By Chris Middleton

“A dram Mr Macarthur?”

A tale of mutinous whisky in the Pacific Ocean
Captain William Bligh’s reputation as a cruel and petty disciplinarian saw him suffer the indignity of not one mutiny, but two. In both mutinies, whisky played a pivotal role, either in precipitating the mutiny or bringing it to a fateful end.

Bligh’s second mutiny transpired in Sydney on January 26th, 1808 bringing his term as the fourth Governor of New South Wales to an ignominious end. Half a century later an abolitionist Quaker inaccurately designated this the Rum Rebellion; in fact, its causation had its origins in a whisky altercation. The grievance that originally set this mutiny in motion was the illegal importation of a pair of pot stills from London to distil whisky. Bligh’s antagonist was the equally mercurial and autocratic junior military officer John Macarthur, who arrived on the Second Fleet in 1789. As there was a ban on distilling in the Colony since January 1796, Bligh impounded Macarthur’s 60-gallon wash and 40-gallon spirit still and ordered their return to London. Within the year of this incident, a brooding Macarthur led the mutiny against Bligh. Two decades later Macarthur defiantly distilled illicit brandy at his Camden farm, in contempt to the new 1821 Distillation Act.

Bligh’s other infamous mutiny occurred aboard the HMS Bounty during the return voyage from Tahiti on April 28th 1789. Half the crew commandeered the ship and returned to Tahiti in September, where nine of the mutineers decided to provision themselves, along with 20 Tahitians, and set sail into self-exile. They stored sufficient foodstuffs to ensure self-reliance as they voyaged the South Pacific, seeking the uninhabited and uncharted Pitcairn Island. Among the plants they carried was the fast-growing Ti plant, Cordyline fruticosa. Polynesians dispersed this southeast Asian plant during their diaspora throughout the Pacific islands. The plant’s rhizome root was edible and the leaves used to make household products from roof thatching to hula skirts. By cooking the root for several days, it also produced a syrupy by-product resembling molasses.

As his production increased so did inebriation and malevolence worsen


William McCoy, a sailor on the Bounty’s crew, was the first European to make beer from Ti when they arrived in Tahiti. Before scuttling the Bounty at Pitcairn, McCoy saved a copper kettle which he converted into a pot still. McCoy was born in Aberdeen in 1763, where he was allegedly raised and worked at a Scottish distillery. He was the first to manufacture the tropical spirit christened ‘Pitcairn whisky’. Europeans who later settled in the Hawaiian Islands in the 19th century distilled a similar spirit called okolehao. Ten months from planting the Ti crop, McCoy distilled the first Pitcairn whisky in late 1790. As his production increased so did inebriation and malevolence worsen amongst the male Pitcairners turning the lost island paradise into hell in the Pacific. Most of the males died violent deaths, including two massacres in 1793 and 1794. On April 28th 1798, McCoy fell victim to his trade when, in a drunken and maudlin state, he tied a rope around his neck, attached to a stone, and threw himself off a rock ledge into the sea.

After McCoy’s suicide, his understudy Edward Young continued distilling Ti. In 1799, with another colleague John Adams, they summoned up sufficient courage after fortifying themselves with Young’s spirit to kill the demonic-minded and ruthless Matthew Quintal, the third remaining male. They got him drunk on the whisky and finished him off with an axe. Young expired a year later during an asthma attack. When an American whaling vessel discovered the survivors on the island in 1808, they found a sole male survivor, John Adams, along with nine women of the original Tahitian cohort who accompanied the mutineers. Adams was given a pardon by the Admiralty and died on the island of an infectious disease in 1825.

Twelve years earlier, Bligh expired of stomach cancer in London. John Macarthur was ‘pronounced a lunatic’ and died in 1834. Pitcairn’s diabolical whisky perished with the mutineers, with the surviving Pitcairners later resettled on Australia’s Norfolk Island, and Australia went on to develop a significant whisky industry.