Fletcher Christian earned himself a footnote in history as the leader of the Mutiny on the Bounty and also as the “father of his nation”, if the word “nation” is appropriate for the remote and tiny community that continues to this day on Pitcairn Island in the Pacific Ocean.
He was born on 25th September 1764 in Cockermouth, Cumberland. He was the seventh of ten children born to a well-to-do merchant and his wife.
After receiving a good education Fletcher Christian enrolled as a midshipman in the Royal Navy in 1783. He sailed to India on board the “Eurydice”, returning in 1785 having been promoted to acting lieutenant.
In 1786-7 he sailed twice to the West Indies under the command of Captain William Bligh. The two men became good friends, and Christian was therefore very willing to serve as master’s mate to Bligh when the latter took charge of HMS Bounty in December 1787 on a voyage to Tahiti to collect breadfruit plants. Bligh was later to remind Christian that they been on excellent terms at one time and that Christian had played with Bligh’s children while enjoying his hospitality.
There has been much debate about the causes of the mutiny, depending on whose testimony one chooses to trust. It does, however, appear that William Bligh was inconsistent in his behaviour and lacked “man management” skills. There is some evidence to suggest that Bligh had a habit of blaming others for any setback that was encountered and that he was over-critical of the officers on board, including Fletcher Christian.
When the ship reached Tahiti, Christian allied himself with a group of sailors who had become increasingly dissatisfied with life on board ship. They had been well received by the local Tahitians, especially the women, and a number of them were much keener on staying put than on continuing their voyage.Credit: 1790 painting by Robert Dodd (1748-1815). Public domain artwork
The mutiny took place on 28th April 1789. Fletcher Christian was in charge of the group of sailors who overpowered Captain Bligh and set him and 18 loyal officers and crew adrift in a ship’s boat.
It is not known whether Fletcher Christian expected Captain Bligh to survive, although he did so only due to a remarkable feat of seamanship and considerable good luck, but the mutineers knew that, whatever Bligh’s fate, they were now criminals who could expect no mercy if they were ever caught.
After the Mutiny
Their first thought was to sail back to Tahiti, where some of the mutineers expected the same welcome they had had before. They looked forward to settling down with Tahitian wives and spending the rest of their lives there.
However, the Tahitian king was horrified at what had happened and had no intention of providing a refuge to the mutineers. He knew full well what his own fate would be if the Royal Navy came looking for HMS Bounty, which was quite likely to happen.
Although some of the mutineers did settle on Tahiti, Christian and the core mutineers, together with their new wives, set sail again in full knowledge that their survival depended on finding somewhere that was so remote that they stood very little chance of ever being found.
That place was the Pitcairn Island group. These four widely spaced islands are more than three hundred miles from anywhere else that is populated (the Gambier Islands) and more than three thousand miles from both New Zealand to the west and South America to the east.
Once the mutineers had settled here they were safe enough from discovery. They arrived in 1790 and did not spot another ship for five years. It was not until 1808 that the islanders would see another human being other than themselves. However, by that time the Pitcairn community was very different from how it had been originally.
One of the first acts of the mutineers, led by Fletcher Christian, was to burn HMS Bounty, thus ensuring that none of them would ever leave the island. With no escape from their new prison – Pitcairn, the only inhabited island, is just over two miles across – they had to create a new society from scratch and find ways to stay alive.
In some ways they were successful, given that there is still a small community of descendants on Pitcairn to this day, but they soon gave way to infighting that led to murder and mayhem. By 1801 only one of the original mutineers, John Adams, was still alive. Fletcher Christian probably died violently in about 1793, but there is no certainty about this.
Assessing Fletcher Christian’s Character
There have been various accounts of Fletcher Christian’s nature and character, some of them being diametrically opposed to others! Some people who knew him described him as a kind, cheerful man, whereas he was also described as being morose and a tyrannical bully. Given the closed and remote location in which he lived his last days it is impossible to know the truth.
One can imagine that, on reflection, Fletcher Christian must have had mixed feelings about how things turned out. Leading the mutiny probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but did he really think through all the consequences? It seems unlikely that he could have done so, unless he actually believed that he could get away with defying the Royal Navy in such a way. If that is so, one has to wonder whether if his mental state was all it might have been.