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Young was born on the West Indian island of St. Kitts. He apparently came from a poor family, but he did attend school. He joined the crew of HMS Bounty as a midshipman in 1787 when she sailed from England to Tahiti.
HMS Bounty mutineer
After the Bounty departed from Tahiti in 1789 several sailors and officers, including Fletcher Christian, mutinied against its captain, Lieutenant William Bligh. Young was asleep during the mutiny, and did not wake until after it was over. Thus, he neither participated in the mutiny nor was able to fight against it or join Bligh and others who left the ship in a long boat. Young was the only crew member to sleep through this ordeal. However, he soon announced that he fully supported Christian and the mutineers, and that he would never attempt to return to England. Young, Christian, and the rest of those who remained on the Bounty returned to Tahiti. Soon afterwards, Christian decided to sail away to an undiscovered island to evade capture by the British navy. Young, seven mutineers, and some Tahitians joined him. They landed and settled at Pitcairn, a small and remote island.
After several years of living peacefully on the island, the Tahitian men grew tired of being treated badly, and not having as much access to the women as their white counterparts. Tension was also added by the pressure put on the colony by increasing alcoholism, after a small distillery was built by the mutineers. Young himself took charge of the distillery and brewed a primitive alcohol. In October 1793, a war broke out between the mutineers and the four surviving Tahitian men who sailed with them. Five of the mutineers, including Christian, and all of the Tahitian men were killed. Young slept through most of this battle as well, and was protected by the Tahitian women, who largely supported the mutineers. Young did help to hunt down and kill Neho, one of the Tahitian men. The other three surviving mutineers were Matthew Quintal, William McCoy and John Adams. Young was accepted as the leader of the island, and Adams became his friend and deputy, though some sources seem to indicate that the two men had an equal amount of power. They gained much more respect than McCoy and Quintal, who became alcoholics. McCoy fell off a cliff while seriously drunk, possibly a suicide, and Quintal afterwards became even more alcoholic and threatened to kill the entire community. Adams and Young killed Quintal to prevent this from happening, making themselves the only two surviving mutineers. It was after this episode that the distillery was shut down by Young. Meanwhile, they had established fruit plantations and had multitudes of children by their Tahitian wives.
Later life and death
In 1799 Young began to suffer from asthma. At about the same time, he became more religious. The other islanders converted to Christianity, and Young taught Adams and several of the children to read and write. Young's health became progressively worse and eventually he died of asthma, but Adams continued his work of educating the women and children, taking control over leadership of the island, and lived to see the island rediscovered by American and British ships.
Many of Young's descendants continue to live on Pitcairn Island or Norfolk Island.