PITCAIRN: An expedition, a clash of wills — then mutiny

Sunday, August 22, 1999
Page 1A

An expedition, a clash of wills – then mutiny


More than 20,000 islands dot the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Most are uninhabited. Many support a few hundred or thousand people, but manage to go unnoticed by the outside world.

It’s an accident of history that Pitcairn got noticed, as the answer to one of the world’s great mysteries: Where did Fletcher Christian disappear to after the mutiny on the Bounty?

The story began in 1787, four years after the end of the American Revolution. When Britain lost the 13 colonies, it lost the major source of food for its slave plantations in the Caribbean. The slaves were usually fed corn from the colonies, and with an independent United States, British officials needed to find some other way to feed their chattel.

Sir Joseph Banks, a botanist who had visited the South Pacific on the voyages of Captain Cook, thought he had the solution. On Tahiti, he said, bread grows from trees: brownish-green fruit the size of a man’s head. If roasted and its pulp sliced off, it produces a fibrous mass that looks and tastes something like dough, or an overcooked potato. A single tree could produce more than a hundred of the fruit in a year’s time, with no labor involved.

The Tahitians called the plant ‘uru. The British called it breadfruit and decided to plant it throughout the Caribbean.

Back in London, the Royal Navy decided to send a vessel to Tahiti to bring back hundreds of seedlings. It selected a 90-foot ship named the Bethia, the navy renamed it the Bounty and gave 33-year-old William Bligh command.

Bligh had never led an expedition, but he had fared well under Captain Cook in the South Pacific. He was a brilliant navigator, an expert mapmaker, and a man of courage and energy.

But he had one great flaw: he belittled his men with a vigor that would make a drill sergeant blanch. His men were always scoundrels, rascals, hellhounds, beasts, and wretches. Phrases like “insufferable disgrace,” “incompetent mongrel,” and “vile, shameful rogue,” tripped off his tongue with ease.

Bligh was not physically cruel; indeed, his men came under the whip less frequently than on other British ships of the period. His weapon was humiliation. He attacked a man’s honor, not his body.

When he assembled his crew for the Bounty, Bligh requested that a young gentleman named Fletcher Christian, aged 23, be added to his band. Christian had sailed alongside Bligh on two previous voyages, and his family had been friendly with Bligh’s.

The Bounty set sail in December, 1787, headed for Cape Horn, on South America’s tip. But the crew faced some of the most punishing weather ever seen by European sailors: raging winds out of the west, huge seas, blowing ice and snow. Bligh tried for 29 days to round the cape but eventually gave up and decided to go all the way around the world: across the South Atlantic, around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean, around Australia, and up into the Pacific.

On Oct. 26, 1788, the weary sailors finally reached Tahiti. For grimy, exhausted lower-class men, 10 months and 27,086 miles from their squalid homes, it must have been heaven: green mountains swallowed in clouds, endless black sand beaches, emerald lagoons.

The Tahitian women of that era had a very free sexuality, and the sailors were more than happy to take advantage. Soon, each was associated with an island man and had free access to his wife.

Bligh had hoped to spend only a few weeks on Tahiti, but the October arrival made it difficult to transfer the breadfruit seedlings into pots to be taken to the Caribbean. The Bounty stayed at anchor five months.

During that time, the men became accustomed to the pace and luxuries of Tahitian life. Several, including Christian, got tattoos and became part of island families. They did not look forward to returning to Bligh’s seagoing manner.

By the time the Bounty set sail again, on April 4, Bligh was in a nasty mood. First, after a failed attempt to get water from the island of Nomuka, Bligh spit a string of insults at Christian, calling him a “cowardly rascal” for retreating from “a set of naked savages while he had arms.”

Christian was a man of noble heritage. He was descended from 25 generations of aristocracy; among his cousins were three members of Parliament and two bishops. One did not call a gentleman a cowardly rascal without consequences.

Two days later, Bligh suspected that one of his coconuts had been stolen. Blinded by anger, he quizzed each of his officers on how many coconuts they possessed. When Christian said he didn’t know how many, Bligh erupted:

“You damned hound! You must have stolen them from me. . . . Goddamn you, you scoundrels, you are all thieves alike, and combine with the men to rob me! I suppose you’ll steal my yams next! But I’ll sweat you for it, you rascals – I’ll make half of you jump overboard!”

He cut the food and grog rations for all the men.

Christian was losing his mind. He could not handle being belittled so; although Bligh actually had treated Christian better than the other officers, Christian could not take the constant verbal abuse.

That night, he was delusional; he had to escape. He tried building a raft from a few spare planks of wood, which would have been suicidal. Then he decided that if someone would be leaving the Bounty, it would not be him.

In the British navy, the punishment for mutiny was simple: hanging. But Christian’s mind so whirled with confusion, bruised honor, and rage that he was ready to risk the punishment.

He wasn’t the first Christian to rebel. His great-great-grandfather, William, was executed for leading a rebellion against British authority on the Isle of Man. And just a few months before the Bounty sailed, Fletcher Christian’s brother, Charles, took part in a failed mutiny on board the Middlesex. (The Middlesex was a private vessel, so Charles did not face hanging.)

Christian slept little that night; he was drinking. His head felt “on fire.” Just before sunrise, he and three other men broke into Bligh’s cabin, tied his hands behind his back, dragged him to the deck, and threatened to kill him.

Christian was beside himself; he kept yelling, “I am in hell! I am in hell!” He readied the ship’s launch, a 23-foot open boat, and ordered Bligh and 18 of his allies into it.

The open boat was designed to hold no more than 15 men, and then only for short distances. Christian threw a few days’ provisions into the launch; with the added weight, the waterline was only seven inches below the top. Then Christian, concluding his bloodless mutiny, ordered the boat to leave. A few of the mutineers, laughing, threw potted breadfruit at the launch as it wandered away.

Whatever historians say of Bligh, they agree he was one of the world’s great navigators. For 48 days, Bligh and his men traveled 3,618 miles to Dutch East India, in present day Indonesia.

For most of the trip, the men faced a steady, cold rain, forcing them to constantly bail out their little vessel. They faced canoes full of cannibals and the constant threat of starvation. Bligh set rations : one twenty-fifth pound of bread and a quarter-pint of water daily. When he felt generous, he added a half-ounce of pork and a teaspoonful of rum.

Bligh and most of the others in the launch eventually made their way to England. His first task when he arrived home: outfitting a new ship, the Providence, to return to Tahiti to pick up breadfruit again. He succeeded this time, but in the end, the project was a failure; the slaves in the Caribbean simply refused to eat it, and planters had to search for another way to feed them.

Meanwhile, Christian and the Bounty wandered the South Pacific, looking for a safe harbor. He tried the island of Tubuai but was attacked by natives. He returned to Tahiti to drop off a few mutineers longing for the feminine comforts they had known there.

Then, one night at Tahiti, Christian held a party for Tahitian women on the Bounty. In the middle of the night, he cut the anchor cord to set the boat adrift, kidnapping the women. He knew that he could not form a new society without women, and if he had to take them by trickery, so be it. He set sail again, looking for a place to start anew.

Four months later, he found Pitcairn.

Pitcairn never became the paradise Christian hoped for.

Physically, it was near perfect. What arable land there was threw off food like magic; everything grew with ease. A steady stream was christened Brown’s Water; with timber torn off the Bounty, they were able to build homes.

More important, it was far away from just about everywhere else. Pitcairn is 4,000 miles from Chile to the east, 3,300 from New Zealand to the west. Head north from Pitcairn and you won’t hit land until Alaska; south, and you’ll end up in Antarctica. And Christian had discovered that Pitcairn was mismarked on British naval maps. Even if someone actively looked for it, they would find themselves 200 miles off.

The mutineers had enough faith in their new home that, on Jan. 23, 1790, they cut the final cord connecting them to the outside world. They set fire to the Bounty.

For a few years, their experiment went smoothly. But eventually tensions built between the mutineers and the six Polynesian men they had taken with them, from Tubuai and Tahiti. Nine white men and 12 Tahitian women lived on Pitcairn; each mutineer took a woman for himself, and the six Polynesian men had to share the three remaining. The white men treated the Polynesians as servants, refusing to give them any land .

Eventually, the conflict over women, land, and race led to bloodshed. First, Christian, fearing rebellion, ordered two of the Polynesians murdered by their countrymen. Three years later, the four remaining Polynesian men rose up and killed five mutineers – including Christian – and one of their own. Then the mutineers killed the three remaining Polynesian men.

By October, 1793, 11 of the 15 men on the island had been murdered. And the islanders weren’t done. In 1798, William McCoy, an old brewery worker from Glasgow, figured out how to distill liquor from the root of the ti plant. Soon everyone on the island was living in a drunken stupor, and McCoy, driven mad by his liquor, tied a stone around his neck and flung himself off a cliff.

One of the three men left, Matthew Quintal, had a reputation as a hothead. When he drunkenly promised to kill all of Fletcher Christian’s children, the two other men chopped him up with an ax.

In December, 1800, Ned Young’s asthma caused the first natural death of any of the island men, leaving only one mutineer, John Adams. A London orphan raised in a poorhouse, Adams had next to no education, other than rudimentary reading and writing Young had taught him before he died.

Having previously deserted from a ship, he had set sail on the Bounty under an assumed name, Alexander Smith. But to all of the 23 mutineer children he helped raise, he was simply “Father.”

Using the Bounty’s Bible, Adams taught his flock a somewhat misguided version of Christianity. For example, he misunderstood the concept of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and had the Pitcairners fast every Wednesday and Friday, leading to a few fainting spells.

But he managed to gentle a previously murderous community. With the women sick of violence and children ready to be taught, Adams taught them all to get along. The land produced plenty of food and little reason for conflict.

In 1808, an American sealer ship named the Topaz passed by Pitcairn. Its captain, Mayhew Folger, was surprised to see smoke rising from the island, which was marked “uninhabited” on his charts. He was more surprised to see an outrigger canoe approach.

He was stunned when the “natives” spoke to him in English.

After a few stunned moments of conversation, Folger agreed to come ashore to meet John Adams. They traded information. Folger told Adams about the French Revolution and Napoleon. Adams told Folger about the murders and his hopes for a future on the island.

Folger stayed on the island only 10 hours. Most important for Adams – who feared he would be taken back to Britain and hanged – Folger was convinced Adams had done penance for his crime. As he wrote in his log:

“To do them Justice, I think them a very humane and hospitable people, and whatever may have been the Errors or Crimes of Smith the Mutineer in times Back, he is at present in my opinion a worthy man and may be useful to Navigators who traverse this immense ocean.”

Folger tried to inform the British navy about his discovery, but the navy never responded to his letters. When he died in 1828, in Massillon, O., Folger had not achieved fame, but he knew he had solved the greatest maritime mystery of his time.