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Innocent on the Bounty: The Court-Martial and Pardon of Midshipman Peter Heywood, in Letters, Edited by Donald A. Maxton and Rolf E. Du Rietz

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Innocent on the Bounty: The Court-Martial and Pardon of Midshipman Peter Heywood, in Letters

Edited by Donald A. Maxton and Rolf E. Du Rietz

Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2013

6” x 9”, softcover, 250 pages

Illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $45.00

ISBN: 9780786472666


Maxton and Du Rietz’s work is an edited compilation of letters and poems corresponded between Peter Heywood, a midshipman whose first voyage took him aboard the infamous Bounty, and his sister Hester “Nessy” Heywood, who fought tirelessly to vindicate her younger brother’s conviction of mutiny.


In the introduction, the authors carefully relate the Manxmen’s common roots and association, and a summary of the mutiny and aftermath, including the account of Heywood’s actions during and after the mutiny. The crux of the conflict lay between acting lieutenant and second-in-command Fletcher Christian and the notorious William Blight. Bligh’s disrespect for the high-born Christian ultimately led to the mutiny in April 1789, where Heywood was reportedly forced below and unable to leave with Bligh and his loyal crew members. While the mutineers and Heywood took refuge at Tahiti, Bligh managed to return to England, despite the trials of a 4,000-mile voyage. Bligh, apparently never informed of Heywood and his shipmate Stewart’s intention to depart with the captain, considered Heywood as cooperating with the leader of the mutiny, Christian.


At 230 pages, the book is divided into seven parts. Following the introduction that provides the context for the rest of the book is a textual postscript accounting the initial organization of private letters and poems that form the basis of the book. These are presented in two parts, the first being the correspondence, the second the poems. These are followed by three appendices that address additional correspondence on Heywood’s status, a list of dramatis persona, and an account of Heywood’s naval career.


The argument for Heywood’s innocence is smartly supported by the incomplete collection of letters and poems exchanged between Peter Heywood and his sister Nessy. The reader might take issue with the potential bias of a collection of letters first organized by an “anonymous editor” after Nessy’s death in 1793. Heywood’s insistence of innocence and Nessy’s dogged support for her brother still prove convincing.


That said, the book remains an impressive collection of primary documents recounting the infamous mutiny and Peter and Nessy’s close relationship. It also illustrates the close-knit nature of serving as an officer in the Royal Navy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Bligh, Christian, and Heywood all hailed from the Isle of Man. Heywood was nephew to Commodore Thomas Palsey (married to Nessy and Peter’s aunt Mary Heywood)—the list of connections is quite extensive. It also harkens to the much more deliberate and intimate style of eighteenth-century correspondence and composition. Granted, a midshipman imprisoned for mutiny would have even more time on his hands to compose poetry and write letters than the average sailor, yet it is a sharp contrast to the microsecond pace of twenty-first-century communication. Well worth a read for any fan of maritime history, eighteenth-century primary documents or poetry, and, of course, anyone interested in the infamous events that inspired both a novel and an Academy Award winning movie.


Daniel M. Brown

University of South Carolina


Member, Nautical Research Guild

Co-Webmaster, NRG Website

Developer of NRG and Seaways Publishing back issue digital archives

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