5 of History’s Most Horrible Mutinies

“Aren’t you dead yet, you bugger?”

A 1790 painting of the mutiny on the 'Bounty' by Robert Dodd.
A 1790 painting of the mutiny on the 'Bounty' by Robert Dodd. / National Maritime Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As Western powers voyaged around the world in the 17th and 18th centuries—exploring, trading, colonizing, and enslaving—calamity abounded. Some maritime disasters were war-related or weather-borne. But other times, the call was coming from inside the house. 

In other words, crews mutinied. Here are five of the era’s most dreadful tales of nautical revolt, from Henry Hudson’s unsolved final goodbye to the H.M.S. Bounty’s failed breadfruit delivery.

1. The Discovery // 1611

'the last voyage of henry hudson' painting by john collier
'The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson,' painted by John Collier in 1811. / Tate Britain, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Reminders of Henry Hudson’s expeditions pepper northeastern North America: The Hudson River, the Hudson Bay, and the Hudson Strait are all named after him. To Hudson-heads, these also serve as reminders that their favorite early 17th-century explorer’s fate is still a mystery.

In mid-April 1610, Hudson set sail from London with a crew of two dozen on what would be his last voyage. The ship was called the Discovery; the goal was to find the Northwest Passage, an elusive and long-coveted sea route that would link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. By August, the Discovery had arrived in Hudson Bay via Hudson Strait, and by November, they’d sailed south to James Bay, sandwiched between Ontario and Quebec. But the climate in that area was much colder than anticipated, and the Discovery was soon mired in pack ice. The explorers had no choice but to wait out the winter there.

It didn’t go well. Gunner John Williams died mere weeks in—and under vague circumstances. “God pardon the Masters [Hudson’s] uncharitable dealing with this man,” navigator Abacuk Pricket wrote. Another crew member, Henry Greene, convinced Hudson to let him have Williams’s warm coat, but Hudson then gave it to someone else after Greene angered him by going to shore with the carpenter. Hudson had also recently fought with the carpenter over his refusal to build a shelter. In short, tempers flared hotly and often.

The tension failed to ease once the ice began to break up the following spring. It was clear that Hudson had every intention of continuing the hunt for the Northwest Passage; the crew, facing starvation, wanted badly to go home. So, on June 22, 1611, they forced Hudson, his teenage son, and seven other men—a mix of ill and mutiny-averse crew members—into a small boat called a shallop. Hudson initially tried to stay apace with the Discovery, but it was futile, and none of the castaways was ever seen again. 

The mutineers didn’t make out great, either: A few of them were killed during an altercation with Inuit. Of those who survived the journey back to England, four were tried for leaving Hudson and company to die—and all four got off scot-free.

2. The Batavia // 1629

full-scale replica of the 17th-century dutch ship Batavia
A replica of the 'Batavia' photographed in 2007. / ADZee, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On June 4, 1629, the Batavia, a merchant ship owned by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), wrecked near a small coral island (now called Beacon Island) off Australia’s western coast. Dozens of its 340 or so occupants perished. But that was nothing compared to the horrors in store for the survivors.

The Batavia had been on its way from the Netherlands to deliver silver coins and other valuable cargo to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia), then a colony in the Dutch East Indies. The plan was to transport spices back home. Trouble brewed early on: Not only had the Batavia gotten separated from all the other ships in its fleet, but the senior merchant, Jeronimus Cornelisz, and the Batavia’s captain, Ariaen Jacobsz, detested the fleet’s commander, Francisco Pelsaert (who sailed with the Batavia). They hatched a mutiny, which was thwarted by the shipwreck.

But soon after Pelsaert, Jacobsz, and four dozen other people set off in a longboat to find help, all hell broke loose on and around Beacon Island. Cornelisz, fearing that his mutinous intentions would be exposed during a rescue, decided it would be best to commandeer whatever rescue vessel eventually appeared and make it his own personal pirate ship instead. So he gathered a loyal posse of followers and started dispatching other parties to survey the surrounding islets, in the hopes that they’d die during the expeditions. By early July, Cornelisz and his cronies had adopted more hands-on murder methods: drowning, throat-slitting, and the like. 

Not all the violence directly serviced Cornelisz’s plan to turn pirate. The Batavia had been carrying around 20 female passengers, some of whom had already died in the wreck or soon after it. “The mutineers had ruthlessly exterminated those too old or too pregnant to interest them,” Mike Dash wrote in Batavia’s Graveyard. They kept seven women alive and raped them repeatedly.

1647 illustration of 'Batavia' shipwreck survivors battling each other on an island
A 1647 illustration of the post-shipwreck battle between the mutineers and soldiers, created by Francisco Pelsaert and Jeremias van Vliet. / State Library of New South Wales, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 AU

Cornelisz and company massacred more than 100 people before getting caught up in a protracted battle with a group of soldiers led by Wiebbe Hayes. (The party had been sheltering on a nearby island, where Cornelisz had originally sent them for what he hoped would be a fruitless and fatal search for water. It wasn’t.) The fighting halted in mid-September when Pelsaert finally returned with a rescue vessel. 

The commander made quick work of capturing, questioning, and sentencing the mutineers. Some were hanged on nearby Long Island in early October, while others were transported back to the Indies with the other survivors—77 in total, including five women and one child. Cornelisz was among the hanged; just before his death, both his hands were amputated, possibly, per Batavia’s Graveyard, with a hammer and chisel.

Onlookers cried “Revenge!” at Cornelisz right before his hanging, and he yelled it right back at them. “Yes, saying even at the end, as he mounted the gallows: ‘Revenge! Revenge!’ So that to the end of his life he was an evil Man,” the presiding pastor wrote.

3. The Meermin // 1766

sketch of an 18th-century dutch ship
The 'Meermin' would've looked something like this 18th-century Dutch ship. / Gerrit Groenewegen, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In January 1766, the Meermin, another VOC ship, departed from western Madagascar with 147 enslaved Malagasy people on board. Their destination was Cape Town, South Africa. During the voyage, Dutch officials unbound their captives and put them to work above deck to mitigate the risk of death and disease in the cramped cargo hold. At one point, head merchant Johann Krause literally handed over a collection of spears to be cleaned by a man named Massavana and a few other prisoners—which they then used to take over the ship, killing Krause and roughly half the crew.

The Malagasy people ordered some of the Dutch survivors to return the Meermin to Madagascar, and they appeared to comply. Secretly, though, they charted a course toward South Africa. Once land was in sight, several dozen enslaved people set off in two boats, planning to confirm that they’d reached Madagascar and set three fires ashore to alert those still aboard the Meermin that they were indeed home.

But they weren’t home: They were at Struis Bay, a Dutch settlement near South Africa’s southernmost tip. As the scouting party disembarked on the beach, Dutchmen killed some of them and arrested the rest. 

So began a week-long stalemate during which nobody really knew what was going on or how to proceed. Meanwhile, the Meermin’s Dutch survivors were furtively tossing messages in bottles overboard in the hopes that they’d reach the beach. Miraculously, two did—one of which advised official to light three fires. When the mutineers saw the signal, they steered the ship toward shore. Unfortunately, it collided with a sandbar, and the Malagasy people quickly surrendered.

Volunteers helped everyone to shore, where the Malagasies were fed and tended to. This seemingly kind treatment masks a much crueler truth: The Dutch East India Company suffered financial losses in the fiasco, and the Meermin merchants owed it to their employer to ensure that the remaining enslaved people reached Cape Town in good health.

“The brief flame of personal agency, which had impressed on the crew all too clearly the humanity of the Malagasy slaves, had been extinguished,” Andrew Alexander wrote in his 2003 dissertation at the University of Cape Town.

4. H.M.S. Bounty // 1789

The mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty is probably the most famous case of marine insubordination—thanks in part to the three major Hollywood films it inspired (two called Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935 and 1962, and 1984’s The Bounty).

This debacle happened in 1789 during a mission to ferry breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies, where they were meant to become a low-cost and hearty food source for enslaved people. The Bounty’s crew had relished their five-month stopover in Tahiti; some 40 percent of them were treated for sexually transmitted diseases while there. Readjusting to harsh, laborious life at sea proved difficult—and the malcontents turned mutinous before they reached the Indies.

In the early morning hours of April 28, master’s mate Fletcher Christian led the charge to force Captain William Bligh and 18 other men into a boat and send them adrift. Death threats abounded, but nobody was actually killed; and the 23 mutineers permitted their castaways fairly ample survival supplies. The carpenter even got to take his toolbox. “Damn my eyes, he will have a vessel built in a month,” Bligh heard one of the mutineers say.

The exact cause of the coup is still up for debate. Bligh, a stern disciplinarian with a hot-headed streak, is typically cast as the villain of the story. He had recently accused Christian of pilfering some coconuts, which seems to have spurred Christian into rebellion. But Bligh hadn’t been especially punishing throughout the voyage, and it’s also possible to view him as the unlucky object of a crew’s widespread disillusionment.

1960 replica of the HMS Bounty
A 1960 replica of the 'Bounty' pictured in 2008. / Tim Rue/GettyImages

The mutineers’ attempts to reclaim paradise were largely disastrous. First, they tried to put down roots on Tubuai—several hundred miles south of Tahiti—but ended up murdering some of the island’s Native residents and returning to Tahiti instead. Again they tried and failed to colonize Tubuai and again returned to Tahiti. When they set off a second time, they were without 16 crew members who had either chosen to stay behind or had been abandoned by Christian, who feared revolt. The mutineers had also kidnapped nearly 20 Tahitians under the pretense of a party aboard the Bounty.

In early 1790, they succeeded in establishing a settlement on Pitcairn Island, an unoccupied volcanic island about 1350 miles southeast of Tahiti. But as Erin Blakemore wrote for National Geographic, their Tahitian prisoners “resented the English men’s abuse of the women, whom they treated as sexual possessions.” The friction came to a head in September 1793, when Christian and three other Englishmen were murdered. By the time the community was discovered by an American whaling ship in 1808, John Adams (not that one) was the only surviving Bounty sailor. He died there in 1829; today, Pitcairn is still home to some 50 descendants of the original colony.

Bligh arguably made out better than anyone. He and his crew traveled 3600 miles over 47 days and reached the Dutch-occupied island of Timor in mid-June. One man had died during an altercation with the people of Tofua, where they briefly stopped early in their journey, and a few others died of fever after their arrival on Timor. But Bligh himself made it back to England and went on to have a successful naval career; he died in 1817.

5. H.M.S. Hermione // 1797

painting of the HMS Hermione by thomas whitcombe
The 'Hermione' after Spain rechristened it the 'Santa Cecilia.' / Thomas Whitcombe, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Bounty may have been more famous, but what’s often called “the bloodiest mutiny in British naval history” occurred aboard the H.M.S. Hermione in September 1797. At the time, the frigate was policing the Mona Passage—the waterway between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic—as part of the French Revolutionary Wars. 

The main problem was Captain Hugh Pigot, a 28-year-old tyrant whose enthusiasm for flogging bordered on sadism; earlier in his career, two men had actually died from the beatings. After roughly seven months under his leadership, many men in the Hermione’s crew of roughly 180 had reached their breaking point. 

The inciting incident began when Pigot asked patrolling midshipman David Casey why the topmen hadn’t followed the usual protocol for scaling rigging. Casey explained that they’d needed to fasten a loose gasket to its reef point, to which Pigot responded by raining insults on Casey and demanding that he beg on his knees for forgiveness. Casey’s refusal earned him 12 lashes and the loss of his officer rank. Pigot soon turned his wrath on the topmen, many of whom were also flogged. 

After conspiring over rum on the night of September 21 or 22, a group of men attacked Pigot with axes and other weapons before tossing him bodily—and still alive—into the sea. “Aren’t you dead yet, you bugger?” one man reportedly yelled during the assault, and another: “You’ve shown no mercy yourself and deserve none!” The mutineers ended up killing nine officers, too.

They then sailed the Hermione to the Spanish port of La Guaira, in modern-day Venezuela, and eventually scattered to find work so they could afford their food and shelter. Over the next decade or so, British officials managed to track down 33 of the mutineers, 24 of whom were hanged.