September 20

1793 Death of a mutineer

Clark Gable. Marlon Brando. Mel Gibson. Hollywood heart-throbs have thrice portrayed the English seaman who led a rebellion aboard His Majesty’s Ship Bounty in 1789.

Fletcher Christian was born in 1764 to a middling English family which fell into debt forcing him to take to a life in the navy. Despite his late start to his career at sea he proved to be a capable sailor and rose to the rank of master’s mate, a junior officer. Several times he served under Lieutenant William Bligh who asked him in 1787 to join the crew of Bounty on a mission to transport a thousand breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies where they would be grown to serve as food for the slave labour on plantations.

Unfortunately, the Bounty’s sailors found life on Tahiti with its tropical breezes, laidback lifestyle, and sexually complaisant women to be more attractive that the lash, hard labour, and salt beef that the navy offered. After five months of relative bliss they resented being called back to their duties, particularly resenting Bligh’s methods of discipline. On April 28, 1789 Fletcher Christian led a mutiny which captured Bligh and forced him and 18 loyalists into an open ship’s boat before sailing away.

Christian’s hope was to find an island where he and his men could hide from the Royal Navy. His revisit to Tahiti lost him half his men who preferred to remain there but he recruited (or, rather, kidnapped) a  number of male and female Tahitians to join him in founding a colony — somewhere. He chose remote Pitcairn Island where he landed on January 23, 1790. After stripping Bounty of any useful items, Christian ordered the ship to be burnt to the waterline, making escape impossible.

Though Pitcairn was a tropical paradise, the behaviour of the mutineers was bestial. With a few years all of the sailors except one, and all of the Tahitian men had died, most of them murdered. Christian was cut down by a group of Tahitians while tending his garden. His descendants survive on the island to this day.

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