Photograph by M Swiet Productions, Getty Images
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Like visitors today, the sailors on the HMS Bounty found Tahiti to be a paradise. But the arrival of Europeans was devastating to Tahitian culture.

Photograph by M Swiet Productions, Getty Images

The Brutal Story of How Europe Conquered the Pacific

Warning: It includes mutiny, murder, and mass rape.

The HMS Bounty has become the most notorious ship in the British navy, its captain, William Bligh, a byword for brutality. On April 28, 1789, after setting sail from Tahiti, a group of sailors led by the charismatic Fletcher Christian mutinied, forcing their hated captain off the ship—and into legend. A year earlier, in another corner of the Pacific, the first prisoners were brought ashore at Botany Bay, in the British penal colony that would become Australia. [Find out how a National Geographic photographer discovered the bones of the Bounty.]

In her new book, Paradise in Chains, historian Diana Preston links these two violent events to tell the story of European entry into the South Pacific and how it forever changed life in that seemingly idyllic corner of the world. [Discover the tragic fate of a replica of the HMS Bounty.]

When National Geographic caught up with Preston by phone at her home in London, she explained how Bligh and Christian had a kind of “bromance”; how a female prisoner escaped the penal colony and rowed more than 3,000 miles across the Pacific; and how the British populating of Australia began with a mass rape.

Your book is called “Paradise in Chains.” Why did you choose that title?

I wanted a nice, succinct title for a large, complex book. It seemed to get to the essence of what we’re talking about: a number of interlinked stories, big human dramas, whether in Australia or Tahiti. It’s all about the arrival of Europeans in those areas in the latter half of the 18th century and their perceptions of them, particularly Tahiti.

An image developed of Tahiti as a Garden of Eden, a sexually permissive society, with fruit dropping off of trees, where nobody had to bother to cultivate anything. There was also an image, which turned out not at all to be the case, of a verdant New South Wales, a place fit for settlement.

I also wanted to trace the impact on the indigenous people—what happened to the Tahitians and, in particular, the Aboriginal people of Australia, which is a much sadder and more somber story. All these communities—paradises, if you like—were destroyed by the arrival of Europeans with their diseases, alcohol, gunpowder, weapons, and aspirations. It’s a story of a fallen Garden of Eden.

The mutiny on the HMS Bounty has passed into folklore and been the subject of several movies. Was Bligh the tyrannical monster he’s portrayed as?

Not exactly. He was rather a small man, not much above five feet, but a martinet, who was verbally sadistic and took pleasure in humiliating people in front of an audience.

You have an interesting juxtaposition of personalities on board the Bounty. Fletcher Christian, who was Bligh’s friend and protégé, could flourish under praise and encouragement and believed that he understood how to manage Bligh. He’d written to his brother that Bligh can be very passionate “but I think I have the measure of the man. I think I understand how to deal with him.”

Things on the outbound voyage to Tahiti remained reasonably amicable. Bligh appointed Christian his second in command. But on Tahiti there was a breakdown in discipline and order. There were beautiful Tahitian women, and Christian set up home ashore with one of them, whom he called Isabella. Bligh became increasingly irate that routine tasks, like airing the sails and maintenance of the ship, were not being done. This started to sour relations with his wider crew but, particularly, with Christian.

Edge of the World: Stunning Pitcairn Islands Revealed

In 2012 National Geographic's Pristine Seas project went on an expedition to the Pitcairn Islands—a remote archipelago that became home to some of the HMS Bounty mutineers. The expedition led to the historic announcement that the British government has created the largest contiguous marine reserve in the world, protecting this one-of-a-kind ecosystem.

You suggest that a contributing factor was also a “bromance” between William Bligh and Fletcher Christian. Were they lovers?

Some people have looked at that and suggested it. But this is such a well-documented story in letters, private papers, and public records, and there is no suggestion anywhere of that. At that time in the British Navy, it would have been a big issue. If there was anything sexual in it, I don’t think it was consummated.

Christian was very much one of the lads, with a dashing, swashbuckling side to him. But as soon as he came under criticism or pressure, he was quite fragile and sensitive. Although there were lots of other people on board who fell out with Bligh, the lynchpin of the rebellion was Christian, though his first thought when it began had been suicide or making a raft and trying to reach a neighboring island. But once the idea had been put into his head, he was desperate enough then to take the lead, and people followed him because of his charisma.

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After they took over the HMS Bounty, the mutineers set Bligh and his supporters adrift in the Pacific in an open boat.

Let’s turn to Australia. Though the facts are sometimes disputed, the British populating of the continent could be said to begin with a mass rape. Describe the events that took place at Sydney Cove in February 1788.

The First Fleet had arrived off the coast of New South Wales and anchored in Botany Bay. But Arthur Phillip, the new governor, felt it was not suitable and sailed north to Port Jackson, modern day Sydney. He began disembarking the marines and male prisoners to start setting up camp, building tents, felling trees.

Then the time came for the female convicts to be brought ashore. As the rowing boats came into the shore, this great thunderstorm broke overhead, with lightning splitting the sky. There was also a lot of rum around, which the marines and sailors and some of the male convicts seemed to have got their hands on.

But the storm seems to be what triggered this mass attack on the women. You have accounts of both convicts and marines chasing women up the beach and dragging them to the ground. It wasn’t brought under control until the next day and Phillip didn’t punish anyone directly for it. But from this time on there were very strict rules that if men were found near the women’s camp they would be flogged, and all sorts of other harsh conditions. That first landing of the women was very dramatic and brutal.

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Aboriginals perform a welcoming ceremony at World Youth Day in 2008. When the British arrived in Australia, they disregarded Aboriginal rights to land and property.

Relations between the Aboriginals and the British colonists quickly deteriorated. Explain the origins of the misunderstandings and tell us the fascinating story of an Aboriginal named Bennelong.

The Tahitians had hierarchical, social structures the British could relate to. But the indigenous people of Australia were nomadic and did not have a social structure the British could understand. The land was described as terra nullius, not really belonging to anybody. When the British arrived, even though Phillip, the governor, was himself a humane man, there was a general perception amongst the convicts and marines that the Aboriginals could be disregarded.

What the Aboriginals resented was the casual appropriation of their hunting and fishing grounds and their property. As an Aboriginal, you could put your fishing spear down on a rock, go away for a couple of hours and expect to find it when you came back. The Europeans started stealing these things. So there started to be attacks on convicts who had been sent into the bush to cut rushes.

People in the colony urged the governor, Phillip, to take reprisals. But he was a little ahead of his time and realized that there must be a cause: Something was provoking the Aboriginals to do this. That prompted him to think that these difficulties could be resolved if the two sides could understand each other better.

Phillip went about achieving that in a curious way, though—by kidnapping some young Aboriginal men and bringing them back to the colony. One of these became a famous name in Australian history, a young man called Bennelong, who lived for a while in the governor’s house, learned some English, and when Phillip returned to England went along with him. He was introduced to the king and court, then returned to Australia.

The story had a sad ending, though. Bennelong felt stranded between two societies and that he no longer belonged to either. He turned to drink and eventually died. The house which Phillip built for Bennelong is where the Sydney Opera House stands today.

Tell us the amazing story of the convict Mary Broad, or Bryant as she became by marriage, who eventually escaped the penal colony—and how a packet of tea leaves she picked at Sydney Cove ended up at Yale University.

The settlers brought seeds and livestock, with the idea that the colony would flourish. But it didn’t. Soon starvation and disease—plus the government sending out further convict fleets, bringing more hungry mouths—made the situation desperate. Mary by now had two young children and was worried about their health. She and her husband and a small group of other convicts—though she seems to have been the leader—started to store supplies beneath the planking of their huts.

One night, they crept along the beach with their supplies in their arms, stole the governor’s cutter, and started to row north up the coast of Australia. There were nine adults in all and two children. You can imagine how difficult it was for them in the heavy seas, with blistering sun, storms, and two young children to care for. They were also attacked by indigenous people when they came ashore.

But they managed to reach the island of Timor, in what is now Indonesia. It’s absolutely extraordinary that they should have survived. They were at sea for about 69 days and sailed 3,254 nautical miles. They were eventually recaptured and sent back to England to stand trial. Mary Broad escaped the gallows and is believed to have ended her days back in Fowey, the fishing village in Cornwall where she was born.

Among the supplies she took aboard Governor Phillip’s cutter were leaves of a vine from which the prisoners had learned from the Aboriginals to make “sweet tea.” She later gave some of these leaves to James Boswell, Dr. Johnson’s biographer, who helped secure her pardon. Some are now preserved at Yale University, having been found among his papers.

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A lava rock monument in Tahiti shows Fletcher Christian and the woman he called Isabella.

In 1808, an American ship, the Topaz, made an amazing discovery on Pitcairn Island in the Pacific. What was it?

After the Bounty mutiny, Fletcher Christian and a group of others decided to find somewhere where no one would discover them. Taking some Polynesian men and women with them, as well as Christian’s Tahitian lover Isabella, they sailed off and arrived at Pitcairn Island.

They then dropped from view until many years later when the Topaz turned up. The crew saw these long boats coming through the surf towards them with these well-grown young men, who called out to them in English. They were completely amazed how these young men, who were partly Polynesian, could possibly know any English. But eventually they realized these were the descendants of the Bounty mutineers.

By that time only one of the original mutineers, John Adams, was still left alive. The Bounty mutineers and the Polynesian men they’d brought with them had fallen out. There were not enough women to go around, plus the Polynesian men felt the Bounty men were enslaving them. Murder and mayhem ensued.

Fletcher Christian was either murdered or committed suicide. It’s not certain. Adams transmuted himself into this flowing-haired patriarch running his little community of Polynesian women and children, like a model Christian community. As a result, no one thought it would be fair to arrest him and ship him back to England for court martial. He seemed to them to be a reformed character. Plus, the world had moved on. People had forgotten about the Bounty.

In what ways does the European colonization of the Pacific still reverberate today?

Tahiti fell victim very quickly to the Europeans. Even Captain Cook said early on that it would be best if the Europeans had never come. First, adventurers and whalers and convicts who’d served their time in the penal colony in Port Jackson turned up in Tahiti. Then missionaries arrived. They effectively destroyed all the things that people had found exotic and attractive about Tahitian culture.

When you turn to Australia, the situation is even worse. The Aboriginal community was marginalized as British settlements spread up the coasts and down the rivers. Their rights were not considered at all. That unfairness persists to our day. The Aboriginal communities feel that much has been taken from them in all kinds of ways, physically and culturally, in a way we’ll never make good. The damage has been too great.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.