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Captain Bligh, Fletcher Christian, and Isaac Martin, of Philadelphia
Today just about everyone has heard of the Mutiny on the Bounty. After all, with five motion pictures filmed in nearly 70 years, it's hard to miss knowing how Lieutenant Fletcher Christian raised a crew of stalwart Englishmen against the notoriously brutal and sadistic Captain William Bligh.
Of course, this needs some qualification. First, Captain Bligh wasn't really a captain, and Fletcher wasn't a lieutenant. Nor was Bligh a physically brutal man. By the standards of the day he was actually pretty lenient. And finally, at least one of those "stalwart Englishmen" wasn't even English. His name was Isaac Martin, and he was, in fact, an American. Virtually unknown to all but the hard-nosed Bounty buffs, his obscurity is particularly amazing since without him the mutiny might not have come off at all.
Originally hailing from Philadelphia, Isaac was about eighteen when American independence was declared in his native city. Philadelphia was an important inland port, and as Isaac later moved to Nantucket, it isn't too surprising that when war came he joined the fledgling Continental Navy rather than the army.
Few descriptions of ordinary eighteenth century seamen have come down to us, but we do have one of Isaac. In the day when the typical male might reach five and a half feet, he was extremely tall - 5 feet, 11 inches. He was also strong and lean, "rawboned" (whatever that means), and had a "sallow" complexion. He had short brown hair, a full beard, and a star tattooed on his left breast.
During the war, Isaac served on board the Jason, commanded by a Captain Charles Hamilton (or Hambleton). Little else is known about Isaac's service record except that only four days before Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, the Jason along with Captain Hamilton, Isaac, and the rest of the seventy-six man crew were seized by a British man-o-war with the surprisingly Gallic name of Monsieur.
It was bad enough that Isaac was an American, since as far as King George was concerned, he was a "rebel" and a traitor to the Crown. Worse, since the Continental Navy was mostly composed of privateers - that is privately owned vessels contracted to prey on British shipping - that made Isaac and his friends not only traitors, but "pirates" to boot. So Isaac's chances did not look too good.
Fortunately, the British Admiralty were a pretty pragmatic bunch. Just join the British navy, they said, and you'll win the King's pardon. Naturally, most of the Americans patriots refused.
Isaac's years in the Royal Navy, from 1782 to 1789, were fairly relaxed times for the British tar. The American "troubles" were winding down and the two decades of Napoleonic wars were still a few years off. Despite cutbacks in the naval allocations, work could be found. If a military berth was unavailable, there was always the merchant service. Crews went back and forth from one to the other fairly easily.
In fact, so did the ships. In 1787 the Admiralty purchased the 91 foot merchantman, the Bethia. It was refitted and rechristened as His Majesty's Armed Vessel (HMAV), the Bounty. On the surface, the mission was quite cushy. Sail to Tahiti and pick up a load of breadfruit.
The Bounty's commander, William S. Bligh, was entitled to the courtesy title of "Captain", though in 1787 he was only a lieutenant. But promised promotion after the voyage, he cheerfully began to raise a crew. Isaac Martin, formerly of Philadelphia, signed up on August 31.
On a voyage such as this, Bligh could pick and choose his crew, and for his right hand man, he selected twenty-three year old Fletcher Christian. Fletcher had sailed with Bligh before, and the two men had formed a friendship that went beyond simple professional esteem. Fletcher was officially rated as the master's mate (technically subordinate to the sailing master, John Fryer), but in route Bligh promoted him to acting lieutenant. Although some men thought Bligh had favored Fletcher at the expense of other equally capable officers, Fletcher quickly gained the respect of the crew since he was one man who could handle their often all too cantankerous commander.
"Captain" Bligh (as we shall continue to call him) has been fictionalized as one of the most brutal and sadistic disciplinarians in history. In truth, he was one of the more lenient officers in the Royal Navy and had even hoped to make it through the voyage without administering any physical punishment at all. Although it didn't work out that way, all the mean nasty things he did in the movies - like flogging dead men, keel-hauling sailors, and sending officers to the masthead - are pure Hollywood bullshine.
His one abiding fault, though, was a temper that wouldn't quit. Or as Fletcher himself said, Bligh was a "passionate" man, who would blow up at the smallest infraction, ranting and raving with expletives so foul that he was once admonished by a board of inquiry to watch his language.
According to Fletcher, Captain Bligh was a "passionate" man
It took ten months for the Bounty to reach Tahiti, but only about three weeks for the crew to gather their quota of a thousand or so breadfruit trees. However, since it took another five months before the plants were strong enough to move, Bligh let the sailors pretty much do as they pleased. The Tahitian women, though not dressing in the modern grass skirts nor sporting the strategically designed hair styles of the 1962 Marlon Brando remake, were attractive enough. A number of men, including Fletcher, were not even required to sleep on board, and some settled down into fairly long term and reasonably monogamous relationships.
The Gals of Tahiti
Reality doesn't sell tickets
After six months, though, most men were ready to leave. Not only did the majority have family and friends in England, but they wouldn't be paid until the voyage was over. Tahiti had been a fine respite, certainly, but in the end they just wanted to get back home.
All right, then, if Bligh was such a sweetheart, and everyone wanted to go back home, why did the crew mutiny? Well, in the first place, not all the crew mutinied, and in the second place, Bligh was not a sweetheart. He was a pain in the rear end at the best of times, and worse, he possessed an obsessive delight in vilifying and humiliating his men. His orders, too, could be completely contradictory and at times just didn't make sense. One man who learned that was our friend Isaac Martin.
The Tahitians had acquired a reputation, rightly or wrongly, for pilfering objects on board the ships, and Bligh had told the men that they could be punished if anything in their care was stolen. But because he understood the necessity for good relations with the native, Bligh also added any crewmember could be punished if they used excessive force to prevent a theft. Sure enough, as Isaac worked on deck, one of the Tahitians took one of his iron hoops, and during the altercation, Isaac punched the native. Bligh ordered nineteen lashes, and Isaac Martin became one of the few men Bligh really did flog.
One can imagine how Isaac felt. Flogged if he did, flogged if he didn't. Nor once they left Tahiti was he the only one who suffered from Bligh's foul tongue and increasingly irrational and contradictory orders. Even Bligh's friend, Fletcher Christian, was not spared.
When they reached the Tonga Islands, Bligh sent a detail of men under Fletcher's command to refill the water casks. Bligh ordered them to take arms, but also forbade them to use them if attacked. Well, they were attacked, Fletcher didn't fire, and they didn't come back with the water either.
Back on board, Bligh immediately demanded to know why the men hadn't they used their weapons. Fletcher just as immediately reminded Bligh of his order forbidding it. Bligh blew up and in front of the men branded Fletcher a coward. This was bad enough, but within a day, Bligh was calling Fletcher a thief.
Since water in the cask tended to go foul in a short time, it had become customary for each man to purchase a supply of coconuts from the natives whenever the ship touched land. The going price was twenty coconuts for one iron nail. Even then, that was quite a bargain.
As Bligh walked past his own stock, he thought something didn't look quite right. Wasn't his pile smaller than before? Then clearly serving as the model for Captain Queeg in the episode of the missing strawberries, he summoned the men. What, he asked, had happened to his coconuts?
To Captain Bligh, the coconuts didn't look quite right.
Right away, Fletcher admitted he had taken one. But he added, he hadn't thought Bligh would mind. He was sure, too, that no one had taken any others.
"You lie, you scoundrel!" Bligh shouted, "you have stolen one-half!"
Bligh then spun around and asked each man in turn how many coconuts he had purchased. And how many had he each eaten? Not keeping score, most men couldn't answer. Again Bligh exploded and turned to his officers.
"God damn you, you scoundrels!" he foamed. "You are all thieves alike and conspire with the men to rob me!"
Then after threatening to cut the yam ration and ordering everyone's grog stopped, he ended up swearing he'd make the crew jump overboard. For good measure he added they "may all go to hell" and stomped off.
Were Bligh's threats serious? Almost certainly they were not. Bligh had a tendency to go ballistic, but then once his temper cooled, he would simply let the matter drop. Later that night, he was affable enough. He passed a few pleasant words with sailing master John Fryer and then asked Fletcher to have dinner with him. Fletcher, though, said he was "indisposed" and excused himself.
The truth was that Bligh's behavior had left Fletcher completely unglued. He decided to build a raft and float away to some island where he would have no Bounty, no responsibility, and certainly no Captain Bligh.
Two midshipmen, George Stewart and Ned Young, tried to talk him out of it. Such an act would be foolhardy, they said. Besides, they added, the men were "ripe for anything."
Now was this an incitement to mutiny or just a warning of the consequences if Fletcher should desert? No one really knows. Ned, though, seemed to go beyond a well intentioned warning. He added that the officers were now asleep in their beds and advised Fletcher to sound out the men.
Fletcher thought it over and approached Matthew Quintal, a mean spirited, ill-tempered fellow who, like Isaac, had been flogged by Bligh. But Matthew was horrified by the idea of mutiny and refused to be involved.
This put Fletcher in a bind. Incitement to mutiny was as serious a crime as mutiny itself, and failure to report incitement was almost as bad. There was now the real possibility that Matthew would go blab to the captain. In desperation, Fletcher turned to Matthew's fellow flogee, Isaac Martin.
And Isaac thought mutiny was an excellent idea. Encouraged, Fletcher soon gathered together six willing crew members, and even Matthew Quintal changed his mind. The mutiny was on
What would have happened if Isaac had refused to go along? Very likely, Fletcher would have abandoned his plan, hopped on his makeshift raft, and been lost. Then the Bounty would have continued home. So without Isaac Martin, the native son of Philadelphia, it's a good bet no one would ever have heard of Fletcher Christian, Captain Bligh, or the Bounty.
The mutiny itself was handled with remarkable efficiency. In the early morning of April 28, 1789, Fletcher and three others forced Bligh on deck, not even allowing him to put on his pants. After a lot of argument, the mutineers decided to cast Bligh and eighteen "loyal" crew members adrift in the longboat.
It took some time to work out the details the arrangements, though, and Isaac Martin, the first enlisted man to agree to the mutiny, now began to have second thoughts. Perhaps he had misunderstood Fletcher's intentions and had just thought they would just confine Bligh for a later court of inquiry regarding his behavior. Whatever the reason, Isaac began to butter Bligh up.
By mid-morning Bligh had shouted himself hoarse trying to argue Fletcher out of the mutiny. Seeing Bligh unable to talk, Isaac slipped his Captain a shaddock, the ancestor of the modern grapefruit. This small act had the intended effect, and Bligh began to think Isaac might not really be part of the mutiny. Bligh even whispered to John Fryer, who was joining Bligh in the longboat, that Isaac was their friend.
In fact, Isaac had decided to renounce the mutiny altogether. So as Bligh and the loyal crewmembers descended into the longboat, Isaac snuck down with them. But when Matthew Quintal leveled a musket at Isaac's head, and William Purcell, the carpenter, shouted from the launch that he would see Isaac hanged, Isaac clambered back on deck. When the Bounty set sail leaving Bligh and the others to their fate, Isaac Martin stayed on board.
Isaac clambered back on deck
So the Bounty returned to Tahiti manned by twenty-five "pirates" (to use Bligh's term), who again settled down to a life of ease. Isaac himself ultimately married a woman named Teehuteatuaonoa who was nicknamed with the infinitely more pronounceable name of Jenny. Naturally it wasn't known at the time, but Jenny would later become a fount of information for later historians and was really quite a tattletale.
Of course, Tahiti could not serve as a permanent refuge. Fearing Bligh would eventually make it back to England (as he did), Fletcher decided to leave. A few of the men agreed to go along and in late September, 1789, the Bounty set sail again.
On board were eight Englishmen: Fletcher Christian, Matthew Quintal, William Brown, William McKoy, John Adams, Ned Young, Jack Williams, and John Mills. There were also six Polynesian men, twelve Polynesian women, - and one American. Yes, on the Bounty's last voyage, Isaac Martin went along.
There is some indication that Fletcher was deliberately trying to find Pitcairn, a rugged and at the time, heavily forested island, one mile wide and two miles long. It was also mismarked on the charts as being 200 miles further west than it really was. Somehow, though, on January 15, 1790, nearly four months after leaving Tahiti, they found it. The Bounty was burned.
So how do six Polynesian men, twelve Polynesian women, eight Englishmen, and one American set up a new society on what is literally the world's most remote inhabitable island? Why, you allocate all the arable land and one woman to each white man, of course. Then you treat the six native men as menials and let them divvy the three remaining women between them.
Surprisingly, this lopsided arrangement actually worked. Regardless of who "owned" the land, everyone at least had enough to eat. For now, the natives seemed willing to accept the system as long as things didn't get worse.
Unfortunately, they did. The wives of Jack Williams and John Adams died in little more than a year, and the Polynesians were forced to provide the replacements. This left one woman to be shared by six native men. To make matters really bad, Williams had picked Toofaiti, usually known as Nancy, who was the bona fide monogamous wife of a man named Tararo. Outraged, Tararo immediately ran off into the forest, vowing revenge.
Shortly afterwards, Fletcher's wife, Isabella, overheard Nancy singing as she worked. This in itself was not unusual, but the lyrics were definitely not from Tahitian oral tradition.
|Why do natives sharpen axes?|
|To kill white men.|
|Why do natives sharpen axes?|
|To kill white men.|
Nancy's lyrics caught Isabella's ear.
Isabella ran to tell Fletcher, who grabbed a musket and confronted two of the Polynesian men. They immediately ran off to join Tararo, who himself soon snuck back into the village and whisked Nancy away into the forest. No one knows if Nancy went along willingly or not.
Fletcher was now convinced all the native men were plotting murder. The three who remained in the village were slapped in irons, although they loudly protested their innocence. Fine, said Fletcher, then let one of them take a gun and kill Tararo and his followers. A man called Menalee was picked for the job, and if he didn't succeed, Fletcher added, he would kill them all.
With no real alternative, Menalee set out. He tracked down Tararo, but as was all too common, the musket misfired. The two men leapt at each other, and in the ensuing struggle, Menalee himself was almost overcome. As the two men grappled, Nancy, who was standing nearby, grabbed a stone and quickly made short work of her ex-husband. Menalee and Nancy returned to the village. One of Tararo's followers later gave himself up, but the other was hunted down and killed.
Still suspicious of the Polynesian men, the mutineers now treated them almost entirely as slaves. Matthew Quintal and William McKoy, who were both belligerent and dangerous individuals, even beat and tortured them. Amazingly, the natives were able to endured this treatment for about two years, but finally they decided enough was enough.
So one morning in September, 1793, Tetaheite, a Tahitian man who often worked with Isaac, walked up and asked to borrow a musket. Sure, said Isaac, believing Tetaheite just wanted to go hunting for wild pigs.
Soon Isaac heard the musket discharge. He called over to William Brown that they would have a fine feast that night. The first shot was followed by a second, and after an interval, they heard even more gunfire.
Isaac didn't know it, but the shots reverberating through their Island home had ended the lives of John Williams and Fletcher Christian and marked the beginning of the attack on John Mills and William McKoy. Mills was killed, but McKoy escaped into the jungle along with Matthew Quintal, who had correctly surmised that whoever was firing all those shots was not interested in making baked ham.
Amazingly, Isaac remained oblivious to everything. The next sequence of events is not entirely clear, but as Isaac worked in his garden, he looked up and saw as many as four natives walking his way. According to Richard Hough's heavily fictionalized reconstruction, there was some good natured banter to waylay Isaac's suspicions. Tetaheite asked Isaac if he knew what they had been doing. Isaac said he didn't.
"We have been doing the same as shooting hogs," Tetaheite smiled. He aimed his musket at the American and pulled the trigger.
The gun misfired and Isaac laughed, thinking the whole thing was a joke. The natives laughed, too, recocked their muskets, and fired again. This time the guns worked.
Almost certainly this is not a verbatim account of what happened. But what is certain is that at one point one of the Polynesians - and it very likely was Menalee - aimed his musket at the American and pulled the trigger.
Though he was hit, Isaac recovered and managed a high speed stagger to William Brown's hut. With the Polynesians hard on his heels, he barely had time to scream out a warning before the natives burst in.
Isaac managed a high speed stagger
Judging that Brown, who was probably attempting the futile task of rapidly loading a musket, could be dealt with later, the Polynesians shot Isaac again. But even after being hit a second time, Isaac remained alive. Grabbing a maul (hammer), which was usually a more reliable weapon than the guns of that era, Menalee soon put an end to the first American to live (and die) on Pitcairn Island.
Strangely, the revolt did not remain a native versus European affray, if indeed it really had been. Quintal and McKoy were joined in the hills by, of all people, Menalee. Ned Young and John Adams remained in their homes, protected by the women.
The fighting continued, and in a month all the Polynesian men were dead. The Europeans then declared a truce. No women or children had been hurt.
Still, life on Pitcairn did not improve. Matthew Quintal, continuously drinking the islanders' make-shift rum, became increasingly violent and dangerous. In self-defense (so they claimed), Adams and Young lured him into Adams' house. There, in the presence of nine year old Elizabeth Mills, they grabbed a hatchet, and that was the end of Matthew Quintal.
Liquor was also blamed for the death of McKoy, who in the fog of inebriation, supposedly threw himself off a cliff. He must have had incredible dexterity since both his hands and feet had been tied. Even today most histories of the Mutiny on the Bounty refer to his death as a suicide. Adams and Young probably knew better.
McKoy must have had incredible dexterity.
Young died on Christmas Day in 1800, probably of asthma or tuberculosis. John Adams, now the undisputed patriarch of Pitcairn, lived until 1829. To this day Pitcairn remains inhabited, most of its forty-five or so residents descended from the original mutineers. But none of them trace their ancestry back to Isaac Martin.
Though Isaac and Jenny had no children, their marriage seems to have been a relatively happy one. After her husband's death, Jenny just wanted to leave. Finally in 1817 a ship, the Sultan, anchored briefly off Pitcairn, and the captain agreed to take her to Tahiti.
By then the Mutiny on the Bounty was famous. Ten years later, Jenny was interviewed by Peter Dillon, a ship's captain with a taste for history. Although his article, printed in 1829, reads a little too much like early nineteenth century journalism to be a verbatim transcript, it is believed to be faithful to what Jenny told of those first horrible years on Pitcairn. It served as both a balance and a complement to the more self-serving accounts given by Adams. So if today, we have still another example where true history is infinitely more fascinating than what is concocted by Hollywood, we really have to thank Jenny, the wife of Isaac Martin, the Philadelphian on the Bounty.
Jenny tells her story.
Mariners of the American Revolution, Marion and Jack Kaminkow (Genealogical Publishing Co. Inc., 1993) Includes the Home Office Record of Isaac Martin and the Jason. Thanks are given to Paul Laureau for providing this source.
The Bounty Mutiny, William Bligh and Edward Christian (Penguin Classics, 2001). A very accessible compilation of primary source material, including Bligh's description of Isaac Martin and Jenny's story to Captain Dillon. An earlier account of Jenny's story appeared in 1816 in the Sydney Gazette.
Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian: The Men and the Mutiny, Richard Hough (Cassell, 1972). General account of the mutiny and the fate of the mutineers. Geneally a good reference althought the parts dealing with the revolt on Pitcairn suffer from invented dialog and action.
Fragile Paradise: Fletcher Christian of HMS Bounty, Glynn Christian (Atlantic-Little Brown and Co., 1982). Fine biographical background of Fletcher Christian, written by a descendant.
Pitcairn Island: Life and Death in Eden, Trevor Lummis (Ashgate Publishing Co., 1997). Outstanding account of Pitcairn Island in the years following the mutiny. By sifting throught the accounts the author was able to deduce that two of the women, not one, had died soon after the mutineers arrived.
Mr. Bligh's Bad Language: Power and Theater on the Bounty, Greg Deming (Cambridge University Press, 1992). Includes a thorough discussion of Bligh's methods of discipline compared to other naval officers of the time and documents his relative leniency.
The Court Martial of the Bounty Mutineers, Edited and Notes by Owen Rutter (Notable British Trial Series, 1989). Testimony of John Fryer and William Purcell describes Isaac's attempt to abandon the mutiny. A reader brought up on stories of the horrors of the "brutal service" will be surprised how fair and impartial the officers of the court were.
"Dusky Damsels: Pitcairn Island's Neglected Matriarchs of the Bounty Saga", Robert Langdon, Journal of Pacific History, June 2000. Provides the names of the second and later generations of Pitcairn settlers.