Mutiny and Redemption
On April 28, 1789, Lieutenant William Bligh, commander of the H.M.S. Bounty, was awakened by men who "seizing me tyed my hands with a Cord & threatened instant death if I made the least noise." Bligh called out anyway, but all of the ship's officers were guarded by mutineers. Bligh was then "carried on deck in my Shirt, in torture with a severe bandage round my wrists behind my back, where I found no man to rescue me."
Anyone who has seen either the 1935 or the 1962 version of this story likely thinks that Bligh had it coming. He was a sadistic villain, and the dashing leader of the mutineers, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable/Marlon Brando), was doing everyone a favor. The reality was more complicated—and the ending much more surprising.
When the mutiny occurred, the Bounty was en route from Tahiti, where its crew had collected breadfruit plantings, to the Caribbean, where the plantings would be used to grow food for plantation slaves. The sailors had really enjoyed their time in Tahiti, though, and they didn't want to leave—especially under the command of Bligh, who was, if not a sadist, notably strict and ill-tempered. Christian's original plan was to flee the Bounty in its attached long boat and head back to sunny Polynesia, but other crew members convinced him to keep the Bounty and pack the officers in the long boat instead. Amazingly, Bligh and company navigated their overcrowded vessel 3,600 miles to the Dutch East Indies. The lieutenant eventually made it back to England, then returned to the South Pacific for revenge. In the meantime, the mutineers were living large on Tahiti.
Though Christian never found out Bligh had survived, he feared that staying at Tahiti could put him in danger of capture. Mutiny was, after all, a capital offense. He reboarded the Bounty and set out to find a place where he could hide forever. Seven other mutineers, twelve Polynesian women, six Polynesian men, and one infant joined him. After months of exploration, they found Pitcairn Island, which had no people but an abundance of coconuts, breadfruit, and other useful crops. The group destroyed the Bounty, to avoid detection by passing ships, and settled into their own paradise.
Like the first paradise, however, this one featured hidden dangers. Unfettered sexuality provoked jealousies and rage. The root of the ti plant, one mutineer discovered, could be distilled into liquor. The underlying problem, though, was building a society with criminals, concubines, and malcontents. Within four years, all of the Polynesian men and half of the mutineers had been murdered. A few years later, only two Englishmen—Edward Young and Alexander Smith—remained with the fearful women and children.
The Mutiny on the Bounty films are uninterested in the fate of Pitcairn Island, but for Christians, this is where the story really begins. While poking through the items saved from the ship, Smith discovered a Bible and a Book of Common Prayer. Smith couldn't read, but Young taught him before succumbing to consumption in 1801. Smith studied the Bible for years and became convinced that everyone on the island (at this point himself, 10 women, and many children) needed to live by its principles. He instituted Sunday worship and daily prayer times, at which he would offer petitions like this:
"Suffer me not O Lord to waste this day in Sin or folly. But Let me Worship thee with much Delight. Teach me to know more of thee and to serve thee better than ever I have done before, that I may be fitter to dwell in heaven, where thy worship and service are everlasting. Amen."
In 1808 an American ship discovered Pitcairn Island, where the crew was shocked to find a community of 35 English-speaking Christians. The Americans reported their find, but England was too busy with the Napeolonic Wars to do much of anything about it. Six years later a British ship rediscovered Pitcairn, and though the crew had orders to seize and kill any mutineers they found in the South Pacific, they couldn't bring themselves to disrupt the peaceful community by punishing Smith, now known by all on the island as "father." Smith still feared recapture, and he changed his name to John Adams (after the American president) in a rather curious move to avoid it. But no one came to seize him, and he died on the island in 1829.
Even sincere biblical teaching couldn't turn Pitcairn into an earthly paradise—every community has its problems—but Smith's work made a huge difference. The island settled by fugitives from the law has a courthouse, but it has never hosted a trial. Pitcairn's three jail cells house only lifejackets.
Elesha can be reached at cheditor@ChristianityToday.com.
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