Mutiny On The Bounty

August 25, 2013 by  

Mutiny On The Bounty, Tom Christian, known as the Voice of Pitcairn for his half-century-long role in keeping his tiny South Pacific island, famed as the refuge of the Bounty mutineers, connected to the world, died at his home there on July 7. Mr. Christian, Pitcairn’s chief radio officer and a great-great-great-grandson of Fletcher Christian, the mutiny’s leader, was 77.
With his death, Pitcairn’s permanent population stands at 51.

The cause was complications of a recent stroke, his daughter Jacqueline Christian said.

Though Mr. Christian was the world’s best-known contemporary Pitcairner, word of his death – reported in the July issue of The Pitcairn Miscellany, the island’s monthly newsletter – reached a broad audience only this week, when it appeared in newspapers in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

“It takes awhile for news to get out,” Ms. Christian said by telephone from Pitcairn on Thursday.

Mr. Christian’s death is a window onto colonial history as played out in the South Pacific; onto a storied 18th-century mutiny, which lives on in books and motion pictures; and onto a 21st-century criminal case that made world headlines a decade ago – a case on which Mr. Christian took a public position, described in the news media as courageous, that led to his ostracism on the island on which he had lived his entire life.

Britain’s only remaining territory in the Pacific, the Pitcairn archipelago lies roughly equidistant between Peru and New Zealand, about 3,300 miles from each. It comprises four small islands: Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno. Only Pitcairn Island, named for the sailor who sighted it from a British ship in 1767, is inhabited.

Pitcairn, settled by the mutineers and their Tahitian consorts in 1790, is a rocky speck of about two square miles. (Manhattan, by comparison, is about 24 square miles.) Most of its inhabitants are descended from the mutineers and the Tahitian women they brought with them.

Mr. Christian, who for his services to Pitcairn was named a Member of the British Empire in 1983, was long considered an elder statesman on the island. He served for years on the Island Council, the local governing body, and was a lay elder in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to which most islanders belong.

For decades, starting in the mid-1950s, he operated radio station ZBP, Pitcairn’s official lifeline to the world. His duties included filing daily reports to the island’s administrative headquarters, formerly in Suva, on Fiji, and now in Wellington, New Zealand.

Mr. Christian filed his reports in Morse code, switching to voice communication only in the mid-1980s after Pitcairn acquired a radiotelephone.

Though Pitcairn today has some trappings of 21st-century technology – electricity 14 hours a day and a country code, .pn, on the Internet – it still maintains a striking degree of isolation. The island has no airstrip: it can be reached by flying to Tahiti and taking a once-a-week plane from there to Mangareva Island, in the Gambier Islands, followed by a two- to three-day sea voyage.

There are no automobiles on Pitcairn, and the island’s rocks and cliffs bear names redolent of long-ago tragedies: “Where Dan Fall,” “Where Minnie Off,” “Oh Dear.”

The supply ship comes quarterly, and is met by Pitcairners in aluminum longboats. Boarding the ship, they sell the local wares (stamps, baskets, honey) on which the island’s economy has long depended, along with the curios they carve from miro wood, which they harvest on Henderson Island. They do likewise with the few passenger ships that call at Pitcairn each year.

Conversing with outsiders, Pitcairners speak a New Zealand-inflected British English. Among themselves, they use an indigenous creole – an amalgam of Tahitian and late-18th-century English – that confounds outside ears: “Wut a way you?” (How are you?), “Fut you no bin larn me?” (Why didn’t you tell me?), “You se capsize and o-o!” (You’ll fall over and get hurt!)

For many years Mr. Christian also manned an unofficial but no less vital lifeline: his shortwave radio, which he used to converse with amateur radio operators around the globe. Over time – he officially retired in 2000 but continued his amateur broadcasting until just a few years ago – Mr. Christian reached more than 100,000 people.

As The Sunday Star-Times of Auckland wrote this week, “Tom Christian – along with the late King Hussein of Jordan – was the most popular contact in the ham radio world.”

On his occasional trips overseas, Mr. Christian lectured on Pitcairn’s history and daily life. To his enraptured listeners, he was, like the island itself, a living link between the 1700s and the present.

“They think we’ve all got sticks through our noses,” Mr. Christian, smiling, told The New York Times Magazine in 1991.

He brought the past to life in more tangible ways. In 1957, as a young assistant on a National Geographic-sponsored dive off Pitcairn, Mr. Christian helped bring up a cache of nails, carbonized wood and old hull fittings – the sunken remains of the Bounty.

In December 1787, His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty left England for Tahiti to collect breadfruit with which to feed slaves on Britain’s Caribbean plantations. On April 28, 1789, less than a month into the return voyage, the master’s mate, Fletcher Christian, weary of what he described as the bullying of the captain, William Bligh, led crewmen in seizing control of the ship.

Captain Bligh and 18 sympathizers were cast adrift; most, Bligh included, eventually made their way to England. Christian and his men sailed the Bounty to Tubuai, in the Austral Islands, and then back to Tahiti, where some mutineers chose to remain.

Knowing that the British admiralty would scour the seas for him – and that a court-martial and a hanging would follow – Christian set sail again with eight of his men, plus a small group of Tahitian men and women. They landed at Pitcairn, then uninhabited, in January 1790. There, to avoid detection, they burned and scuttled the Bounty.

The ship’s history was recounted in the popular 1932 novel “Mutiny on the Bounty,” by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Hollywood filmed it three times: in 1935, with Charles Laughton as Bligh and Clark Gable as Christian; in 1962, with Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando; and in 1984, with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson.

But what the films did not depict was the mutineers’ brutal lives on Pitcairn: by the time an American seal-hunting vessel came across the island in 1808, most of them, including Christian, had been killed in fights with the Tahitian men.

For the mutineers’ descendants, life is challenging in more everyday ways.

“Pitcairn is not a place for a lazy person; you have to work or you’re not going to be able to do anything,” Herbert Ford, the founder and director of the Pitcairn Islands Study Center at Pacific Union College in Angwin, Calif., said on Thursday.

Besides his radio work, Mr. Christian, like all the island’s adults, had a spate of duties.

“He had three or four garden plots, because you have to grow your own food or you’d starve to death,” Professor Ford said. “He also was responsible for public works, as the other people were, like the upkeep of roads and work on the Pitcairn Island longboats: there’s such a terrible surf that they have to be constantly up-kept. And he would spend part of his week crafting some of the curios that he or members of his family would be selling to passing ships.”

Thomas Colman Christian, son of Frederick Christian, grandson of Daniel Christian, great-grandson of Thursday Christian, great-great-grandson of Friday Christian and great-great-great-grandson of Fletcher Christian, was born on Pitcairn on Nov. 1, 1935.

As a boy, he became fascinated by the local radio station, ZBP, erected on Pitcairn by the New Zealand military during World War II. At 17, after completing his schooling on the island, he was sent to Wellington to train as a radio operator.

“I was up before daylight,” Mr. Christian told People magazine in 1989, recalling his approach to New Zealand. “I went on deck and saw Wellington and these lights running. It seems dumb, but I didn’t know that those running lights were cars.”

At 20, Mr. Christian returned to Pitcairn and began running ZBP. When he was ill or injured (in 1972, after being dashed against the rocks when his longboat capsized, he was evacuated to a New Zealand hospital, where he spent four months), Pitcairn fell silent.

The rest of the time, he kept the island going. In January 1974, amid the global energy crisis, Mr. Christian put out the call on shortwave radio that Pitcairn needed fuel. Barrels of it materialized from around the world.

Besides his daughter Jacqueline, Mr. Christian’s survivors include his wife, the former Betty Christian, whom he married in 1966 (like many Pitcairn couples, they are distant cousins); three other daughters, Raelene Christian, Sherileen Christian and Darlene McIntyre; and six grandchildren.

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