Glynn Christian says he did not set out to prove that Capt. William Bligh was a blackguard and Fletcher Christian a paragon of self-control--but then, great-great-great-great-grandsons will be great-great-great-great-grandsons.
The current Mr. Christian, who reports on food for the BBC in London, is a direct descendant of the mutineer of the Bounty. He has just completed three years of research on his own heritage, including a 10-week sailing voyage to Pitcairn Island during which he "saved a mutiny, rather than starting one."
Along the way he plunged deep into the Bounty-Pitcairn history (more than 2,500 books, articles and testimony), raised and spent £40,000 (about $63,000), found out a great deal about Fletcher Christian, and, he says, about himself. "These high cheekbones of mine are Polynesian."
HMS Bounty, it is well known, set off for Tahiti in 1787 to collect breadfruit, a Polynesian wonder plant touted as the perfect cheap food for West Indian slaves. Two weeks into the return voyage, however, the 24-year-old second in command, Fletcher Christian, seized control of the vessel. He and a handful of mutineers put Capt. Bligh and 18 loyal crewmen in a 23-foot open boat, abandoned them and sailed off into a 20-year oblivion. Bligh, left to his doom, sailed 4,000 miles to safety and revenge. After returning to England, he saw several mutineers brought to trial, made a second breadfruit voyage and eventually became governor of New South Wales (a state in Australia). Meanwhile, Christian, some Tahitian women and remaining elements of the mutineers had repaired to the mischarted isle of Pitcairn, where the men, inspired by jealousy and drunkenness, systematically murdered each other. When the island was rediscovered 20 years later, it was mostly populated by mixed-blood teen-agers.
As for the breadfruit--the slaves thought it tasted awful, and wouldn't eat it.
Glynn Christian was a 9-year-old in the Owairaka Primary School in Auckland, New Zealand, when he learned from his family his own blood ran through this remarkable tale. He says it changed his life: "I was small, skinny and shy, and I didn't like to play football. The Clark Gable 'Mutiny on the Bounty' had just been re-released, and suddenly I could go around saying, 'Hmmmm! How many people in your family have had films made about them!' "
Naturally he wanted to know more. Was Fletcher Christian the thin-skinned, impertinent pirate of long assumption? Or was he Clark Gable's ill-fated romantic hero of MGM in 1935, rebelling against the unspeakable tyranny of a Charles Laughton Bligh? Was he Marlon Brando in the 1962 remake, foppish but intolerably impugned by Trevor Howard?
"Neither of those films is very accurate," Christian said, "although the Brando character is likely closer to the truth. The biggest lie in either was Bligh. Laughton made him physically cruel, which he wasn't. Bligh emasculated people with his tongue. My aim was definitely not to defend Fletcher Christian, but to find out the truth about him. I was very careful in my criticism of Bligh."
Here is Glynn Christian, in his just-published "Fragile Paradise: Fletcher Christian of HMS Bounty," assaying his ancestor a moment after Fletcher has deposed his sharp-tongued captain:
". . . Although acting illegally, Fletcher Christian demonstrated himself to be a man of self-control and a firm supporter of accepted norms of conduct. It was Bligh who was out of control . . ."
Self control? Accepted norms of conduct? Bligh out of control?
"Frankly that's an attack on another 'Bounty' author," Christian explained. "Fletcher Christian has many times been accused of not being in control of himself. But think about it: The precedent for murdering Bligh was great. What Christian did was bloodless."
Here is Bligh in the launch, observed by Glynn Christian:
". . . The launch slowly filled with men and possessions; only Bligh took most of his. Bligh's selfish gathering of unnecessary bits and pieces was a major contributary factor to the boat's overloading, discomfort and subsequent danger to its passengers."
Bligh's "gathering of unnecessary bits and pieces" was a major factor in the danger to the passengers? Wasn't Fletcher Christian rather more a major factor by putting 19 men off into a rowboat in mid-Pacific?
"Well," Glynn Christian responds, "Bligh had several chests and personal papers that he insisted on taking. I understand that he needed some of them to establish his identity when he reached shore. On the other hand, if Bligh were as humane and wondrous as his supporters said . . . well, there could've been a middle ground."
Later, when the mutineers called at the Island of Tubuai, Christian ordered the ship's four-pounder fired at point-blank range at Polynesians armed only with spears. Eleven men and women died. This incident, Glynn Christian relates, has been "twisted" by modern authors into "a sustained and malicious attack on Christian."
" The deaths were remarkably few," he corrects, "considering grapeshot had been fired into the open canoes at very close quarters. Was Fletcher Christian being bad tempered or undisciplined in firing at the Tubuaians? With so few men aboard, Bounty was extremely vulnerable and survival was more important than relationships with unfriendly people. There were no guidelines on making initial contacts with Pacific islanders."
If this analysis of Christian's behavior seems, let us say, generous, Glynn Christian's interpretation of William Bligh's behavior is less so. Bligh, he declares, was a coward.
"He was a coward, and the best evidence was that he didn't punish his men. He had actually hoped, he said himself, to complete the voyage to Tahiti without ordering even one lashing. But a captain who didn't punish was showing weakness. Bligh was simply afraid that his men wouldn't like him."
But coward? Is that quite the word? After all, Bligh did take that open launch 4,000 miles, never faltering in the face of desperate odds.
"In the context of the 18th century he was. That's the way you have to look at it. I've been very fair to Captain Bligh. In foul weather, he was very good. Otherwise, he was a coward, although a spirited one."
From the evidence of Glynn Christian, Fletcher was an aristocratic young man driven to mutiny by insufferable taunts from Bligh, his former mentor, sponsor and neighbor on the Isle of Man. Among Manxmen, the Christian family name was a royal one, even if Fletcher's widowed mother was bankrupt; Bligh, on the other hand, had been signed to the navy at the age of 7. The one was a fallen, prideful aristocrat; the other, a prideful officer determined to rise in the naval meritocracy.
They might have been political allies. But then Bligh had to go and accuse Christian of stealing his coconuts. Glynn Christian relates:
"Fletcher Christian, behaving like the gentleman he thought Bligh to be, was deeply wounded. "I hope you don't think me to be so mean as to be guilty of stealing yours?"
To which Bligh responded, "Yes, you damned hound, I do--you must have stolen them from me or you could give a better account of them."
In another version--all this comes from testimony at the trial of the mutineers--Bligh is to have said to Christian: "Damn your blood you have stolen my coconuts!"
To which Christian answered: "I was dry, I thought it of no consequence. I took one only and I am sure no one touched another . . ."
"You lie, you scoundrel . . .!" was Bligh's rejoinder.
This sort of thing really got Fletcher Christian's goat. If so, what a remarkably sensitive fellow he was. Too sensitive, perhaps, for the sea trade.
Glynn Christian's portrait of Fletcher Christian amounts, in the main, to a confirmation of the Nordhoff & Hall historical novel, "Mutiny on the Bounty."
What disappointed Glynn Christian was that he still has no authentic likeness of Fletcher. For that, the world still relies on Bligh's unflattering report, penned while adrift in the launch and clearly intended for use on a "wanted" poster: "Fletcher Christian, aged 24 years, 5 feet 9 inches High. Complexion--dark & very swarthy. Hair--blackish or very dark brown. Marks--star tatowed on left breast and . . . on the backside. His knees stands a little out and may be called a little bow-legged. He is subject to violent perspiration & particularly in the hands so that he soils anything he handles."
Now we return with Glynn Christian, former delicatessen owner, television authority on vegetables and author of the shopping guide, "Getting Fresh With Glynn Christian," as he follows Fletcher Christian's wake to Pitcairn. He has put together a crew of 15, among them an est graduate, a half-Iranian actress, a Vietnam veteran and a 15-year-old boy. Dogged by fund-raising problems, he finally charters a 90-foot sailing vessel for 10 weeks. As the expedition leaves Papeete for Pitcairn, Glynn Christian prepares to meet his ancestor's memory on native grounds . . .
"The vessel was a miscrocosm of today's life, really," Christian recalled. "I noticed that after two weeks, the length of a normal holiday, people started to get on each other's nerves. That's when I learned to be kind to Bligh, who was criticized for the quality of the food on the Bounty.
"As the voyage began, I was a mental, physical and psychological wreck. My research wasn't done, I had just barely raised the money and I had actually packed for the voyage in half an hour. And then we had our own near-mutiny.
"The problem was the food. We had one girl to cook three meals a day for 15 people, seven days a week. It was by far the hardest job, which I simply hadn't anticipated. You have to have been on a vessel to appreciate the importance of meals. Things just rather came to a head. In Tahiti harbor, for example, it was 90 degrees and we were being served hot potato pancakes. In Bora Bora, where all around us there were coconuts and pineapples free for the picking, the cook served pork and beans. The crew was going to walk off the ship because of the food. That was when I agreed to cook every other day, and that eased things and saved the mutiny."
The voyage to Pitcairn, where he was welcomed by his relatives, and the emotional trek among the icons of his own Tahitian great-great-great-great-grandmother, and seeing the house of Thursday October Christian (Fletcher's son, who later changed his name to Friday) had a remarkable effect on the author.
"I felt suddenly at home. I did very well--on the boat I was the only one who wasn't seasick. When I heard the music of the islands, it moved something deep inside of me. I felt I had come home. I learned a great deal about myself. If I'd turned out to be a . . . what do we call it now? . . . a wimp, if I'd been tired, or unhappy, or unwell, I'd have had doubts. But I loved it!"
Glynn Christian came away convinced that his great-great-great-great-grandfather is a "hero of protest" whose story is immortal. "But I really discovered much more than that," he says. "I discovered that I have more than the blood of Fletcher Christian in me. I am his true descendant. I know now that his weaknesses and strengths are also mine. And I am certain I would have done as Fletcher Christian did."
Fletcher, however, remained in the South Seas forever. Glynn has returned to London, and a new job as food reporter for the brand-new "Breakfast Time" program of the BBC. Was it an easy choice, leaving Pitcairn for modern life?
"Oh, show me a slice of papaya and I still go mad. But Fletcher Christian would've come home if he could. Were I to decide to take up his true destiny, I should go and take my place as the rightful ruler of the Isle of Man."