New Zealand journalist Harrison Christian has retold the story of his most famous forebear.
Bligh's story came out first, so lead mutineer Fletcher Christian - who, to be fair, had put many lives at risk and committed a capital offence - was seen as the villain. But then some of the other mutineers were found and arrested, and their stories at trial made Bligh look - at least - like a bit of a prick. Things grew contentious and were muddied by time, a century passed, then came a slew of high-profile 20th century movies starring sexy hunks (Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Mel Gibson) as Christian and seminal villains (Charles Laughton, Anthony Hopkins) as Bligh. Then Caroline Alexander wrote 2003 bestseller The Bounty, in which she attempted to rehabilitate Bligh, casting him as the victim of a character assassination perpetuated by Christian's aristocratic family. Now, in a new book, written by Christian's great (x6) grandson, New Zealand journalist Harrison Christian, Alexander's conclusions come under suspicion.
In other words, morally speaking, it's a mess. Of course it is. You don't set your ship's captain adrift in the middle of the Pacific in the late 1700s - signing your own death warrant in the process - because everything's peachy. On the other side of the coin, you don't get into a raft with that captain - as 18 of the crew did - knowing you might not survive the ensuing voyage to God knows where, if you think he's a monster. The world is morally complex and an 18th century sailing ship was the ideal incubator for fermenting the thick yeast of that complexity into the sweet liquor of human misery.
When Harrison Christian crossed the Pacific from New Zealand to the United States in January last year, after his wife was offered a job in San Francisco, he took with him his own job as a journalist but he lost that job a few months later, just after the US entered lockdown. With nothing else to do, he decided to pass the time writing a book about his family's most famous story. He didn't have any idea whether the book would be published. He didn't even try to get it published until he'd finished writing it.
The story had always intrigued him, he says. His paternal grandfather was born on Norfolk Island, which is where the population of Pitcairn was repatriated to in 1856, although some of them chose to return to the island over the following years. Harrison's father was born and raised in Ōtāhuhu but had always been interested in his ancestry. Harrison was thus brought up in a house in which he read all the books and saw all the movies and heard all the stories from his dad.
"He drew a lot of inspiration from that and he kind of passed that on to me, the specialness of it, the kind of exceptionalism."
He says his father was always frank about what had happened to Fletcher Christian, or at least what he thought had happened to him, which was murder.
"Did I get emotional?" Harrison asks. "Yes, to be honest. Pretty emotional towards the end of writing it. As Fletcher Christian became a real person, the sense of relation to him was tightened. When I finished the book was when it was worst, because then it was just a big low. I had been obsessed with this for a year and it was really what got me through lockdown there, while a whole lot of other bad stuff was happening here in the US. To have finished the book was the worst part, because I didn't have this world I could retreat into any more."
Harrison says Bligh's journals, which he published within months of his return to England, were scrubbed of content that would imply any wrongdoing on his part, and which created the first public myths about the mutiny. They persisted until Fletcher's brother Edward published a series of pamphlets challenging them. As to whether Bligh has been unfairly maligned, Harrison says: "I think actually the opposite is true."
The more he wrote, Harrison says, the closer he felt to Fletcher Christian.
"I have this ancestor who did this thing, which echoed down the centuries and people still talk about. So to think that I have his name and that I'm related to him - it's like an excuse to try to do exceptional things. Or at least it makes exceptional things seem possible."
The book reads like the work of a journalist: carefully researched, devoid of flourishes, free of sentimentality and authorly intrusions. If it wasn't for his name on the book and his almost apologetic tone in the author's note about his genetic link to Christian, there would be no sense that Harrison has any tie to the story at all. He says he wanted to include as little of himself in the book as possible. At times, during the writing, he tried adding himself, but says it didn't feel comfortable.
"That might just be a personal thing. It may be that I could have included more of myself in it. I feel like it was unnecessary. I feel like the story's there to be told and all I had to do was just step back and tell the story in as balanced and as even-handed a way as was possible for me to do."
The book follows the story of the Bounty from long before it set sail on its doomed voyage, taking in the broad historical sweep of 18th century Britain, the ugly, rampant colonialism of the time, the deprivation and general unpleasantness of oceangoing life. Then it sets sail on several of the most astounding shipboard/survival tales in history, beginning with the socially fraught outward journey of the Bounty, the mutiny itself and the post-mutiny journey to Pitcairn, but giving much time also to Bligh's epic open boat voyage to safety in Timor, nearly 6500km away, after coming under attack in Tonga, his crew suffering starvation, eating the raw entrails, fishy stomachs and bones of hand-caught seabirds, and drinking their blood. The story of the Pandora, the ship sent to find and arrest the mutineers, also plays a significant role, particularly after it sinks and its surviving crew make a desperate two-week open boat voyage to Timor - again featuring much starvation, plus drinking of urine and multiple deaths from dehydration.
Considering the author's familial connection, the book is surprisingly even-handed, but there's no doubting his motivation for the project.
"It's like he's the patron saint of our family," Harrison says. "In its most simple form, he is an ideal figure, because that's how we see people when we think of them simply. It gives me a feeling of possibility and destiny, I guess.
"The idea that he was 25 years old: when I was 25, I was working as a radio reporter in Auckland, and Fletcher Christian was sailing across the Pacific with this motley group of fugitives, searching for Pitcairn Island, this island that was unknown to Europeans, that had basically been lost in the fog of map-making, that had been charted incorrectly. And it was essentially his only hope, his best possible chance of hiding from the British authorities, to the end of his days. That he was doing that and he was 25 years old - I find that incredible. If he was looking down at me, what would he think?"
The most intriguing section of the book comes in the final few chapters, which focus on the period after the mutineers settle on Pitcairn and everything goes to hell in a handcart. Much of the intrigue comes from the inability, once they are found, of the few surviving original settlers to tell a consistent story about their settlement, particularly in regards to the large number of unnatural deaths shortly after their arrival. A suspiciously large number of settlers, for instance, appear to have gone up a cliff, looking for food, and fallen off.
Nobody knows for sure what happened to Fletcher Christian. "His grave was never found," Harrison says. "They haven't even found his bones. So that's weird."
Reports from the island varied: he died of a natural death, he went insane and threw himself off a cliff, he was killed in a revolt by some of the Polynesian men who accompanied the mutineers to Pitcairn. Several people claim to have seen him in England in the years after the mutiny, including an old school friend, and one of the mutineers.
The book doesn't reach any firm conclusions but that is part of the enduring attraction of The Bounty story - the space for speculation.
"If his ghost exists," Harrison says, "is it this kind of hunted, harried, miserable figure? Or does he still hold some wisdom? Some piece of the puzzle I haven't found yet? It's always going to intrigue me. I'm never going to stop thinking about it."
Men Without Country, by Harrison Christian (Ultimo Press, $40), is available now.