Mutiny on the Bounty: Bligh, Christian and a haul of coconuts

9 April 1789, 120 miles north-west of Tahiti

Captain William Bligh simply won’t let up. Now that they are back at sea, Bligh has not turned a new leaf, calm and content to be on the voyage once more. No. He remains the terrifying tyrant of old – only worse. Thus, even as the ship’s company is trying to adjust from the free and easy life at Tahiti, back to the rigid discipline and endless tedium of crossing the ocean, they also must deal with a hissing, shouting, forever furious Captain who finds fault with everybody and everything.

And, there is no doubt about it. One member of the ship seems to attract his ire, almost more than all the others combined.

"Whatever fault was found," one crew-member would recount, "Mr Christian was sure to bear the brunt of the Captain’s anger."

HMS Bounty off Tahiti by John Allcot (1968).

HMS Bounty off Tahiti by John Allcot (1968).Credit:Maritime Museum of Tasmania.

For something indeed has changed in the formerly close relationship of Bligh and the man who was nothing less than his protege and favourite, Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian.

Perhaps Bligh had been disappointed at just how seduced Christian had been by Tahiti, or perhaps he feels that Christian needs a big injection of discipline, so he can both display it himself and be able to demand it of others – as befitting the rank of Acting Lieutenant, to which exalted level Bligh has personally promoted him. Whatever it is, the men are quite stunned at how often, and how publicly, Bligh upbraids the popular officer, frequently including the fact that Christian still owes him money. (And, truly, Christian is shocked himself, and humiliated – gritting his teeth, and hoping that it will pass, and soon. For he knows that, one way or another, he cannot bear it for long.)

The ship sails on, but there is a growing uneasiness among her crew, a sense that all is not right, that trouble is festering.

27 April 1789, 80 miles south-east of Tofoa, a lovely bunch of coconuts

On this sparkling morning, Christian is completing his brooding night watch when Bligh arrives on deck and immediately notices something amiss.

His pile of coconuts, which had been in a large heap between the guns, seems different.

"Mr Fryer," barks Bligh. "Don’t you think those coconuts are shrunk since last night?"

"Sir, they are not as high as they were last night," answers Fryer. "But the people might have put them down in walking over them in the night."

"No, Mr Fryer, they have been taken away," declares the Captain. "And I will find out who has taken them!"

In double-quick time, thus, every man on the Bounty is standing on the swaying deck, before his own pile of coconuts.

Like a General inspecting a parade by a coconut army, Bligh wanders up and down each pile, searching for his missing nuts.

One by one, Bligh moves down the line of seamen, asking each the same question.

How many coconuts have you brought from the island of Tahiti?
How many have you eaten? 
Alec Smith? Matt Quintal? Billy Brown?

Each slippery reply is noted down by Bligh’s clerk, John Samuel, and finally it is done, as the last slippery sailor gives his last slippery answer.

Or is it not over, after all?

For now, without pause, and still in the presence of the common sailors, Bligh starts to question the officers, starting with – yes, of course, it has to be – his second-in-command, Fletcher Christian.

A portrait of Captain William Bligh.

A portrait of Captain William Bligh.

For you, Mr Christian, were the Officer of the Watch last night and if you had attended your duties faithfully you surely should have spotted and apprehended any thief.

Unless of course … that very officer is the thief.



Well, Mr Christian, did you take the coconuts?



Time hangs suspended once more. Can Bligh really have asked him, an officer and a gentleman, and a supposed friend, such a question?

Christian expostulates: "I hope you do not think me so mean as to be guilty of stealing yours?"

"Yes, you damned hound," yells Bligh, "I do. You must have stolen half of them, or you could give a better account of them!"

His words reverberate, rankle and rattle against 1000 years of breeding which has placed the likes of the Christian family so much higher in the social strata than the Bligh family.

Still Captain Bligh goes on, pronouncing from on high the crew’s punishment: "I allow you a pound and a half of yams," Bligh hisses. "But if I do not find out who took the nuts, I will put you on three-quarters of a pound of yams."

And, even now, Bligh is not done with his threats.

"I take care of you now for my own good," he yells at his sullen crew. "But when I get you through the [Endeavour] Straits you may all go to Hell!"

Now, just in case there is any confusion about how the Captain feels about them, he furthers elucidates his position.

A portrait of Fletcher Christian.

A portrait of Fletcher Christian.

"And if you do not look out sharp I will kill one half of you." Oh, Heavenly Father above!

Christian can bear it no more. Such madness must stop before even more damage is done. So if Bligh really must have a thief, then Fletcher will give him one. As Officer of the Watch, ultimate responsibility must rest with him anyway, so why not go one step further, to spare the men? Taking two bow-legged steps forward, he utters the one lie that might spare all, bar him.

The responsibility is mine, Captain Bligh. I took the coconut.

What? Only one, sir?

Bligh does not believe it.

"Damn your blood," Bligh roars, perilously close to being completely out of control, "you have stolen my coconuts!"

With a calm that he does not feel – for inside, everything is being pulled apart, including his last shreds of respect for Bligh – Christian replies evenly.

"I was dry, I thought it of no consequence, I took one only, and I am sure no one touched another."


All eyes turn to Bligh.

Will Christian’s self-sacrifice be enough to appease the roaring and fiery demon?

"You lie, you scoundrel!" Bligh bellows. "You have stolen one half!"

The accusation is every bit as absurd as Christian’s "confession", and seemingly everyone on the ship, bar Bligh, can see it – with enormous honour, and courage, Christian is simply trying to protect his men. But in his fury, Bligh sees no honour, only evil.

"God damn you," Bligh roars at his officers in particular, "you scoundrels, you are all thieves alike and combine with the men to rob me. I suppose you will steal my yams next, but I’ll sweat you for it, you rascals."

Bligh’s words continue to tumble forth, a volcano of fury now erupting with bile pure, of vile intent – all aimed directly at these lowly curs who dare call themselves officers of the King.

"I’ll make half of you jump overboard before you get through the Endeavour Strait!"

Really, Captain Bligh? The way Christian feels right now, there will be no need to wait all the way to Endeavour Strait. For he cannot bear this, right now!

"Mr Samuel!" Bligh yells to his personal clerk, his anger in no way spent.

Samuel meekly steps forth, almost like a dog who knows he is about to be beaten. But no.

"Stop these villains’ grog," Bligh snarls, waving a dismissive hand at the seething group of six gentlemen officers – Fletcher Christian, Ned Young, William Peckover, Thomas Hayward, John Hallett and Peter Heywood – "and give them but half a pound of yams tomorrow and if they steal then, I’ll reduce them to a quarter!"

Yes, and if perchance such rations don’t suit you fine "gentlemen", never fear, for there may be even worse to come.

"I will make you eat grass like cows!" barks Bligh.

Something will have to give

In a trance throughout the whole afternoon, Fletcher Christian goes about his duties, turning over and over the words of Bligh.

"You damned hound … You must have stolen half ….God damn you …  You scoundrels, you are all thieves … liar, thief, coward."

The gall of the man!

No, he can take no more.

Instantly, Christian knows two things.

He will not go through that again. (While it is one thing to be so abused in private, the humiliation and sheer dishonour of being abused in front of the men is excruciating.)

Mutiny On The Bounty by Peter FitzSimons.

Mutiny On The Bounty by Peter FitzSimons.

He must get away. His honour simply demands it.

Ah, but Christian, Bligh is not yet done with you today. Oh no.

That much is clear to all those sailors within earshot – which is to say just about anywhere on the Bounty – as, throughout the entire afternoon, Bligh’s grating, screeching, penetrating, pernicious voice is heard screaming time and again at Mr Christian, who can, in turn, be heard protesting. On and on the yelling goes. So intense is the ongoing confrontation, it is clear that something will have to give, and it proves to be the emotions of the Acting Lieutenant.

At 4 o’clock, Purcell is in his cabin, resting for his next shift, when the distressed form of Christian rushes in from the starboard quarter, tears pouring from his eyes in huge drops.

This is staggering. Another man, yes? But never Fletcher Christian, for he is "no milksop".

But, clearly, he can bear no more.

"Mr Christian," Purcell asks, for all the world as if he has not been listening to it all afternoon, "what is the matter?"

Bligh! That is what is the matter!

"Can you ask me and hear the treatment I receive?" Fletcher says. "Do I not receive as bad as you do?" replies Purcell.

For, of course, Purcell knows more than most just how infuriating Bligh’s constant harangues and bullying belittlement can be.

"You have something to protect you," replies Christian, clearly referring to the fact that Purcell is a warrant officer and Bligh may not subject him to a lashing at the hands of James Morrison, nor strip him of that warrant at sea.

"If I should speak to him as you do, he would probably break me, turn me before the mast and perhaps flog me," continues Christian. Yes, Purcell is well aware of this, and couldn’t agree more with the upset young man’s assessment, for he has no doubt that Bligh would do exactly that. But still he is profoundly shocked by Fletcher’s next words.

"And if he did," continues the now suddenly angry Christian, "it would be the death of us both, for I am sure I should take him in my arms and jump overboard with him."

What?

Look, it is one thing for Bligh to be a madman when it comes to rage. Purcell knows that. But, Fletcher Christian to match him? To talk openly of killing a Captain?

"Never mind, it is but for a short time longer," says Purcell, as lightly as he can muster.

Fletcher Christian’s murmured reply stuns the Carpenter.

Mr Purcell, I need wood, lots of wood, with which I intend to build a raft. I am going to desert the Bounty this very night.

You’re what, Mr Christian? You’re what?

I am going to build a raft, and cast off in the middle of the ocean.

This is not the plan of a man thinking right.

In desperation, Purcell goes in search of two men Christian might listen to – two who can be trusted to be silent about this mad plan – Cole, the Bosun, and Stewart, the young Midshipman. They must make Christian see reason!

Both men try, having hurried, hushed conversations with him. But Christian will not see sweet reason.

"I would rather die 10,000 deaths, than bear this treatment," Christian growls, like a wounded lion. "I always do my duty as an officer and a man ought to, yet I receive this scandalous usage."

"Keep your heart up!" encourages Cole. "Do not mind what has passed."

"To be counted a thief is more than I can bear," replies Christian.

But Fletcher

"Flesh and blood," Christian bursts forth, "cannot bear this treatment."

Yes, he insists, he would sooner death before dishonour.

Very well, Purcell and Cole agree to do their bit to help him assemble what he needs.

A mess of jangled nerves

Now, while most of the ship’s crew are below, eating their supper, Christian and his friends hide the small raft in the Bounty’s Launch – sssshhhh, easy now – so it can be easily retrieved in the night, once it is Christian’s watch.

For his part, Christian’s mind is as far from quietly reflective as it gets, racing over the insults of the day, the decision he has taken, the risk he will be running … and the fact that the fading cloud cover and wind are now conspiring to keep him on the ship!

Could anything more possibly go wrong?

A flare in the distance.

A rumbling across the waters.

Of course. At this very moment, the volcano on the island of Tofoa erupts, casting an unearthly glow on the deck of the Bounty and inevitably bringing more crew up from below to gaze upon it. Christian’s faint hopes for an unseen departure from an all but deserted deck disappear.

Of all the times!

A mess of jangled nerves, Christian remains intent on launching his raft and making good his escape, but the deck remains too crowded, and at half past three in the morning, just half an hour before he is due to take command of his watch, Fletcher Christian decides to snatch some rest below, so he can indeed be found in his cabin when it is his turn to take watch.

Four bells, and all is not well.

Stewart, who is on the next watch, has something he must say to Christian, just six words that he hastens to get out, for if Fletcher embraces them, the course of history, not to mention the course of the Bounty, will change. You see, whispers on the waves in the dead of night, mutinous murmurings, George has been very quietly talking to many of the men.

"The people," he breathes conspiratorially to Fletcher, leaning in close, "are ripe for anything …"

This is an edited extract from Mutiny On The Bounty by Peter FitzSimons, published on Tuesday, October 30, by Hachette Australia (RRP $49.99)

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