HMS Bounty’s long arc

Published 9:34 pm Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hurricane Sandy’s claiming of HMS Bounty, and with it likely two lives, is another installment in a turbulent series of episodes extending from the original ship’s dramatic final expedition.

Wrecked 90 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras on Monday, the modern-day Bounty was commissioned by MGM for a 1962 film recounting Lieutenant William Bligh’s late 18th-century mission for the British Empire in search of a cheap food source for slaves.

The idea was to transport breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies, but, tensions among Bounty’s crew having peaked, sailing master Fletcher Christian and a cadre of mutineers seized control 23 days after departing Tahiti, forcing Captain Bligh and 18 loyalists to cast off in the ship’s launch.

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After returning to Tahiti and setting some fellow mutineers and loyalists ashore there — ten of those men were eventually repatriated to Britain and tried by a naval court — Christian, eight other crewmen, and a group of Tahitians including 18 women sailed on to the Pitcairn islands.

About 3,300 nautical miles northwest of New Zealand, Pitcairn, a self-governed British Overseas Territory, today remains the home of descendents of the mutineers and their Tahitian captives and companions.

According to reports, the one so-far-confirmed victim of Monday’s shipwreck, 42-year-old Claudene Christian, was a descendent of the leading mutineer; the search continued Thursday for Bounty’s captain, Robin Walbridge.

Back in Australia, one of my father’s old classmates also shares the name and, if we’re to believe what I’ve always been told, is a descendent of Fletcher Christian.

Meanwhile, after being forced to cast off from the Bounty aboard its launch on April 28, 1789, a bumpy ride in the annals of history was also in store for Bligh.

After eventually returning to Mother England by way of Tonga, Timor, Fiji and who knows where else, she sent him back south in 1806 to serve as governor of New South Wales.

In that colony in modern-day Australia in 1808, Bligh’s second and lesser-known mutiny occurred.

The story of this insurrection, the so-called Rum Rebellion, is much more complex, but the abbreviated popular version has it that colonists rose up against Bligh’s prohibition against the use of spirits as a de facto currency, overthrowing the government with the help of the military.

They found Bligh behind his bed — many said he was hiding, Bligh said he was hiding important papers — and he was placed under house arrest with his daughter.

My parents visited from Australia in June and were excited to have the opportunity to explore aboard the replica Bounty in Portsmouth during OpSail.

Speaking on the phone Tuesday, Dad said he’d had a conversation about life aboard the vessel with a woman whose last name was Christian, and he thinks it was Claudene.

Phil Christian, Dad’s classmate and a longtime family friend, was on the phone about the shipwreck not long after the news broke.

Perhaps harking back to his seafaring blood, bachelor Phil, now that my parents have moved away from my hometown, thinks nothing of hopping in the car and driving 800 miles to say hello and swap yarns. He generally stays the night and leaves in the morning.

Clearly, the HMS Bounty has given Phil Christian, my parents and many others a connection to the hurricane they never otherwise would have had.