What Shall We Do With a Love Drunk Sailor?

Heading out to sea after five months in paradise was a no-go for the infamous mutineers aboard HMS Bounty.

Published May 20, 2016

Postage stamps are lessons in history, politics, science, or geography packed onto a small piece of gummed paper. They’re also beautiful works of art. In Stamped we’re going coastal, with postal.

The sea was calm, but the mood was not. While Lieutenant William Bligh, captain of HMS Bounty, slept in his cabin, disaffected members of his crew prepared to overthrow him. Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian approached every man on his watch, convincing several to get onboard with his plan to take possession of the ship. Fresh from five indulgent months in Tahiti, following 10 grueling ones at sea, many men were not ready to return to the rigors of seafaring—and there was only one way out. Christian armed his co-conspirators with muskets and bayonets, and grabbed himself a cutlass. It was go time.

Flanked by three men, Christian burst into Bligh’s cabin just before sunrise on April 28, 1789. The mutineers forcefully tied the captain’s hands behind his back and pushed him on deck in his nightshirt. Bleary-eyed Bligh demanded a reason for the belligerence, but was offered no explanation. Instead, he was threatened with instant death if he didn’t hold his tongue.

“I have been in hell for this fortnight passed,” Christian moaned during the mutiny, according to the journal of boatswain’s mate James Morrison, “and am determined to bear it no longer … I have been used like a dog all the voyage.”

Himself a model apprentice under Captain James Cook, Bligh seemed to have higher expectations of Christian, whom he had promoted from master’s mate to second-in-command two and a half months into the journey to transplant breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the British West Indies. Lore and legend suggest Christian took a little too well to Tahiti and the pleasures of paradise—food, sun, rest, and women—and wasn’t keen on leaving. Some accounts say he fell deeply in love with a local woman.

When departure from the idyllic island was imminent, things started to go amiss—the ship grounded on coral when moving toward safer anchorage and three men deserted—with Christian bearing the brunt of the blame. It got worse at sea: the night before the mutiny, Bligh humiliated Christian in front of the crew, accusing him of stealing his coconuts.

In the end, Bligh’s pride was subject to the harshest lashing. After being ordered to collect a few essentials (sails, bread, a compass, rum), 18 sailors were crammed in an open boat to await their captain, who was forced over the side of the ship and ridiculed. Bligh begged the mutineers to think of his wife and six daughters and desist, but Christian would not be swayed, setting the dangerously overloaded boat adrift in the middle of the Pacific. In an incredible feat of seamanship, Bligh navigated the open boat on a heroic month-and-a-half voyage some 6,600 kilometers to the island of Timor.

Meanwhile, 25 men remained aboard Bounty. In search of their forever home, they island-hopped between Tubuai and Tahiti, often clashing violently with locals. When a vote left Christian with only eight comrades—the others opting to settle in Tahiti—he abducted a group of Tahitians to help establish his exile colony and sailed away in search of an uninhabited island, eventually landing on Pitcairn Island.

Fact and fiction have blurred as the story of the mutiny has been immortalized in five feature films, several books, and, to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the mutiny, four postage stamps. The fourth stamp in the set shows Bounty approaching the lush, mountainous island on a calm, cloudy day. What happened next—from burning the renegade ship to establishing a colony that went undetected for 18 years—is worthy of a second set of stamps. In fact, producing and selling postage stamps is one of the ways in which the approximately 50 descendants of the mutineers living on Pitcairn Island support themselves today.