The University Record, November 12, 1997

Clements exhibition, book probe mystery of mutiny on the HMS Bounty

This 1790s print from an engraving by Robert Dodd shows Fletcher Christian setting some of the Bounty's crew and its Captain Bligh adrift after the mutineers took over the ship. Photo by Bob Kalmbach


By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

More than 200 years ago a refitted HMS Bounty, under the command of William Bligh, sailed from England to collect breadfruit trees from Tahiti for replanting in the slave colonies of the Caribbean-a rather routine journey and mission for its time. But more than 3,000 books, pamphlets, articles, videotapes, movies, plays and musicals have been written about the ship and its crew and what came to be an infamous event in naval history.

The mutiny on the HMS Bounty has captured the imagination of six generations of people of varying cultures with items, events and projects ranging from the 1935 Academy Award-winning film starring Clark Gable to World Wide Web sites hawking a Pitcairn Island T-shirt, tote bags, posters and a cassette of "Gospel Songs of Pitcairn."

But the mutiny, its participants and exploration of the Pacific itself are put into perspective in the Clements Library's exhibition "Solving the Mystery of HMS Bounty in the Context of Three Centuries of Pacific Exploration" and its publication of The Captain from Nantucket and the Mutiny on the Bounty by Walter Hayes.

It took less than a century after Columbus's voyages to thoroughly map the Atlantic Ocean, yet almost three centuries after Magellan sailed around America and entered the "South Sea," the Pacific Ocean remained a considerable mystery because of its size and distance from maritime Europe and the east coast of America. Through maps and charts dating from 1508, the Clements exhibition traces the adventurous sailors of Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands who explored and documented what was considered the unknown territory of the southern Pacific. Journals and logs kept by these naval pioneers, as well as those who explored and settled Australia, Hawaii and the Philippines clarify the picture of exploration and give a personal account of the successes and failures of such ventures.

Of all these naval pioneers, William Bligh and his ill-fated mission seem to have made the greatest mark on the imagination. Leaving Tahiti after a six-month reprise from naval discipline, a portion of the ship's crew led by Fletcher Christian seized the ship from Bligh on April 28, 1789, set the captain and those who refused to join the mutineers adrift in the ship's launch, and set sail with native women and livestock. They eventually found refuge on the uninhabited island of Pitcairn, where the fate of the Bounty itself and the ringleaders of the mutiny remained a mystery for almost two decades.

As The Captain from Nantucket and the Mutiny on the Bounty reveals, a New England sailor in search of seals for a lucrative market stumbled upon Pitcairn, an uncharted island. Captain Mahew Folger discovered signs of habitation and was surprised to be hailed in English by what proved to be children of the Bounty mutineers. In a letter to the British Admiralty, Folger solves the mystery of what had become of the Bounty and its disaffected crew. The letter, a prized possession of the Clements Library and the inspiration for Walter Hayes' book, tells the full story of this final chapter in the Bounty saga.

The free exhibition is open noon­4:45 p.m. Monday­Friday through Dec. 20. A limited edition of Hayes' book, containing 15 plates in full color and 31 pages of facsimiles, is available from the William L. Clements Library or by calling 764-2347.