The Mutiny - a 222-year-old cold case solved

When I was a boy, and first heard about the Mutiny, I was told the reason for it was the charms of the Tahitian ladies. And that Bligh, the captain of the Bounty was a tyrant, and that he was over fond of the use of the lash.

If that was the case then why did Fletcher Christian sign on in the first place, as he would have known exactly what Bligh was like, having been on two long voyages to the West Indies with him under his command before? If the lure of the Tahitian ladies was so great, then why did he wait 23 days after leaving Tahiti to mutiny?

Fletcher Christian was 24 years old at the time of the mutiny. Bligh had made him an acting lieutenant earlier; the Admiralty would have promoted him to full lieutenant when he got back to England. He came from a respectable family that lived on the Isle of Man. The family had good connections with the powers that be. Fletcher was after all six years younger than Admiral Lord Nelson. He could have had a fantastic career in the navy, and who knows he could have become a national hero.

No, there has to be some other reason for it.

The Bounty left England two days before Christmas 1787, its mission was to collect breadfruit plants in Tahiti and take them to the West Indies. So the African slaves there would have something to eat.

Earlier that same year in May the first fleet left for Australia. One of the 11 ships was the Lady Penryhn carrying female convicts, also on board was Lieutenant John Watts.

The first fleet arrived at Port Jackson which is now called Sydney on 26 January 1788. Lady Penryhn after unloading left on 5th of May 1788 with the intentions of sailing to China and picking up a cargo of tea to take back to England via the Horn.

They arrived in Tahiti about the middle of July, suffering badly from scurvy and John Watts reports in his log that a great number of natives had been carried off by the venereal disease. This was his second visit to the Island. So he should know.

The first ship to visit Tahiti was the Dolphin under the command of Samuel Wallis in 1767. Next was a French ship under the command of Louis Bougainville in 1768. Then Cook in 1769 on Endeavour, and the Resolution in 1775 and 1777. William Bligh was sailing master and John Watts was a midshipman on this last voyage of James Cook.

Three months or so after Lady Penryhn left Tahiti the Bounty arrived. This is how Bligh described the women of Tahiti.

“They are handsome, mild and cheerful in their manners and conversation. Possessed of great sensibility and have sufficient delicacy to make them admired and beloved. They were also by European standards not only very beautiful, but sexually uninhibited and experienced in ways that amazed their English visitors. Even the mouths are not exempt from the pollution and many others as uncommon ways have they of gratifying their beastly inclinations.”

Many of Bounty’s crew formed attachments with the native Tahitian girls; five at least had children born there. Fletcher Christian had a girlfriend her name was Mauatua Maimiti Mainmast Isabella.

Bounty spent about six months there and left on the 5th of April. Loaded up with 1015 breadfruit plants. The mutiny was on the 28th.

Bligh and 18 others were cast adrift in the Bounty’s launch leaving 25 remaining on board. They then set sail to find a new home. They found Tubuai and tried to settle there, it wasn’t a success. A collective decision was made to return to Tahiti. When the Bounty arrived back 16 went ashore. The Bounty then left with Fletcher Christian and eight other mutineers, some natives, and Mauatua on board to find a new home.

Christian had found on Bligh’s charts Pitcairn Island. But when they got to the position marked on the chart, it wasn’t there. They eventually found it 180 miles west of where it was wrongly charted. It was the 15th of January 1790. Mauatua and Fletcher landed with their three months old new born son. His name was Thursday October Christian.

There were five Thursdays in October 1789. So for argument sake let’s pick the first one, the 1st. Pregnancies are 40 weeks, so copulation was on 25th December 1788. That’s two months after the Bounty arrived. What a Christmas present he gave her, and she him of course. There was no such thing as condoms in those days. When Mauatua realised she was pregnant, she refused to have any more sex with Fletcher. He didn’t have to look very far for someone else.

Books I’ve read state that Thursday was born on Pitcairn Island in 1790. But I dispute this because Fletcher isn’t going to wait 14 months to have sex with Mauatua. That’s just not on.
The first to discover the mutineers’ hide-away was the American ship Topaz in February 1808. Only one of the mutineers was still alive then John Adams. The Topaz captain Mayhew Folger states in his log that the children on the island ranged between one week and 18 years old. If Thursday was born in 1790 as the books claim, he would have been only 17 then.

Captain William Bligh.The Bounty left Tahiti on the 5th of April. Bligh says that Christian had to be treated for ‘venereals’ in Tahiti. He doesn’t say what that treatment was, but I think it involved a syringe and mercury. What good it did him I can’t say, I’m inclined to say no good at all. Incidentally at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney they have a pewter syringe, it could be the very one the surgeon Ledward used in Tahiti. Who knows?

Fletcher realised the disease he had caught was incurable. He could see from the local natives what was going to be in store for him in later life. That’s why at the time of the mutiny when Bligh asked him “What’s the meaning of this?” He replied, “I am in hell, I am in hell.”

I mentioned earlier that Fletcher had two nicknames he used to call Mauatua. Mainmast, probably because she was tall and thin. But why call her Isabella? That was because it that was the name of his girl friend back in England.

Fletcher was so embarrassed, and ashamed he couldn’t possibly go back home and face her in his condition.

When Bligh made it back to England and told the Admiralty of the mutiny, they sent Pandora out to arrest the mutineers. They arrested 14, and on their way home hit the Great Barrier Reef and 31 of the crew and four of the mutineers were drowned. Pandora’s doctor George Hamilton said, “The ladies of Tahiti had left us many warm tokens of their affections.”

John Adams, who gave a false name when he first signed on, gives conflicting stories of the death of Fletcher Christian. The one I believe is the one that the second mate of the Topaz found out, that he went mad and jumped off a cliff. This disease in its advanced form can affect the brain. Mauatua was still alive then, in fact she lived till 1831, and if she was the same age as Fletcher, then that would make her 77 years old. Because she lived that long, I deduce she never had the dreadful disease.

There was another person on board Bounty that was particularly friendly with Christian. A distant relation of his, he was also from the Isle of Man. He was a gentleman midshipman by the name of Peter Heywood. He was one of the 10 who made it back to England. At his trial he was found guilty and sentenced to be hung. He had some powerful friends too, who managed to persuade the King to pardon him.

It turns out that the last time Heywood and Christian spoke to each other was at Tahiti. Christian gave him a message, probably only for the ears of Isabella, and Peter vowed to keep it a secret forever. This he did.

We now know what that secret was.

*Alan Luxton is a volunteer guide with the Devonport Maritime Museum.