The Fate of Fletcher Christian

Did the leader of the Bounty mutineers die on Pitcairn Island, or did he eventually make it back to England?

Filed under Ancient Mysteries, Conspiracies, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #284
November 15, 2011
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Thursday October Christian
Thursday October Christian
(Public domain image)

The mutiny on the Bounty is perhaps the best known of all stories from the era of wooden ships. Fletcher Christian, the infamous officer responsible for the affair, is believed to have died on Pitcairn Island, where he and the other mutineers took refuge. Yet some say his death was faked, and he did in fact make it back to England. Today we'll point the skeptical eye at these stories, and see if we can learn for certain where Fletcher Christian made his final atonement.

The basic story of the Bounty is not only well known, it's well documented and not in any meaningful doubt. In 1789, the small British naval ship left the island of Tahiti with a cargo of breadfruit plants. Three weeks later, its discontented crew, led by sailing master Fletcher Christian, mutineed against Captain William Bligh. Bligh and the loyal crew members were set adrift in the Bounty's open launch, in which they ultimately made it to safety, and made knowledge of the mutiny public.

Christian and his crew of 24 — eighteen mutineers, four loyalists who couldn't fit in Bligh's launch, and two neutral men — sought refuge for several months in some of the neighboring islands, but upon finding the natives too unfriendly, they returned briefly to Tahiti. Sixteen of the men remained there, leaving only eight aboard the Bounty; barely enough to sail her. And so, one night when the mutineers' women and some other natives happened to be on board, they set sail unexpectedly, effectively kidnapping the Tahitians. And thus was the founding population of Pitcairn Island established: eight British sailors, six Tahitian men, eleven Tahitian women, and one baby. These events are known from the accounts of the sailors who remained on Tahiti, including the four loyalists, who were either captured by or rejoined the British navy when the ship Pandora was dispatched to find them.

From that point onwards, the fate of the Bounty is more thinly documented. Fletcher Christian took his crew to Pitcairn Island because he knew from the British charts that its position was not precisely known, so they'd have a fair chance of evading capture. When they arrived, the Bounty was scuttled, both to avoid advertising their presence and to prevent anyone from leaving the island and possibly raising the alarm. We know for a fact that the Bounty was sunk because its remains have been found. Without any reasonable doubt, Fletcher Christian left Tahiti aboard a ship that went to Pitcairn Island and nowhere else. No other ship of any nation reported encountering them en route.

One of the mutineers who elected to remain on Tahiti was Peter Heywood, a close friend of Christian's. Along with the others, Heywood was captured by the Pandora in 1791 and returned to England. He was court martialed and sentenced to hang; but his was a family of wealth and influence, and Heywood received a pardon. Heywood returned to service in the navy, rose through the ranks, and had a successful career as a captain. Heywood was to play a pivotal role in the theories of Christian's alleged return to England. It was reported in 1831 by Sir John Barrow, an acquaintance of Heywood's, who detailed the following account in his book The Mutiny and Piratical Seizure of HMS Bounty:

In Fore-street, Plymouth Dock, Captain Heywood found himself one day walking behind a man, whose shape had so much the appearance of Christian's, that he involuntarily quickened his pace. Both were walking very fast, and the rapid steps behind him having roused the stranger's attention, he suddenly turned his face, looked at Heywood, and immediately ran off. But the face was as much like Christian's as the back, and Heywood, exceedingly excited, ran also. Both ran as fast as they were able; but the stranger had the advantage, and, after making several short turns, disappeared.

That Christian should be in England, Heywood considered as highly improbable, though not out of the scope of possibility; for at this time no account of him whatsoever had been received since they parted at Otaheite; at any rate the resemblance, the agitation, and the efforts of the stranger to elude him, were circumstances too strong not to make a deep impression on his mind. At the moment, his first thought was to set about making some further inquiries; but on recollection of the pain and trouble such a discovery must occasion him, he considered it more prudent to let the matter drop; but the circumstance was frequently called to his memory for the remainder of his life.

Although Heywood's is the only reliably documented account of anyone actually encountering Fletcher Christian in England after the mutiny, there was already something of an urban legend at the time. Barrow also wrote:

About the years 1808 and 1809, a very general opinion was prevalent in the neighborhood of the lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland, that Christian was in that part of the country, and made frequent private visits to an aunt who was living there.

In 1797, eight years after news of the mutiny reached England, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which in some circles was believed to be loosely based on the life of Fletcher Christian, prompting speculation that Christian must have been available for Coleridge to interview. Coleridge's colleague William Wordsworth had been a childhood classmate of Christian's. When Christian was tried in absentia for the crime of piracy, he was defended by his brother, the lawyer Edward Christian, and Wordsworth joined in his defense. So well known (or at least well believed) was the association of Coleridge and Wordsworth with Christian that at least one author, C.S. Wilkinson, proposed in his book The Wake of the Bounty that the two poets might have collaborated to have somehow brought Christian back to England. No evidence of this has ever been offered, but it remains one of the most popular rumors about Christian's fate.

Could the man Peter Heywood chased in Plymouth actually have been Fletcher Christian? For this to be possible, Christian would have had to have found some way of leaving Pitcairn Island after his known arrival there in 1789, and no later than when the island was visited by the American seal hunting ship Topaz in 1808. On that day, three young men who appeared to be Pacific Islanders paddled out to the Topaz in a Tahitian style canoe, and astonished its captain, Mayhew Folger, with their friendliness and perfect English. According to Folger's logbook, the three young men invited him ashore to dine with the man they called their "father", Aleck. Aleck turned out to be an Englishman named Alexander Smith, and was the sole surviving Englishman on the island. Aleck identified himself as one of the crew of the Bounty, and gave Folger the general facts. He also explained that the six Tahitian men, whom they had kept as slaves on the island, rose up and murdered all of other mutineers, including Fletcher Christian. Aleck and the women then managed to put all six of the Tahitians to death, leaving them in the current situation. Folger was ultimately able to deliver this report to the British navy, along with his statement of Aleck's character:

...He Immediately went to work tilling the ground so that it now produces plenty for them all and the[re] he lives very comfortably as Commander in Chief of Pitcairn's Island, all the Children of the deceased mutineers Speak tolerable English, some of them are grown to the Size of men and women, and to do them Justice I think them a very humane and hospitable people, and whatever may have been the Errors or Crimes of Smith the Mutineer in times Back, he is at present in my opinion a worthy man and may be useful to Navigators who traverse this immense ocean, such the history of Christian and his associates.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Folger was satisfied that there were indeed no other Englishmen living on the island. Similar circumstances were discovered six years later in 1814 when two British ships, HMS Briton and Tagus, visited. This time the leader of the young men identified himself as Thursday October Christian, the 25-year-old son of Fletcher Christian. By Thursday's own account, his father had indeed been killed on the island. Captain Pipon of the Tagus wrote a detailed account of their days spent on the island, and of what they learned. Alexander Smith, it turned out, was a fake name, and Aleck was actually John Adams, an Able Seaman who denied having had any part in the mutiny (contrary to what had already been learned from Captain Bligh and his loyalists).

Perhaps having learned from Folger that there was no longer any great dragnet to catch the mutineers, Adams was much more forthcoming with Pipot than he had been with Folger. He showed the detailed log the islanders had kept all those years, and it included the true fates of the Englishmen and the Tahitians. Disputes over women, authority and slavery had torn the group apart, with murders having taken place on both sides. Fletcher Christian had been killed by two of the Tahitians on the island's bloodiest day in 1793 on which four of the Englishmen died. Christian was survived by his Tahitian wife Maimiti and three children: Thursday, Charles, and Mary Ann. Thursday, the oldest, was not quite three years old when his father was killed, so Adams (and one other who had died in the interim) were the only Englishmen any of them ever really knew. Maimiti witnessed her husband's death and later recounted it in great detail. This was the true history of Pitcairn Island's colonists according to all of them who were ever asked.

For Fletcher Christian to have been the man that Peter Heywood chased, he would have had to survive on the tiny Pitcairn Island undetected by his own family for 15 years, then sneak on board the Topaz, somehow persuade its captain and crew not to reveal his existence, then found his own way back to England (halfway around the world) within the year while the Topaz and its crew were held by Spanish authorites on Juan Fernandez Island for several months on an unrelated matter. Is that string of improbabilities really more likely than Heywood was simply mistaken about the identity of a man whose face he saw only once in a quick glance, and even then only in a secondhand report?

The escape of Fletcher Christian, or any other larger-than-life character from history, makes for a fine story, but not necessarily a true one.

Follow me on Twitter @BrianDunning.

Brian Dunning

© 2011 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Alexander, C. The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty. New York: Viking, 2003.

Barrow, J. The Eventful History of the Mutiny and Piratical Seizure of H.M.S. Bounty: Its Cause and Consequences. London: John Murray, 1831. 309-310.

Curry, K. New Letters of Robert Southey, Volume 1, 1792-1810. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965. 519.

Pipon, P. "Capt. Pipon's Narrative of the Late Mutineers of H.M. Ship Bounty Settled on Pitcairn's Island in the South Seas; in Sept 1814." Fateful Voyage. James Galloway, 4 Apr. 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2011. <http://www.fatefulvoyage.com/pitcairn/pitcairnBPipon1814.html>

Wahlroos, S. Mutiny and Romance in the South Seas: A Companion to the Bounty Adventure. Topsfield: Salem House Publishers, 1989.

Wilkinson, C. The Wake of the Bounty. London: Cassell, 1953.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Fate of Fletcher Christian." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 15 Nov 2011. Web. 20 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4284>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 32 comments

The scenario of Fletcher Christian's escape provided by those who choose to believe it is far-fetched. Wishful thinking rather than reality.

Kate, London, UK
July 30, 2012 3:30am

Peter Heywood can thank his monied friends that he was pardoned. Lt Bligh should have been at the Court Martial to give his account in person rather than on second breadfruit expedition. I am of the opinion Fletcher Christian was murdered by Tahitians but don't let the truth get in the way of a good story.

David Finn, Rochester Kent UK
October 14, 2012 9:21am

Have just finished reading the novel 'Isabella' by Fiona Mountain, which deals with this subject. Fiction admittedly, but it provides another viewpoint and possible answer to the puzzle. I suppose Mountain did her research carefully. She posits Christian returning to visit a former love - his cousin Isabella Curwen - who lived on Belle Island in Windermere. Her descendants only left the island in the last decade. It has been recorded that Fletcher re-named his Taitian wife 'Isabella'. Why?

Lorna, Portsmouth UK
December 20, 2012 6:42am

Its 99% sure Fletcher Christian was murdered by Tahitians, but the other 1% is open to disscusion
as with most things

January 30th 2013

alfred, smethwick uk
January 30, 2013 10:42am

I am 6th generation from Mathew Quintal of HMV Bounty and John Adams from my mother. I am hopeing that the boby exsposed in England of late will put to rest of what realy happen to Fletcher . I am told the body has been preserved to A reasonable condition by the peat, and the body has a Tahitian markings up the leg and buttock of which Fletcher had reportedly had done on Tahiti. I would appreciate any infomation on this discovery .

Larry Quintal
Norfolk Island 17/02/2013

Larry Quintal, Norfolk Island
February 16, 2013 2:30pm

Ive read both the BoUnty Trilogy by Nordhoff Hall ,and the true story of the Bounty by Sarah Alexander, Having read That I believe he was murdered and buried there on the island, I also read Fragile Paradise by Glynne Christian, one of Fletchers distant relatives, he believes the body of Fletcher is buried under the remains of a pool where his wife mainmast used to bathe, time prevented them from digging the area, this to me is easily the most plausible story so hope one day they can find his remains RIP Fletcher

Kai, Redditch UK
March 18, 2013 9:19am

The sentence in this account that says "On that day, three young men who appeared to be Pacific Islanders paddled out to the Topaz in a Tahitian style canoe, and astonished its captain, Mayhew Folger, with their friendliness and perfect English," makes me wonder whether Christian could have disguised himself as a Pacific Islander in order to obtain passage on a ship back to England without his being identified. His reasons could have included the idea put forth here that he missed his love, Isabella. Years on an island like Pitcairn will change a European man's appearance dramatically, by darkening and toughening up his skin, and we already know from first-hand accounts that Christian had very dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark complexion. He could have convinced his island family that it was in their best interest that he get back to England, saying, perhaps, that he would return within a year. The call of home is a strong one. Look at how the Pitcairnians themselves could not feel at home on Tahiti or Norfolk Is., two places very similar to Pitcairn. For Christian to be so "mad" with homesickeness-- and we have accounts that he had a malady that brought on bouts of madness -- that he convinced the islanders to support him in his effort of disguise and escape from the island, does not strike me as impossible.

Leslie, Seattle, WA
June 12, 2013 8:07pm

The biggest mystery in researching this story is WHY did Fletcher lead a mutiny in the first place? Caroline Alexander's book defends Bligh and shows he really was not a mad tyrant, as history now labels him. Her book also has an intriguing story about Fletcher meeting up with his brother right before the departure of the Bounty, and his brother had just returned from a long sea voyage where he had supported a mutiny against the "tyrant" captain. Is that the genesis of the whole affair? Certainly the mutineers' love of Tahiti, and Bligh's mistake in letting a large group of them live on the island apart from the ship while gathering breadfruit under Fletcher's command also contributed.

Jennifer, NYC
August 17, 2013 1:01pm

was it realy the bounty that was found / /

cockerill, plmouth
December 19, 2013 2:02pm

I never really cared that much for history when I was a kid at school learning about it all. But now I find it quite fascinating & intersting, particularly in regards to wooden sailing ship voyages like this 1. I just finished watching the movie THE BOUNTY starring Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian, & Anthony Hopkins as Captain (Or Lt.) William Bligh. & that too I find rather interesting & intruiging, as to why William Bligh was not actually promoted to the rank of Captain as the commanding officer of the Bounty. & from my understanding, he also served previously on the Endavour under Captain (Again Lt.) Cook, who too for some reason was also not officially given the rank as Captain. This I find most curious, in addition to all the other accounts & comments of those above by others.

Christopher, Sydney, Australia
January 10, 2014 9:01pm

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