Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Onward Christian

                     Fletcher Christian was born in 1764, near Cockermouth, Cumberland. His father died when Fletcher was an infant, and his mother, Ann, increased the family debts substantially, moving eventually to the Isle of Man. The teenaged Fletcher spent holidays there, (where, incidentally, William Bligh had lived after his marriage in 1781). He first went to sea in 1783, and had later served in the merchant fleet under Bligh, on two voyages to the West Indies. Bligh seems to have been impressed by the young Christian, who became something of his protégé, and recommended him as a midshipman on the Bounty

The Fleet of Otaheiti

Christian, like his crewmates, took enthusiastically to life on Tahiti. The food was good and abundant, the climate balmy, the women uninhibited, and the men friendly – many became taios, or protective friends, to the sailors, taking them into their homes and families. Several of the men, including Christian, followed the Tahitian custom of tattooing their bodies. Life, it seems, was good on the island Paradise. 

Native Otaheitians

However, even life in Eden has its problems. The Tahitians were inclined to petty theft, and Bligh warned his men to be aware of this at all time, and that the cost of any losses would be deducted from their pay. But things went missing. Bligh had able seaman Alexander Smith flogged when the gudgeon (a metal brace for the rudder) of the launch was ‘drawn out’ on his watch. The Tahitians were appalled by this treatment. Soon after, seaman Matthew Thompson was given twelve lashes for ‘insolence and disobedience’; the cook’s assistant, William Muspratt received the same for ‘neglect of duty’ and the butcher, Robert Lamb, was also given a dozen when his cleaver was stolen. The drunken doctor, Huggan, eventually died, (‘Exercise was a thing he could not bear an Idea of’, was Bligh’s verdict). 

Royal Navy flogging.

Then, the monsoon arrived. 

The plants in the nursery were in danger from the salt-water spray of the storms, and Bligh feared the Bounty herself was at risk in the gales. In a break between storms, he arranged to move both to safer berths, but during the move, on Christmas Day 1788, Fryer, the Master, managed to ground the ship for a short while. During one of the dark January nights, three crewmen went absent, taking with them the small launch, some guns, and ammunition. Whilst onshore, Bligh heard that a native who had aided the deserters was aboard Bounty; he rushed back, only to find Fryer had allowed the man to escape, and no attempt had been made to follow him. Soon after, Bligh discovered the spare sails were wet and rotted, in spite of earlier orders to Fryer to wash and air them. In his log he wrote, “If I had any Officers to supercede the Master and Boatswain, or was capable of doing without them considering them as common seamen, they should no longer occupy their respective Stations” (Jan 17, 1789). 

After three weeks, news of the deserters’ position reached Bligh; he set out immediately, captured them, and returned them to the ship. After reading the Articles of War, Charles Churchill was lashed twelve times, and John Millward and William Muspratt (already lashed earlier, see above) both had two dozen, the whole to be repeated again at a later date. The three were held clapped in irons. 

More flogging

In spite of all this, Bligh was being lenient, by the standards of the day; deserters could expect 100-150 lashes, and the officer of the watch, who had been asleep when they deserted, could have faced execution, whereas Bligh merely disrated him. On February 4th, the Bounty’s bower anchor cable was cut, (by the taio of Midshipman Hayward, who feared his friend would be lashed); she could have drifted onto the reef and been wrecked. A Tahitian stole an azimuth compass, which, with Chief Tynah’s help, was eventually recovered – the thief was given a hundred lashes, clapped in irons, but in the night he picked the lock and escaped over the side of the ship. 

Eventually, the breadfruits were ready to move and the weather had turned fair. The plants were loaded, the Bounty provisioned and, on April 5th 1789, she left Tahiti, bound for the West Indies.

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