders Christian to "sleep with" the chief's daughter, Maimiti, to avoid insulting the chief. Bligh complains to Christian: "Manners that would offend a dock-side harlot seem to be the only acceptable behavior to [Tahiti's king] King Hitihiti."
Bligh and the Bounty were in Tahiti five months, leaving with 1,015 breadfruit plants and with three (Millward, Muspratt and Churchill) who had tried to desert in order to stay on the island. According to Wikipedia, "Instead of hanging them, the usual punishment for desertion, Bligh ordered them flogged."
On 28 April, 1789, after 24 days of sailing westward (and two days before George Washington is inaugurated President of the United States), Fletcher Christian leads a mutiny against Bligh. In the film this follows Christian losing his cool and hitting Bligh after Bligh had struck him. The film depicts Christian as fed up with Bligh's cruelty, including Bligh restricting water to the crew to have more of it for his plants.
Historically, according to Wikipedia:
Fletcher Christian and several of his followers entered Bligh's cabin, which he always left unlocked, awakened him, and pushed him on deck wearing only his nightshirt, where he was guarded by Christian holding a bayonet. When Bligh entreated Christian to be reasonable, Christian would only reply, "I am in hell, I am in hell!" Despite strong words and threats heard on both sides, the ship was taken bloodlessly and apparently without struggle by any of the loyalists except Bligh himself. Of the 42 men on board aside from Bligh and Christian, 18 joined the mutiny, two were passive, and 22 remained loyal to Bligh.
The mutineers order Bligh and few others into the Bounty's 23-foot (7 meter) launch. Several more voluntarily join Bligh, as they knew that those who remained on board would be considered de jure [of the law] mutineers under the Articles of War. The launch cannot hold all who are loyal to Bligh, and four of them are instructed to stay with the Bounty because of their useful skills. In real life, the launch was so heavily loaded that the gunwales were just a few inches above the water.
Bligh and his men begin to sail toward Timor Island, the nearest European outpost – mainly Dutch – 3,900 miles (6,276 km) to the west as the seagull flies and a little past what we today know as New Guinea, north of Australia. Bligh has two sails, a compass, some food, water and rum and his skills. The mutineers sail back to Tahiti.
One of the mutineers "Ned" Young, says to Christian, "I'm proud to be with you," and the morose Christian replies: "Well you've done rather well, Ned. Promoted to the rank of criminal. Not even 20 and a death sentence on your head."
In the movie the films shows the Bounty back in Tahiti, and Christian laying in his bunk and depressed. Maimiti sails out to the Bounty and in anger starts to straighten up his cabin, picking Christian's clothes off the floor and uttering words of wisdom:
"Either you eat life or life eats you."
In the film, Tahiti's king apparently doesn't want to harm his relations with the British by being overly hospitable to the mutineers, and he forbids Christian and the ship to stay. Christian, moreover, doesn't want to stick around. He prefers to run from British authority.
In real life, twelve mutineers and the four loyalists who had been unable to accompany Bligh remained in Tahiti. And soon, in the years 1789 and 1790, one of the mutineers, Matthew Thompson, shot and killed another mutineer, Charles Churchill, and Churchill's Tahitian family stoned Thomson to death.
As a matter of historical record, with Christian on the Bounty were nine of the mutineers, including "Ned" Young, and eighteen Tahitians: six men, eleven women and a baby. In the movie one of the women is Christian's significant other, Maimiti. They sail eastward and land on one of the most remote of uninhabited, but habitable, islands, Pitcairn, about 1,350 miles (2,172 km) east and a little south of Tahiti. It is a volcanic island, therefore a little mountainous, wooded, and 2.26 miles long.
They land on Pitcairn Island on January 15, 1790 (the second year into the French Revolution). Pitcairn is an uninhabited island that offers the mutineers a new beginning. But Christian, according to the movie, longs for England's high society. He no longer wants to hide from the authorities, and in order to prevent Christian from acting on his idea of returning to England to vindicate the mutiny, three of the new inhabitants on Pitcairn burn the Bounty. Christian dies after suffering severe burns while trying to save what he can from the ship. (The remains of the Bounty is still visible underwater in what today is called Bounty Bay.)
A speech is made by the dying Fletcher Christian, which the film's writers fill with loving sentiments that Brando was forced to interpret, seemingly with some pain. End of movie – almost.
The movie ends back in England at a hearing conducted by the Royal Navy. Captain Bligh had sailed to Timor in forty-seven days. In real life, upon his arrival he wrote a letter to his wife, and from Timor he sailed back to England.
At the hearing in the movie, Bligh is criticized for "what we shall cautiously term an excess of zeal." The judge continues:
We cannot condemn zeal. We cannot rebuke an officer who has administered discipline according to the articles of war but the articles are fallible, as any articles are bound to be. No code can cover all contingencies. We cannot put justice aboard our ships in books. Justice and decency are carried in the heart of the captain, or they be not aboard. It is for this reason that the Admiralty has always sought to appoint its officers from the ranks of gentlemen. The court regrets to note that the appointment of Captain William Bligh was, in that respect, a failure.
According to the historical record, as Wikipedia describes it,
The Bounty's log shows that Bligh resorted to punishments relatively sparingly. He scolded when other captains would have whipped and whipped when other captains would have hanged... He took a great interest in his crew's exercise, was very careful about the quality of their food, and insisted upon the Bounty being kept very clean.
In real life, in October, 1790, Bligh was honorably acquitted at the court-martial inquiring into the loss of the Bounty. Of the 10 Bounty crew brought back from Tahiti as prisoners, the four who were not among the mutineers were acquitted – after suffering mistreatment in their return from Tahiti, the result of the usual clumsy failure of differentiation by the authorities. Two other former HMS Bounty crewmen were convicted because, while not participating in the mutiny, they had remained passive rather than having resisted the mutiny. Three of the mutineers, who had been dumb enough to stay in Tahiti, were convicted and hanged.
And what happened to the people who remained on Pitcairn? Would they be able to live together in peace in their newly found paradise, or would they mess it up with nobody to blame but themselves?
According to Wikipedia, "Christian's death caused a leadership vacuum on the island. Two of the four surviving mutineers, Ned Young and John Adams (also known as Alexander Smith), assumed leadership, and some peace followed," as Adams and Young turned to a Bible, that had been aboard the Bounty, for guidance. Then William McCoy created a still and began brewing an alcoholic beverage from a native plant. According to Wikipedia, "The mutineers began drinking excessively and making life miserable for the women... The women revolted a number of times ... and some of the women attempted to leave the island on a makeshift raft," and they failed to make it out of the Bay. Adds Wikipedia, "Alcoholism, murder, disease and other ills took the lives of most mutineers and Tahitian men."
Wikipedia describes the Europeans as treating the Tahitians "more as slaves than as fellow human beings" and this led to violence and the deaths of five of the Englishmen and all of the few Tahitian men. By 1794, only Young, Adams, Matthew Quintal and McCoy remained of the former mutineers, with ten women and children.
John Adams, mutineer
Wikipedia states that McCoy "committed suicide by jumping off a cliff in a drunken frenzy" and that after McCoy's suicide, Quintal "threatened to kill the rest of the community." And, during one of Quintal's drunken stupors, Young and Adams killed him with an axe.
According to Pitcairn's government (www.government.pn):
[Adams] read with difficulty and could hardly write, but he was essentially a gentle man who humbly discharged his responsibility for the community he headed. Such was his manner that all took pleasure in obeying his example, which he patterned on virtue and piety and regulated by the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, on Sunday services, family prayers and grace before and after every meal. And to ensure everybody's well-being, Adams saw to it that the young people cultivated the land, cared for the stock and were not allowed to marry until they could support a family.
In 1808, a U.S. ship, Topaz, became the first to visit the island. The British navy arrived in 1819. And Adams would soon be pardoned for his role in the mutiny.
Pitcairn Island was made a British colony in 1838.