Several times a week on television, ordinary people with extraordinary treasures parade before us on the popular “Antique Road Show.” Apparently, the general public has an endless supply of collectable furniture, glass, pictures, and other curios. And every expert appraiser on the show wants to know the personal history behind each artifact, whether it is a Chippendale Chair ( c.1774 ), a Boston Hutch ( c.1800 ), an Eskimo Hunting Helmut ( c.1825 ), or a Babe Ruth baseball card ( c.1927 ). With the abundance of valuable pieces that Americans have, no one seems to have a relic from the HMS Bounty — the most famous ship of mutiny. So, where are they?
The HMS Bounty, which left Plymouth England bound for Tahiti, carried a cargo of trinkets for trade that included 100 pounds of glass beads, 2808 axes, 168 mirrors, 72 shirts, 576 cheap knives, 1,000 pounds of nails, and several boxes of saws, drills and files.
In 1789, when America was only a teenager, Lieutenant Fletcher Christian and eight mutineers stole an armed transport ship from the British Royal Navy, and for two months they combed the South Pacific Ocean looking for a home. In desperation they sailed eastward and found Pitcairn Island on January 15, 1790. And it was there, fearing reprisals from a navy known for never giving up on any lost ship, they scuttled her on the rocks of Bounty Bay, cannibalized her for parts, and burned her to the water line.
The HMS Bounty was originally a merchant ship purchased by the Royal Navy and outfitted with four cannons, 6 swivel guns, a greenhouse, copper cladding for her hull and renamed the Bounty. In 1805, an American frigate discovered the mutineers on the island, but by then Britain was pre-occupied with fighting Napoleon.
Today there are 44 inhabitants of Pitcairn Island, and only two relics from the mothership on public display. In the town square, consisting of the post office, courthouse and church, is a 12 foot stern anchor mounted on a cement plinth. It was this anchor that Fletcher Christian dropped to control her fatal dash on the rocks. These days, the Pitcairn children play on the anchor without any apparent sense of the heritage it holds for them.
The other treasure, the Bounty Bible, is on public display in the island’s only church. Actually, it was not the ship’s bible, but a gift from Mrs. Christian to her son Fletcher, and was among his belongings brought ashore in his sea chest. (Where today is the chest?)
In 1839, the Bible was traded to a sailor from Massachusetts, and eventually came into the hands of Historical Society of Connecticut. In 1950 it was a re-bound in London, and return to its rightful home on the island. Today it is used for special religious ceremonies, and resides in a glass-top cabinet in the church. (Hopefully this relic won’t go missing again)
In 1845, two of the four 1200 lb. cannons were raised. One of these continues to rust in the front yard of an Islander’s home, while the other has been carried off to Norfolk Island.
In 1963, a great, great grandson of Fletcher Christian retrieved from the ocean floor, the Bounty’s rudder and many copper fittings from the hull – most of which have gone missing.
In 1970, the third cannon was recovered, and has since disappeared. Finally in 1999,an Australian archaeologist named to Nigel Erskine, raised the last cannon. When Erskine set out to recover the cannon, he thought he had to ask the British Admiralty for permission, because, as he said, “they never give up on their rights to their ships”. But the island’s High Commissioner told him, “We took the vessel in 1789. They have nothing to do with it.”
Today very few artifacts from the Bounty remain; three cannons, one anchor, some copper, a bible, and the original island home of Fletcher Christian, seem to be the only vestiges left of an incredible account of mutiny and survival. In modern times, the economy of the Bounty’s descendants is strongly linked to stamp collecting. The island has only one telephone, one fax machine, and a lone generator operating four hours a day. One might wonder what dealers from the “Antique Road Show” would appraise those items at. Perhaps it is fitting that most of the relics have disappeared, or been squandered, or like the HMS Bounty, stolen. Either way the account of the Bounty remains rich in history and scarce in artifacts.