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 Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
The Pitcairn Island Web site and Richard Riss's Christian Evidences offer more information on the island and story.
The Pitcairn Islands Study Center, on the campus of Pacific Union College, Angwin, California, contains the largest North American collection of materials relating to the Bounty, Captain William Bligh, and Pitcairn.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous Christian History Corners include:
Book Notes | New and noteworthy releases on church history that deserve recognition. (Apr. 20, 2001)
A Primer on Paul | The History Channel uses Holy Saturday not to discuss Jesus, but the apostle who spread his message. (Apr. 12, 2001)
Image Is Everything | The Taliban's destruction of Buddhist statues is only the latest controversy over the Second Commandment. (Apr. 6, 2001)
Christian Education for All | The first Sunday schools provide a positive example of government partnerships with faith-based organizations.(Mar. 23, 2001)
The Sport of Saints? | Forget St. Pat's. It's time for March Madness, baby! (And yes, it's Christian.) (Mar. 16, 2001)
Digging in China | Christianity in the world's most populous country may be a lot older than anybody imagined. (Mar. 9, 2001)
Food for the Soul? | Lenten traditions range from fowl-turned-fish to pretzels. (Mar. 2, 2001)
The Radical Kirk | The Church of Scotland has a long history of intense reforms. (Feb. 23, 2001)
Marching to Zion | The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church celebrates its 200th anniversary today. (Feb. 16, 2001)
Innovating with the Flow | John and Charles Wesley harnessed the momentum of their time. (Feb. 9, 2000)
Dangerous Myth-Conceptions | A new book traces the origins of historical misunderstandings about Christianity. (Feb. 2, 2001)
1,700 Years of Faith | Armenian Christians celebrate their heritage and look to their future. (Jan. 26, 2001)
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingDied: Pat Robertson, Broadcast Pioneer Who Brought Christian TV to the MainstreamWith CBN, “The 700 Club,” Regent, the Christian Coalition, and a run for president, he changed evangelicals’ place in public life.FrançaisIndonesianрусскийУкраїнська
- From the MagazineWhen Politics Saved 25 Million LivesTwenty years ago, Republicans, Democrats, evangelicals, gay activists, and African leaders joined forces to combat AIDS. Will their legacy survive today’s partisanship?
- Editor's PickPCA’s 50th Anniversary Comes During a Season of GriefPresbyterians expect less fight and more fatigue as they gather following the Covenant shooting and the deaths of Harry Reeder and Tim Keller.