CAPTAIN BLIGH: a nice guy, once you get to know him
San Francisco — With these fuming, final words to chief mutineer Fletcher Christian, the notorious Captain William Bligh and 18 other seamen were lowered over the side of HMS Bounty and set adrift in an open boat. Christian, the master's mate and second-in-command, had chosen to risk the penalty for mutiny -- death by hanging -- rather than tolerate another day of Bligh's cruel tyranny at the helm.
This bloodless mutiny in the South Pacific in 1789 has become one of the most celebrated events in naval history, and over the last two centuries has provided romantic grist for novelists, historians, and film makers alike. Three movies have been made about the Bounty. (At the moment, David Lean, director of "Lawrence of Arabia," is at work on a fourth in New Zealand, where shipbuilders have constructed a replica of the famous English transport ship -- the second such replica built for the movies.) Almost every year a new book is published on the mutiny.
Yet while every wicked wrinkle in Bligh's character has been explored in print, surprisingly little is known about the dark-haired, 24-year-old who led the mutiny. No definitive biography of Fletcher Christian has ever been published, and the prevailing picture is a Hollywood hybrid of Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, and Marlon Brando -- all of whom played Christian on the silver screen.
For the last two years, however, British restauranteur Glynn Christian -- Fletcher Christian's great-great-great-great grandson -- has been researching a biography he says contains the final word on his rebellious ancestor. This July he plans to retrace the voyage of the Bounty from Tahiti to Pitcairn Island (some of the mutineers eventually settled on both islands), and bring back the remaining pieces of the Fletcher Christian puzzle.
Ancestry aside, Glynn Christian seems an unlikely leader of such an expedition. A writer of cookbooks and owner of two London gourmet delicatessens called "Mr. Christian's," he is a refined New Zealand-born gentleman who loves the sea but has never made a lengthy sailing voyage and openly confesses he cannot swim a stroke.
Nevertheless, with his book advances he has hired a 94-foot steel-hulled brigantine, and has enlisted the support of Britain's Royal Geographic Society. The expedition has been officially christened "The Sir John Barrow Commemorative Expedition to Observe the 150th Anniversary of the Royal Geographic Society." Barrow was an authority on Bounty matters.
No doubt the expedition will be more successful than its inauspicious bon voyage party here in San Francisco recently. Ocean Voyages, the Sausalito-based yacht-chartering firm which specializes in "participatory sailing" and is providing the brigantine Taiyo for Christian's pilgrimage to the South Pacific, had invited the local press to inspect the ship, meet the four-member crew and have a sneak-preview sail around the bay.
It was a slow news day in San Francisco, and a gaggle of photographers, reporters, and television crews flocked to the St. Francis Yacht Club around noon one gusty day in pursuit of what one cameraman sized up as a "nice soft feature to brighten up the evening news." Unfortunately, the press -- and the Taiyo -- were left high and dry, literally. The crew had neglected to consult the tide schedule, and the graceful brigantine got stuck in the mud at a dock near the yacht club entrance.
For the next three hours, the marooned press corps -- an assembly of landlubbers in neckties and street shoes -- was ordered by the Taiyo crew to run en masse from one side of the deck to the other, from port to starboard, stern to bow, in an attempt to rock the boat loose. Giggling tourists gathered on the dock to photograph reporters half-heartedly hauling on a bow line. All the while a man in a chocolate brown suit frantically paced on shore shouting: "You're sitting on top of my sewer line!"
Had Captain Bligh been aboard he would doubtless have tongue-lashed the nearest anchor man. Nevertheless, the Taiyo's skipper, Terry Purkiss, a bearded Brit who has logged 200,000 miles at sea in the last 14 years, remained remarkably calm.
"Guess we'll just have to wait for the moon," said Purkiss, referring to high tide at 7:00 that evening. It was now 3:45 p.m. and the press corps had begun a slow desertion over the side -- back to deadlines and typewriters.
Glynn Christian was not on board that day; he plans to join the Taiyo in Tahiti and sail on July 2 to Tubuai and Pitcairn. But Glynn's second cousin, Arthur Munro Christian, was there to represent the clan.
Arthur is an airline pilot who lives in Tiburon, a 25-minute drive north of downtown San Francisco. When he isn't flying 737s, he's researching his roots. According to his embossed business card, Arthur is a historiographer from the "HMS Bounty Society, International, Pitcairn Island, Norfolk Island, Australia, United Kingdom, United States of America."
It is hard to imagine anyone who cultivates his family tree more seriously.
Arthur's father, Sanford Christian, was Fletcher's great-great grandson and was born in the South Pacific on Norfolk Island, where the majority of the mutineers' descendents settled in 1856 after leaving Pitcairn. Today on Norfolk there are 1,600 permanent residents, most of them with surnames like Christian, McCoy, Quintal, Adams, and Young.
According to Arthur Christian, the modern-day inhabitants of Norfolk and Pitcairn would just as soon forget their infamous ancestors. "The islanders don't talk about the Bounty," said Arthur, standing next to the mast of the Taiyo in a blue turtleneck and safari jacket. "They're afraid others will think of them as the children of gangsters. My mother was married to my father for four years before she discovered he was related to Fletcher Christian."
Regrettably, it turned out his father knew very little of the family's history. He had always been afraid to ask. "I had to start my research from scratch," says Arthur.
While Glynn Christian has set out to write a best seller, Arthur's goals are more modest and personal. He has been researching the Christian family and Bounty history "off and on" for nearly 25 years, and wants to collect the family papers and memorabilia in an archive and museum on Norfolk Island. "At the moment, the documents are scattered from Sydney's Mitchell Library and the Australian Archives to England's Public Records Office, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and various English parishes where families of the mutineers lived. The Bounty's cauldron is in someone's house on Norfolk Island, and now you have to knock on the door and ask to see the stewpot."
In addition to getting a book and perhaps a film out of this summer's expedition to the South Pacific, Arthur Christian anticipates his cousin will at last put to rest rumor and speculation about the mysterious 19-year period when the Bounty had, as far as the rest of the world knew, disappeared from the face of the earth.
After putting Bligh overboard in April 1789, some of the mutineers settled in Tahiti. Fletcher Christian and eight others pirated the Bounty some 9,000 miles before landing January 15, 1790, on the uninhabited and improperly charted Pitcairn Island. The Bounty was burned to avoid detection, and its whereabouts went unknown until 1808 when the Topaz, a whaler from Boston, stumbled onto a colony of women, children -- and John Adams, the only surviving mutineer on the island.
Each of the nine mutineers had taken a Tahitian wife to lonely Pitcairn. Three additional native women were taken along to be shared among six native men who ended up acting as the mutineers' servants. Historians speculate that bickering broke out over a shortage of women and the men, with the exception of Adams, killed each other off. Fletcher Christian is known to have fathered three children on Pitcairn, but whether he actually died on the island or escaped by boat or raft back to England (as one romantic tale has it), is still a mystery.
Peter Heywood, one of the mutineers exonerated at a 1791 navy court-martial in London, claims he saw Fletcher in Portsmouth in 1809, but when he called out the man fled. One theory, says Glynn Christian, is that Fletcher was the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge's poem which told of a sailor wandering the ocean under the curse of an albatross. The English poet Wordsworth was a good friend of the Christian family, and Wordsworth kept close company with Coleridge during the time he was writing "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Some wildly speculate that Wordsworth met Fletcher after he surreptitiously returned to England. When Glynn Christian reaches Pitcairn this summer he will make what he believes to be the first serious search on the island for a common grave which may contain the bones of Fletcher and the other British seamen.
According to Arthur Christian, his cousin's research and voyage are also likely to add a revisionist touch to the character of Captain Bligh (whose actual rank of the time was lieutenant), most often portrayed as a heartless villain.
"I don't think Bligh was a mean man," said Arthur Christian on board the Taiyo. "He was erratic and hard to work for because he gave contradictory orders which had no rhyme nor reason. With him, whichever way you turned, you were wrong. But Bligh could be lenient. And during hard times, storms, and difficulties, he was a champion. When things were running smoothly he lost a grip on himself."
After Bligh was set adrift from the Bounty, he navigated a remarkable 3,618 -mile course to Timor in the East Indies and eventually made it back to England. Of the mutineers who went to Tahiti, three were taken to London and hanged. In 1792, Bligh returned to Tahiti on a voyage that duplicated the Bounty's mission three years before, namely, to transport breadfruit trees to the British West Indies to feed African slaves working the sugar plantations. "After this second voyage," says Arthur Christian, "when Bligh finally docked in England, he was cheered off the ship. I suppose you could take that two ways."
Taiyo skipper Furkiss' own theory about Bligh is that he wasn't tough enough. "Bligh had a sharp tongue but wasn't very strict with flogging," says Furkiss. "You've got to run a boat through respect. Mind you, I'm not like Bligh at all. I don't like interference but I don't mind discussing things with the crew."
While Hollywood has consistently portrayed Fletcher as leading the mutiny against Bligh on behalf of the abused seamen on the Bounty, Glynn Christian says he has evidence to prove the mutiny was a simple case of one strong-willed man (Christian) against another (Bligh).
Much of Glynn Christian's new book, he says, will be based on material he recently found "under a piano" in an English mansion which had been in the Christian family for centuries. There he discovered a cache of letters, documents and family papers dating back 21 generations to around 1380. With the new material and the expedition this summer he hopes to learn the full story of Fletcher Christian. And who knows, he may even learn to swim.