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    Was Fletcher Christian a great navigator?
    From: Don Seltzer
    Date: 2013 Jul 24, 17:30 -0700

    Frank Reed wrote:
    the high-quality sextant required for lunars was in fact the first victim of the impending mutiny. Bligh noted with anger in his logbook just a few days before the mutiny that someone had stolen the screw that held the index arm in place during fine adjustment. Without that screw, the instrument was rendered effectively useless.
    -------

    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.

    I have no love for Fletcher Christian, or the way that Nordhoff & Hall and Hollywood romanticized him while demonizing Bligh. 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, 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).

    In his journal, Bligh lists three sextants in his possession: a 10" Ramsden, a 14" Ramsden, and a 12" Troughton. In his notations for observations, he abbreviates them as 'B', 'C', and 'H' respectively.

    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.

    The incident of the missing screw that Frank refers to occurred on 17 April 1789. Bligh identifies it as the Ramsden C sextant, and the observations in the log then start explicitly identifying Ramsden B as the instrument used for daily observations.

    Come the mutiny eleven days later, Bligh's clerk is only allowed to take an old octant, a compass, and Bligh's journal. 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.

    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. 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.

    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. Almost all knowledge of events subsequent to the mutiny are from oral tradition. The first contact with the Pitcairn colony came 18 years later, when all of the men but one were long dead. The sole survivor, able seamen John Adams gave a brief account of the colony to a passing American whaler. It was a quarter century before the first British naval officers happened upon the island, while searching for an American frigate during the War of 1812. They recorded a more detailed account, but Adams did not mention any specifics of how they happened upon Pitcairn.

    The only other credible source of the Bounty's navigation was a Tahitian woman, Jenny, who spoke of the four month journey from the time they left Tahiti to their arrival at Pitcairn, in Polynesian terms of time and place. It wasn't until the 1950's that a researcher put together a theory of what isles the Bounty might have passed on that voyage. But Jenny knew nothing about European navigation methods. 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.

    Don Seltzer

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