Blighs v Christians, the 209-year feud

Was Captain Bligh (left) the victim of a righteous mutiny - or pure piracy? Tim Minogue on a continuing tale of tarnished reputations and tattooed bottoms

Sunday 22 March 1998 00:02 GMT

MORE than 200 years after the mutiny on His Majesty's Armed Vessel Bounty, descendants of Captain William Bligh and his rebellious lieutenant, Fletcher Christian, are still feuding over what really happened.

A BBC documentary this week sets out to rehabilitate the reputation of Bligh, who, supporters say, has been cruelly treated by history. Far from being a brutal tyrant, they say, he was a gifted seaman and humane leader who was the victim of an act of piracy carried out by Christian, who was deranged by opium and, possibly, unresolved homosexual longings.

Christian's great-great-great-great-great grand-daughter Brenda, while conceding Bligh may not have been the villain he has been portrayed as by Hollywood, thinks the programme's presenter, writer Dea Birkett, deserves 18th-century treatment herself. "I'd like to see her hanged," she said, matter-of-factly.

Her relative Glynn Christian, the Sydney-based TV chef, earlier this year threatened to punch Maurice Bligh, the great-great-great-grandson of the captain, after he had said on Australian TV that Fletcher Christian's family must have been ashamed of their son, because he had betrayed his country by mutinying and outraged contemporary morals by co-habiting with a Polynesian woman. "I was simply trying to get at the truth," said Mr Bligh yesterday. "Glynn Christian's problem is that he doesn't listen.

"He has been brainwashed by Hollywood. In his mind's eye Fletcher Christian is Marlon Brando. The Christian family really have to come to terms with the fact that Fletcher was a very mixed-up young man."

Commander Charles Miller, a naval historian interviewed for The Wrecking of Paradise (Radio 4, Wednesday, 8.05pm), said: "The Blighs versus the Christians is like two football teams, like Rangers and Celtic. It's gone on for 200 years and is still going on."

No one disputes the basic facts of the mutiny, that on 28 April 1789, Fletcher Christian and 17 members of the Bounty's crew seized the ship and cast Captain Bligh, and another 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.

Christian and his men, meanwhile, hid from the Royal Navy with their Tahitian "wives" on Pitcairn Island, which their descendants still inhabit today.

The disputes arise over the men's motivations and who was in the right. The popular image, of Bligh as a tyrant addicted to flogging and keelhauling, is largely based on the 1935 film The Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Charles Laughton as Bligh and Clark Gable as Christian, and the 1962 remake with Trevor Howard as Bligh and Brando as Christian.

Was Christian a noble rebel overthrowing intolerable injustice, or a crooked opportunist who took his chance because, unusually for Royal Navy ships of the day, the Bounty carried no contingent of marines to keep order? After five movies and more than 2,500 books and published articles, people are still arguing.

Dea Birkett - who is now persona non grata with Pitcairners after publishing her own warts-and-all account of life on the island, Serpent in Paradise, last year - says it hardly matters now. "But on Pitcairn it as if the mutiny happened yesterday," she said. "People there still feel the cruelty Bligh is supposed to have meted out."

Her own research, she said, revealed a man far removed from his inhuman image: "Bligh was a thoughtful, caring, if somewhat over-anxious man. He brought a fiddler on board so that his men would dance jigs to keep fit. He never keelhauled anyone, despite the films showing him doing so. His fault was that he let the men have too good a time on Tahiti - sleeping with the local women, drinking and having their bottoms tattooed. If he had been stricter, perhaps they wouldn't have mutinied."

The interesting question, she says, is why people become so passionate about this footnote to history. "Perhaps Christian versus Bligh has come to represent rebellion versus authoritarianism, a life constrained versus a life of freedom, sexual repression versus sexual licence."

Whatever the truth, this 209-year-old story will run and run. As Kate McAll, the producer of Wednesday's programme, said: "It's got everything - sex, drugs and flogging. What more could anyone want?"

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