August 26, 2013

Tom Christian, Descendant of Bounty Mutineer, Dies at 77 (MARGALIT FOX,  August 23, 2013, NY Times)

Though Mr. Christian was the world's best-known contemporary Pitcairner, word of his death -- reported in the July issue of The Pitcairn Miscellany, the island's monthly newsletter -- reached a broad audience only this week, when it appeared in newspapers in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

"It takes awhile for news to get out," Ms. Christian said by telephone from Pitcairn on Thursday.

Mr. Christian's death is a window onto colonial history as played out in the South Pacific; onto a storied 18th-century mutiny, which lives on in books and motion pictures; and onto a 21st-century criminal case that made world headlines a decade ago -- a case on which Mr. Christian took a public position, described in the news media as courageous, that led to his ostracism on the island on which he had lived his entire life.

Britain's only remaining territory in the Pacific, the Pitcairn archipelago lies roughly equidistant between Peru and New Zealand, about 3,300 miles from each. It comprises four small islands: Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno. Only Pitcairn Island, named for the sailor who sighted it from a British ship in 1767, is inhabited.

Pitcairn, settled by the mutineers and their Tahitian consorts in 1790, is a rocky speck of about two square miles. (Manhattan, by comparison, is about 24 square miles.) Most of its inhabitants are descended from the mutineers and the Tahitian women they brought with them. [...]

In December 1787, His Majesty's Armed Vessel Bounty left England for Tahiti to collect breadfruit with which to feed slaves on Britain's Caribbean plantations. On April 28, 1789, less than a month into the return voyage, the master's mate, Fletcher Christian, weary of what he described as the bullying of the captain, William Bligh, led crewmen in seizing control of the ship.

Captain Bligh and 18 sympathizers were cast adrift; most, Bligh included, eventually made their way to England. Christian and his men sailed the Bounty to Tubuai, in the Austral Islands, and then back to Tahiti, where some mutineers chose to remain.

Knowing that the British admiralty would scour the seas for him -- and that a court-martial and a hanging would follow -- Christian set sail again with eight of his men, plus a small group of Tahitian men and women. They landed at Pitcairn, then uninhabited, in January 1790. There, to avoid detection, they burned and scuttled the Bounty.

The ship's history was recounted in the popular 1932 novel "Mutiny on the Bounty," by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Hollywood filmed it three times: in 1935, with Charles Laughton as Bligh and Clark Gable as Christian; in 1962, with Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando; and in 1984, with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson.

But what the films did not depict was the mutineers' brutal lives on Pitcairn: by the time an American seal-hunting vessel came across the island in 1808, most of them, including Christian, had been killed in fights with the Tahitian men. [...]

At a talk in London in 2005, he had the joy of catching up with an Englishman he first met in 1971.

That November, a cargo ship on which the Englishman was traveling stopped at Pitcairn and, disembarking, he was introduced to Mr. Christian.

The Englishman was Maurice Bligh, the great-great-great-grandson of Capt. William Bligh.

From that day forward, Mr. Bligh and Mr. Christian were fast friends.

Posted by at August 26, 2013 5:36 AM

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