Thomas Ellison (mutineer)

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Thomas Ellison (1772 – 29 October 1792) was an able seaman on His Majesty's Armed Ship Bounty. After participating in the Mutiny on the Bounty on 28 April 1789, he remained in Tahiti rather than continuing on to the Pitcairn Islands with the inner core of the mutineers, and in 1791 voluntarily turned himself in to the seamen of HMS Pandora to face justice in England. He was court-martialed at Spithead in September 1792, sentenced to death, and hanged on 29 October. Questions continue as to the degree of Ellison's culpability in the mutiny.


Ellison, although he was only 15 years old when he was mustered aboard captain William Bligh's armed vessel Bounty as it sailed from Spithead for Tahiti, was already an experienced able seaman who had seen service in the merchant navy under Bligh in the West Indies. He was short (five foot three) and was described as dark-haired and fair-skinned. In records of the outbound voyage, Bligh praised the lad as "improving" and "is a very good Boy and will do very well."[1] Bligh also instructed his clerk, John Samuel, to teach "Writing and Arithmetick" to the illiterate teenager.[2]

During the Mutiny on the Bounty on 28 April 1789, Ellison was standing his watch as the ship's wheelsman, which gave him a vantage point to view the personal confrontation between Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian at the heart of the mutiny. Ellison described himself as continuing to obey the captain's orders to "clap the helm down". However, the young seaman then handed control of the helm to a mutineer, John Mills, and left the scene to ask for advice from a loyal crewman, Lawrence LeBogue. When the time came for Ellison to tell his story at his court-martial, he tried to portray this incident as an attempt to establish his loyalty; but LeBogue – who would within minutes be set adrift with Bligh in the ship's boat – was less than helpful or sympathetic to the confused youth:[2]

He being wex'd, I believe, answerd me in a Sharp surly manner, told me to go to hell and not bother him; this Reception from my old ship mate quite Disheartened me from making an application to any One else.[2]

Ellison remained on the ship with the mutineers, but was allowed to remain on Tahiti by Fletcher Christian, and did not accompany the Bounty to the Pitcairn Islands. He gave himself up voluntarily when the HMS Pandora arrived in 1791, and was placed in irons as a mutineer. He subsequently survived the wreck of his prison ship, and was forwarded, still as a prisoner, to England for court-martial proceedings. Ellison faced his judges in September 1792.[3]

In his court-martial testimony, the loyal midshipman Thomas Hayward, who had also witnessed the mutiny, recalled seeing young Ellison holding a bayonet and saying of Bligh, "Damn him, I will be sentry over him." Hayward also said he saw Ellison in a crowd of mutineers that were jeering their powerless ex-captain and "publicly insulting" him.[4]

Able seaman Ellison was seriously outranked by Hayward, who had been promoted to lieutenant, and had no means to hire counsel for his defence or to impeach this damning testimony. As a forlorn hope, the doomed man wrote out a paper for the Judge Advocate, pleading his case and describing the mutiny from his point of view. In this paper he concluded:

I hope, honorable Gentlemen, yo'll be so Kind as to take my Case into Consideration as I was No more than between Sixteen and Seventeen Years of age when this of [sic] done. Honourable Gentlemen, I leave my self at the Clemency and Mercy of this Honourable Court.[2]

This plea appears to be Ellison's own work, as it contains phonetic misspellings characteristic of his Cockney dialect. It did not, however, save the seaman from the gallows. He was convicted of mutiny and hanged at Spithead on 29 October 1792.

In popular culture[edit]

The 1932 novel Mutiny on the Bounty, by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, portrays Ellison as a heroic character. His youthful optimism is depicted as raising the spirits of his fellow mutineer-prisoners, and his conviction and execution are characterised as a miscarriage of justice.


  1. ^ Alexander, Caroline (2003), The Bounty: the True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty ISBN 0-670-03133-X
  2. ^ a b c d "Statement by Thomas Ellison (9/17/1792)". University of Missouri–Kansas City. Retrieved 2011-07-19.
  3. ^ Alexander (2003)
  4. ^ "Court-Martial: Thomas Hayward Testimony, Fri, Sep 14, 1792". Retrieved 2011-07-19.

Further reading[edit]