A broken heart `caused mutiny on the Bounty'
Sunday 15 August 1999
The mutineers' leader, Fletcher Christian, heartbroken by his failure to win the heart of his wealthy cousin Isabella, went to sea and vented his bitterness by leading the crew of the Bounty, of which he was Master's Mate, against his captain, William Bligh.
Author Fiona Mountain, who bases her theory on a study of 200-year-old manuscripts in the British Museum, early accounts of the mutiny and extensive interviews with descendants of Christian and his would-be love, believes it gives the most accurate picture of the mutineer's state of mind to date.
The popular image of the 1789 mutiny, which took place after the ship left Tahiti with a cargo of breadfruit, has been largely formed by Hollywood versions of the story in which Christian leads a heroic rebellion against the sadistic, bullying captain. More recent accounts have sought to rehabilitate Bligh, suggesting that Christian was high on drugs , or even that he was driven by unrequited homosexual lust.
All these theories are wide of the mark, according to Mrs Mountain. She says Christian is revealed as a deeply flawed man, psychologically wounded by his rejection. Her talks with Christian's descendants have established that he was in love with Isabella Curwen, his first cousin, a rich heiress who lived on Belle Isle on Lake Windermere. "Both the Christians and the Curwens believe he had a romantic attachment for her," said Mrs Mountain.
The two knew each other well - Windermere is not far from Cockermouth, where Fletcher Christian grew up. But his family suffered financial problems and were only saved by another cousin, John, who subsequently married Isabella. Christian had been groomed to become a lawyer, but six months after Isabella's marriage he joined the Navy.
"Seeing the man who had saved his mother from the debtor's jail marry his sweetheart may have been too much," said Mrs Mountain. "If he had gone to sea feeling unhappy and still holding a candle for Isabella it could have contributed to the mutiny. It happened around the time of the French Revolution so he's been seen as a figure standing up for the rights of man,but nobody really knows why it happened. The only thing lacking from the Bounty story is a romantic element. This could be it."
On 28 April 1789 Christian and 17 members of the Bounty's crew seized the ship and cast Captain Bligh and 18 loyal crew members adrift in an open boat in the middle of the Pacific. Bligh and his men managed to sail nearly 4,000 miles to Timor in seven weeks with no charts and few provisions. All but one survived. Meanwhile 10 of the mutineers were caught on Tahiti and three later hanged, but a band led by Christian escaped and after four months and a 1,000-mile voyage happened on Pitcairn Island. Within 10 years all but one of them were dead, most of them murdered.
But Christian's journey to Pitcairn adds strength to the theory that he was still lovelorn. He took with him a Tahitian wife, Mi'mitti, who he renamed Isabella. His grave has also never been found, prompting rumours that he somehow slipped back to England, spending the rest of his days in Windermere. There is no evidence to suggest his love for Isabella was ultimately fulfilled.
There were repeated claims of sightings of Christian in Plymouth, but the key to whether he returned may lie in the activities of the poet William Wordsworth. When a pamphlet was published supposedly containing letters by Christian, Wordsworth wrote to the press with the cryptic comment that he "had it on the best authority that these were false". The "best authority," says Mrs Mountain, could only have been Fletcher Christian himself.
The view that Christian lived out his days in England is possibly supported by a notebook in the British Museum that belonged to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a close friend of Wordsworth. The notebook, compiled during the time Coleridge wrote "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", contains the entry: "Adventures of Christian, the mutineer."
"No one knows what happened to Fletcher Christian," said Mrs Mountain. "But this suggests again that he and Wordsworth met, which means he would have come back to England."
Mrs Mountain will publish the results of her research later this year in a book entitled Isabella.
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