A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2013 Jul 24, 18:40 -0700
Don, of the missing sextant screw, you wrote:
"I thought this little incident to be fascinating. I have read a lot of books regarding the Bounty, but never came across the tale of the purloined screw. This sent me to the CORRAL site and the digitized version of Bligh's journal to learn more about this theft, and in the process learned a bit about navigation on the voyage."
Yes, this was one of those things that I included in my presentation on the navigation of the Bounty that I gave at the Navigation Weekend conference at Mystic Seaport back in 2010. I recall you were, unfortunately, unable to stay for that presentation (it was an "after dinner" talk). I don't know if anyone has brought up this sextant sabotage (or metal scavenging as you later suggest) before me. You say that you went to the digitized version of the journal. In case you're not aware of it, there is also an excellent text transcription of the logbook at the site fatefulvoyage.com. The page for the date in question is here:
The pattern for the URL for other dates should be obvious. I have found that this text-based transcription is an excellent match for the digitized pages in those cases that I checked. It's certainly better for browsing! And I highly recommend it to anyone else who wants to read the story of HMS Bounty first-hand, in Bligh's own words.
"I have no love for Fletcher Christian, or the way that Nordhoff & Hall and Hollywood romanticized him while demonizing Bligh."
I agree. Most of the romanticized versions of the story are filtered through an American shade, and I feel that they're really allegories of the American historical conception of British rule, and after all, Nordhoff and Hall sold their book as a novel, didn't they? Seen as an allegory, Bligh is the tyrant (a caricature of King George III) and Christian is the champion of freedom (a caricature of George Washington). But the evidence we have available of the real men suggests complexity in both of their characters with occasional leanings toward those allegorical models, but it just ain't that simple! The mutiny was not 'tyranny versus freedom' but more 'duty versus lust'. Bligh was a competent commander who was no more of a tyrant, and perhaps actually less of one, than many other commanders of naval vessels, British or otherwise, in this period. And Christian was just a young man perhaps promoted too far and too quickly.
You also wrote:
"But after looking at the evidence, I have to conclude that Fletcher Christian probably knew nothing the missing sextant screw. Perhaps is was sabotage by another potential mutineer"
Yes, I did not say earlier that there was any evidence that Christian was the saboteur. It could have been any of them. Even those who knew nothing about navigation were well aware that the sextants were delicate instruments critical to navigation. Any of them with just a modest knowledge of sextant operation would have recognized that the thing could be rendered useless by such a simple trick.
You also wrote:
"or even a crewman just looking for more metal objects to use as trade goods (the sailors were literally tearing the ship apart, pulling out nails from the hull which were traded for goods or sexual favors with the natives)."
That's an interesting theory. Since this occurred after they had departed Tahiti, it strikes me as unlikely, but then again, did Bligh use that sextant on any other date after departing Tahiti (I don't remember)? Is it possible that the sextant was sabotaged, or by this suggestion "scavenged", weeks or even months earlier, and Bligh simply didn't find out until April 17? And if it was metal scavenging, was that all they could steal? Wouldn't a mirror be worth a few more 'sexual favors'?
"On many occasions, he takes observations with all three, carefully identifying them as B, C, and H. On most days there is no notation; it seems likely that he was using only the Ramsden C on those days."
Yes, it's my impression that the vandalized sextant was the one that Blight trusted most. If you could only sabotage one, that would be the choice.
"Apparently at the last minute, Christian relents and gives Bligh the Ramsden B sextant. He would not likely do so if he had known that the Ramsden C which he was keeping was damaged."
Good point. Was he making decisions rationally at this point? Did Christian intend to navigate by lunars at some point in the near future? Could he have handed him the wrong box in the heat of the moment??
"All of this raises more questions in my mind as to what navigation skills Fletcher Christian possessed. I have not seen any reference material that shows that anyone other than Bligh or the master John Fryar did the navigation."
It is possible that Fletcher Christian was completely ignorant of navigation, but is that likely? It would have been relatively normal for Bligh to take a young man like Christian under his wing and teach him as they went. None of this was rocket science. With months at sea, I would be really quite surprised if Christian had not learned nearly everything that was required for practical navigation. Whether he practiced it much or had any natural talent for it is another matter.
"One of Christian's 20th century descendants, Glynn Christian, wrote a book about the mutiny, 'Fragile Paradise', in which he described Fletcher as 'one of the finest English navigators of the time', a claim that I find laughable."
Yes. There are two definition of a 'navigator'. There's the definition we use most often here: a person with expertise in the methods of position-finding. And then there's a definition closer to the word explorer: a navigator is someone with expertise in the arts of seamanship. But by either of these standards, he sure wasn't "one of the finest". He was just a kid!
"Despite the claims of the Univ of Cambridge in promoting their new library of Board of Longitude papers, there is no evidence to support the notion that Fletcher used K2 to navigate his way to Pitcairn Island. There is no surviving log."
I agree, but just to keep the options open, it's certainly possible that he used it. We have no documentary evidence either way. In my opinion, Bligh's motive for keeping the chronometer was not navigation. It's much more likely though that Christian kept the chronometer to deny Bligh a quick voyage home. They needed to buy time with that time-keeper.
" Almost all knowledge of events subsequent to the mutiny are from oral tradition. The first contact with the Pitcairn colony came 18 years later"
Agreed. But we do know something about the mutineers' plans from the other group --those who chose to stay behind in Tahiti despite the likelihood that another British ship would come for them, and they could expect to be hanged for mutiny. That Christian and some of the others recognized that they had to get out of there and hide somewhere in the vast South Pacific is really the best evidence that we have that Christian was no fool. Did he need a chronometer to find Pitcairn? Of course not. But did HE know that? If you're arguing that he was not a genius at navigation, he certainly recognized the set of tools that made navigation possible. It's conceivable that he intended to use K2 if he could manage to do so. But as you proposed in an earlier message, it's really quite unlikely that he bothered with the daily windings and careful maintenance once he was back in paradise. Even if he had intended to use it or even imagined that he might use it, it was probably stopped or otherwise uncertain by the time they departed Tahiti. It's also interesting that Christian salvaged it before scuttling the Bounty at Pitcairn. It had presumably become a 'relic' by then --a symbol of everything that they had left behind.
"There is even the suggestion that among the six Tahitian men brought along, there was one versed in the Polynesian methods of navigating the Pacific."
It's quite possible. Do you think it would have mattered?
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