Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian, and Trevor Howard as Captain William Bligh, in a scene from the 1962 film 'Mutiny on the Bounty' directed by Lewis Milestone. Source: (MGM Studios/Getty Images)
The story of the famous mutiny on the ship known as the HMS Bounty has been retold in books, movies, and TV. From these sources, we have learned that the Bounty’s captain, Captain Bligh, was so hated by his crew that the men, led by the handsome, swashbuckling Fletcher Christian, staged a coup in 1787 and took over the ship from the evil dictator, sailing off to start a new life on a tropical paradise filled with beautiful native women. This, however, is the Hollywood version of the story. The real story casts both Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian in different lights and the story itself is more complex than Hollywood’s simple plot line. Here is the real story of the Mutiny on the Bounty.
Charles Laughton portrayed Captain Bligh in film. Source: (pinterest.com)
Was Captain Bligh Really a Tyrant?
William Bligh was an outstanding sailor and navigator, as well as a commanding leader, but he probably wasn’t the evil dictator villain he was made out to be. In fact, he considered himself to be more professional and modern than sea captains that came before him. For one thing, he was a stickler for cleanliness and hygiene—we would probably call him a germaphobe today. However, this was almost one hundred years before the germ theory linked germs to disease. Bligh also believed in fitness and preventative actions to stave off illness. He required his men to do daily exercises and to take a dose of an antiscorbutic to prevent scurvy. Bligh was described as short and pasty white in complexion. Despite his stature, he was prone to angry outbursts. Yet, accounts of his command showed that even while angrily reprimanding a crew member, Bligh was careful to add in words of encouragement to take the sting out of the verbal lashing.
Mel Gibson portrayed Fletcher Christian in the film. Source: (celluloidheaven.org)
Was Fletcher Christian Really a Heroic Leader?
Fletcher Christian has been portrayed as the hero of the Bounty who stood up to the cruel Captain Bligh and led his fellow mutineers to a safe paradise, far away from the abuse they suffered under Bligh. Tall and brawny, with long dark hair, Christian was a much more imposing figure than Bligh. The youngest son of an impoverished widow, Christian took to the sea for the sole purpose of making money. He was desperate to help his bankrupt mother who was in hiding so she wouldn’t be thrown into a debtor’s prison. According to reports from other crew members, Christian seemed to have some sort of mental or emotional breakdown the evening before the mutiny, after being reprimanded by Bligh for a misdeed. They described Christian as looking like a mad man with his shirt undone, his long hair wild, and repeating in despair, “I am in Hell.” Perhaps Christian, at this time, remembered that his older brother was involved in a mutiny of his own just a year before.
A Tahitian beauty from the 1962 "Mutiny on the Bounty". Source: (pinterest.com)
Was the Mutiny Really About Cruel Treatment and Abuse of Power?
The real reason for the mutiny may have been love…or at least, lust. About three weeks before the mutiny took place, the Bounty and her crew stopped in Tahiti to load up on supplies and to acquire breadfruit saplings to transport to the West Indies. In Tahiti, the crew of the Bounty was struck by the beauty of the Tahitian women and enjoy the company of the women during their five-month stay there. In fact, Fletcher Christian supposedly fell in love with a Tahitian woman named, Mauatua. When they were ordered back to the Bounty to continue on their voyage, Christian and many of the men were reluctant to leave the tropical paradise filled with beautiful women.
The Mutiny Illustrated Bligh’s Leadership Skills
After the mutiny, which took place on April 4, 1789, Christian and the 25 mutineers set Bligh and his 19 loyal followers adrift in a small boat with very little food and water and no navigation equipment. It was expected that the men would die at sea. Yet under Bligh’s command, the meager provisions were carefully doled out over a six-week period to keep the men hovering just above starvation. Bligh relied on his memory of navigation charts to cross more than 3,500 nautical miles across the South Pacific to the Dutch East Indies outpost of Timor. There, Bligh and his men regained their strength before voyaging back to England to report the mutiny.
The Mutiny Illustrated Christian’s Lack of Leadership Skills
After Christian and the mutineers seized the Bounty, they traveled first to Tubuai where they planned to establish a colony. It was unsuccessful in part because Christian was young—only 23—and brash and refused to listen to the older, more experienced sailors. Christian’s stubbornness and control caused fighting among the mutineers. They then returned to Tahiti. The hospitable island was well-known to the British and it would certainly be the first place they would look when trying to find the Bounty mutineers. Despite that risk, 16 of the 25 men decided to stay there. Christian and the remaining mutineers, along with six Tahitian men and a dozen or more Tahitian women, packed up the Bounty and set off for a safe haven hidden from the British. It was a good thing they did. The British did come looking for the mutineers in Tahiti. They were returned to England and three of them hanged for the crime of mutiny.
Pitcairn Island. Source: (visitpitcairn.pn)
Christian and His Party Hid on an Uninhabited Island
The Bounty mutineers settled on tiny Pitcairn Island, about a thousand miles to the east of Tahiti. Almost twenty years later, a whaling ship from the United States noticed smoke from the small island and set out to investigate. They found a village comprised mostly of women and children under the leadership of a British man named John Adams…the only remaining survivor of the Bounty mutineers. He explained that, when they first arrived at Pitcairn, Christian ordered that the Bounty by stripped then burned. There was a lot of fighting among the men, as well as disease, leading to the deaths of Christian and the other men. It seems that Fletcher Christian was far less of an effective leader than Bligh, the hard, strict captain he overthrew.
Christian’s Descendants Still Live on Pitcairn
Pitcairn Island, today a British territory, is still home to some of the descendants of Fletcher Christian and the other Bounty mutineers and the Tahitian women they took as lovers and wives. Although Christian successfully organized the mutiny on the Bounty, he was not the charismatic, fair, and fearless leader that Hollywood made him out to be. It was Bligh, in fact, who proved to be the great leader as he led the Bounty survivors thousands of miles across the unforgiving ocean in an open boat with dwindling supplies. Yet, Bligh is remembered for being the villain of the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty.