17 Jul 2021

Harrison Christian: the infamous mutiny on the Bounty

From Saturday Morning, 11:08 am on 17 July 2021

Many families have a tale of an adventurous ancestor - but some are far more interesting than others.  

Harrison Christian's ancestor, Fletcher Christian, was a seaman in the late 1700s who rebelled against his commander Lieutenant William Bligh and cast him adrift in the Tongan Islands.

Fletcher and his followers took the ship The Bounty and ended up hiding from the British navy on Pitcairn Island.  

What led Fletcher Christian to overthrow his once mentor and friend William Bligh, and what was to become of the mutineers? 

Harrison, who is a journalist from New Zealand, had just moved to San Francisco when Covid-19 sent the city into lockdown. With his sudden free time, he wrote Men Without Country, about Fletcher Christian and the tale of The Bounty mutineers. 

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Photo: Supplied

Harrison says the relationship between Fletcher Christian and William Bligh became fraught early on in The Bounty’s voyage. 

"Basically, when Bligh began to single Fletcher Christian out and to abuse and humiliate him in front of his other sailors.” 

Throughout his career Bligh seemed to have it in for his subordinates, he says, with the most immediate subordinate copping the most abuse. 

“Although Bligh was a brilliant man, he was a poor leader.” 

Harrison says the day before the famous mutiny of 1789, Bligh cut his crew’s rations, as he'd done throughout the voyage. 

“Fletcher Christian and the officers were demoralised by the abuse and the humiliation that Bligh had subjected them to. The seaman took up the cause because they were hungry and when they sailed off into the Pacific with The Bounty looking for somewhere to hide from the law, they knew that they couldn’t realistically settle in Tahiti because that would be one of the first places the British would look for them.” 

In his "white-washed story about the mutiny” Bligh claimed that his men had been led astray by Tahiti, that “they had fallen for the siren song of Tahitian women”. 

“The way Bligh described it, the British public found it appealing and quite compelling because there was this romantic idea of Tahiti, of this almost utopia in the Pacific, this sexual utopia that people had heard about and read about.” 

The mutineers eventually landed on Pitcairn Island, where The Bounty was set alight. Harrison says much like everything else about the mutiny, there are conflicting stories of its demise. Some say its fate lay in the hands of a drunken sailor. 

Twenty years later, there would be only one surviving mutineer on the island, John Adams, who was discovered by an American whaler. He never did tell the same story twice about what had happened, Harrison says. 

He says writing Men Without Country meant having to contend with a myriad of unreliable sources, including Bligh and Adams. 

"So, sitting down to write about this, it doesn’t feel like solid ground at all, and I think that’s just part of the story, it just has to be acknowledged as an element of the story.” 

Harrison says it’s fair to say that most of the mutineers died violently on the island but it unclear whether Fletcher Christian was among the dead or whether he escaped on a passing ship back to England. Adams had said Christian became sick and died a natural death. 

Harrison hoped in writing the book he would get to the bottom of what happen to his ancestor. 

“As I was writing the book, I did feel I was getting closer, and I feel like I arrived at an answer that satisfies me but that’s not to say I won’t spend the rest of my life thinking about this because there is no clear answer.” 

Harrison thinks Fletcher Christian probably died on the island though he’s compelled by the stories Fletcher was sighted in Cumbria years later.  

“There was some kind of a massacre that occurred on Pitcairn Island anywhere from a few months to a few years after The Bounty crew members settled the island. It seems to have occurred as a result of inequalities in the little society that they were setting up.” 

When they arrived on the island, the crew members divided it into nine equal portions, one for each mutineer, Harrison says. 

But the nine crew members weren’t the only people onboard The Bounty, having picked up people from the islands they landed at on their way to Pitcairn. Harrison says the six Polynesian men on the island were treated as second class, with no land of their own, and the twelve Polynesian women were treated by the men in some cases as sexual commodities. 

It's a story so ambiguous that we’re always tempted to cast a hero and a villain, Harrison says.  

“The abiding mystery about Fletcher Christian is why he left this lasting impression on history and why that will continue,” he says. 

“Along with the mystique of Fletcher Christian and the mutineers who had disappeared off the face of the Earth, there was also the mystique of the Pacific itself, because Europeans at that time had a very romantic idea of the Pacific and the island that were in it, so the story became bound up in those romantic ideas - and it still is.”