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Mutiny is a word that has brought fear to the most powerful empires in the world. Mutiny is when soldiers and sailors refuse to obey their commanders, often killing or imprisoning them.
Mutiny can spread through whole armies and navies, throwing governments into crisis.
No wonder that nations have always taken harsh measures to punish mutinous leaders.
The ancient Romans executed every tenth man from an army unit that had mutinied.
In the British navy, mutineers were normally hanged.
However, one of history’s most famous mutinies did not happen to a whole army or navy, it happened on a single small ship, H.M.S. Bounty.
H.M.S. Bounty set sail from England in December 1787.
It was a small cramped vessel, uncomfortable during a long voyage.
Its goal was to sail to the South Pacific and bring back Tahitian breadfruit plants.
The government hoped that breadfruit would provide a cheap food for black slaves in the British West Indies.
The captain of the Bounty was William Bligh, a veteran of many voyages.
His crew, however, was largely made up of inexperienced young men.
There was no room on the ship for soldiers or marines, so Bligh, as the only commissioned officer, had the difficult task of maintaining order.
After a long and difficult trip, the Bounty finally arrived in Tahiti in October 1788. Free from the constraints of life aboard ship, the young men enjoyed life on the tropical island with the friendly natives.
Many of the sailors established relationships with island women.
Meanwhile, the collection of breadfruit plants for the homeward voyage continued.
In April 1789, Captain Bligh decided that it was time to return to England.
The breadfruit plants were loaded on the deck, making the ship cramped indeed.
The Bounty set sail and would no doubt have reached England again, except for the turmoil in the mind of one of its young officers.
Fletcher Christian was 24 years old, of dark complexion, and from a good family. As the Bounty pulled further from Tahiti, Fletcher seemed to have decided that he didn’t want to return to England.
Tahiti had been an earthly paradise, and now long months of discomfort aboard ship awaited him.
He was too far from Tahiti to return by himself.
He would need the Bounty.
On April 28, 1789, some of Fletcher Christian’s friends seized control of the ship. Captain Bligh and eighteen sailors who supported him were put in a small open boat with limited food and water. Meanwhile, Christian and his 24 followers sailed back to Tahiti.
Eventually, Fletcher Christian would sail the Bounty to the uninhabited Pitcairn Islands, far to the south of the shipping lanes.
Meanwhile, Bligh and his loyal followers sailed in their open boat almost the width of the Pacific Ocean.
They suffered from thirst, hunger and sickness, as well as hostile natives.
Finally, they reached Timor in Indonesia in June and eventually made their way to the capital, Batavia.
When they returned to England, Captain Bligh was first greeted as a hero.
Soon, however, public attitudes changed.
The legend began that Bligh was a cruel tyrant who had caused the mutiny by harsh treatment of his men.
Although Bligh had a temper, and was not very tactful, this does not appear to be the whole story.
In fact, it is the controversy over who is to blame for the mutiny – Bligh or Christian – that has kept the story alive for more than 200 years.
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