A good story with a happy ending is always welcome, especially when it’s true. And there are few stories quite like Mutiny on the Bounty, a movie I first saw on Family Classics with Frazier Thomas (Channel 9 on Friday nights during the 1960s; later it moved to Sundays). Charles Laughton vs. Clark Gable, Bligh vs. Christian, one of the great stare-downs of all time.
I was fascinated and read all three books in the trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (Books 2 and 3 are Men Against the Sea and Pitcairn’s Island). Great reads, especially for a boy with a taste for adventure yarns based on actual events. One of my other major fascinations was Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl (my taste in adventure seems to incline toward the open sea).
Likely you know the basic outline of the story: sailing from England in 1787 for Tahiti to collect breadfruit in the East Indies to feed slaves on Caribbean plantations in the West Indies. A three-year trip halfway around the world just to find a food source to feed colonial slaves? Seems bizarre.
But the breadfruit story is interesting in its own right. Discovered by Captain Cook in Tahiti in 1769, members of his crew sang the plant’s praises upon their return to England. One member of the crew, Joseph Banks, eventually convinced mad King George III (of American Revolution infamy) to send an expedition to collect specimens. They chose Captain William Bligh and the aptly named ship, The Bounty, for the task.
Breadfruit, it turns out, is one of the highest-yielding trees on the planet, each one producing up to 450 pounds of fruit per year, each football-sized pod packed with nutrients. The yeasty smell is reminiscent of bread, hence the name. Some people today are touting the fruit as one answer to world hunger. The only problem is, the stuff is terribly bland and most don’t much like the taste. When it was finally introduced to slaves in Jamaica, they refused to eat it. After about 50 years, though, it gradually worked its way into the island’s diet.
The crew of the Bounty spent six months in Tahiti collecting and preparing over a thousand breadfruit specimens for transit. During that extended stay, crew members “went native” and “married” some of the local women. Coming from the rigid class system of 18th century England, imagine how enchanting the Eden-like egalitarian South Sea islands must have been, especially after enduring an oppressive disciplinarian like William Bligh on an all-male ship for a year. So they weren’t exactly thrilled when it came time to leave. And Bligh wasn’t what you would call a morale-minded skipper.
One month into the return voyage (April 1789), the charismatic second in command, Fletcher Christian (great name, by the way), led the famous mutiny, and the breadfruit plants were gleefully tossed overboard, along with the infamous Captain Bligh, who was set adrift with 17 loyalists in a longboat. Can’t recall if the mutineers gave them any breadfruit for the voyage, but 41 days and 5,000 miles later, they landed on Timor, a Dutch island, without losing a single crew member.
Inspector Javert in Les Miserables had nothing on Bligh, who would not rest until the mutineers were brought to justice. In other words, this ranks as one of the bitterest fallings-out in maritime history.
Christian, realizing the never-never-never-give-up determination of his nemesis, and the British admiralty in general, realized he and his co-conspirators would have to go somewhere remarkably obscure and forbidding if they wanted to escape the all-seeing eye of Her Majesty’s ships.
That place was Pitcairn Island, a rocky, inhospitable outcropping halfway between Peru and New Zealand — a long way from anything. If you want to get away from it all, this is where you’d go. The mutineers crashed their ship onto the rocks, burned it and lived out their lives with their Tahitian wives and some Tahitian men who tagged along.
It didn’t go well. By 1808 when an American ship first made contact, most of the mutineers were dead, including Christian, killed by the Tahitians or the hard life that tested them. Not to second-guess them but these fugitives from justice probably weren’t thinking very clearly at the time. They should have brought along some breadfruit trees.
All in all, a sad story.
But not the end of the story. Two-hundred and twenty-three years later, 51 descendants of Fletcher Christian and his shipmates still live on Pitcairn Island. Used to be 52 descendants, but Tom Christian just died at the age of 77. His obituary was carried in the New York Times on Aug. 23.
The great-great-great grandson of Fletcher Christian was an interesting fellow. He became the “voice of Pitcairn,” running the radio station and, until a stroke did him in, was Pitcairn’s ambassador to the outside world. A ham radio enthusiast, he was, along with the late King Hussein of Jordan (curiouser and curiouser), the world’s most popular ham radio operator, each of them reaching an estimated 100,000 listeners.
But as strange as all that sounds, it doesn’t come close to the final twist.
In 1971, a cargo ship stopped at Pitcairn Island, carrying an Englishman named Maurice Bligh, the great-great-great-grandson of Captain Bligh. That must have been some visit and some meeting. Better than Stanley and Livingstone.
As the Times obituary put it, “From that day forward, Mr. Bligh and Mr. Christian were fast friends.” Mr. Christian, in fact, visited Mr. Bligh as recently as 2005 on a trip to England.
If not a happy ending, at least a happier one.
Two centuries later, the unlikeliest of reconciliations. I wonder what their famous forbears would say. Bill Bligh might even crack a smile.
Never doubt the healing power of time — and possibly breadfruit.