ISABELLA - BEHIND THE SCENES
Fletcher and Isabella
After the infamous mutiny on the Bounty, mutineer Fletcher Christian sought refuge on the remote pacific island of Pitcairn, taking with him a Tahitian ‘wife’. Her real name was Mi’mitti but Christian called her Isabella. It is no coincidence that Isabella was the name of Christian’s cousin, a famed beauty and heiress after whom another island, Belle Isle in the centre of Windermere, was named.
Isabella and Fletcher knew each other well - Isabella’s ancestral home was Workington Hall, just a short ride from Moorland Close Farm at Cockermouth where Christian grew up. It was just six months after she secretly married another cousin, John, the prominent local Whig MP who had just bailed Fletcher’s family out of debt, that Fletcher took the fateful step that made him one of history’s most enduring romantic figures - and signed up for the Navy.
Rumours which abounded in the 19th Century, that Fletcher Christian had returned to England, focused on Belle Isle, where Isabella and John then lived.
Susan Thorneley, whose first husband Edward Curwen was a direct descendant of Isabella and who lived on Belle Isle until a few years ago, says: "No grave was ever found on Pitcairn and the family always believed Fletcher came back to Belle Isle to hide for a while.”
At the time it was suggested that it was Isabella’s husband who used his influence to protect Fletcher from capture. John, who by then had taken the name and arms of Curwen, also displayed some talent as an early ‘spin doctor’ in his attempts to save the reputation of his family by blackening the name of Captain Bligh, a campaign that still has effect today – Immediately following the mutiny Captain Bligh was hailed as a great hero and had the heartfelt sympathy of almost the entire British public.
On the morning of April 28th 1789, after the Bounty’s crew had been subjected to weeks of their Captain’s vicious insults, Fletcher Christian seized the ship and Bligh was set adrift in the Bounty’s launch with along with eighteen members of his crew. The open boat was just twenty-three feet long and Bligh and his companions faced a journey of over three thousand miles in order to reach civilisation. They were allowed enough food and water for just five days, and though the mutineers allowed them to take cutlasses and a compass, they had no sextant or chronometer. After suffering terrible hardships, Bligh navigated them to safety and the little vessel arrived at Coupang after forty-eight days at sea. On his return to England Bligh reported the mutiny to the Admiralty. He faced a court-martial and was exonerated for the loss of the ship.
HMS Pandora, under the command of Captain Edwards, was sent to search for the mutineers. Fourteen of the Bounty’s crew were apprehended at Tahiti and taken prisoner, held captive in an iron cage. When, on the voyage back to England, the Pandora struck a reef in the Torres Strait, four of the prisoners went down with the ship. The rest were tried for mutiny and three, Ellison, Burkitt and Millward were found guilty and hanged.
Meanwhile Bligh had once more embarked on another breadfruit mission to Tahiti and successfully transported the plants to the West Indies but ironically the slaves found the taste objectionable and refused to eat them.
Little is known of the life of Fletcher Christian. He was born on the 25 September 1764 to Charles and Ann Christian at Moorland Close Farm on the outskirts of Cockermouth where his boot print can still be seen in the roof of the summerhouse. He attended St. Bees school in Whitehaven and went to sea at the age of eighteen, serving under Bligh for four years before joining the Bounty as Master's Mate.
The Christian family is Manx by origin and were powerful landowners who held the post of Deemsters, the Isle of Man’s rulers. At the time of the Restoration a branch of the family settled at Ewanrigg in Cumberland
The Wordsworth Connection
Another more famous Lakeland figure, William Wordsworth, also played a crucial part in the aftermath of the mutiny.
Susan Thorneley, whose first husband Edward Curwen was a direct descendant of Isabella and who lived on Belle Isle until a few years ago, says: "We know Wordsworth was involved in helping Fletcher’s brother Edward to prepare his defence. And for a period of seven weeks Dorothy Wordsworth stopped writing her journal; perhaps she was afraid of writing something about his return.”
Evidence indicates that, not only did he know more about the fate of Fletcher Christian than he ever divulged, but he also used this knowledge as inspiration for the epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner on which he collaborated with Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
When a pamphlet was published supposing to contain letters written by Christian after the mutiny, William Wordsworth wrote to the press with the cryptic comment that he ‘had it on the best authority that these were false’ – the ‘ best authority’ could only have been Christian himself.
In the British Museum is a notebook, belonging to Coleridge, in which he jotted down possible subjects for his poems. The notebook, compiled during the time he wrote the Ancient Mariner, contains the entry: ‘Adventures of Christian, the mutineer’ and a study of the poem reveals many similarities to the voyage of the Bounty and Christian’s guilt.
The Argument for ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ indeed reads: "How a ship having passed the line was driven by storms to the cold country towards the South Pole; and how from thence she made her course to the tropical latitude of the great Pacific Ocean: And of the strange things that befell: And in what manner the Ancient Mariner came back to his own country.”
Wordsworth could easily have been privy to exclusive information about Christian’s whereabouts as he was one of those who helped Fletcher Christian’s brother, the lawyer Edward Christian, to collect evidence to defend him against the accusations of William Bligh.
The Mystery of Fletcher Christian’s Fate
When the last refuge of the Bounty mutineers was finally discovered, the only male survivor, John Adams, gave confusing accounts of Christian’s death and refused all requests to point out his grave.
The Bounty’s cutter strangely disappears from Pitcairn chronicles and the ducats that were carried on board the ship have never been accounted for, though the wreck of the Bounty has been extensively searched. The cutter provided Christian with the means to row out to one of the British whaling vessels that periodically sailed past Pitcairn and the ducats to buy his passage home.
Former Bounty midshipman Peter Heywood died believing that he saw Fletcher Chrisitan in Plymouth after the mutiny. His sighting was mentioned only as a minor footnote in a book, published in 1831, entitled ‘The Mutiny and Piratical Seizure of HMS Bounty’ though, tantalisingly, its author, Sir John Barrow, who was Second Secretary of the Admiralty, gave it his official endorsement by adding the line ‘the truth of which the Editor does not hesitate to avouch’
After the mutiny, it was to Heywood that Christian is known to have given a message for his family which exonerated him from his crime. Heywood only made it public that he had been given this message after he had retired from his successful naval career but he took the details of the message with him to the grave. Peter Heywood died believing that Fletcher Christian returned to England after the mutiny and that he had seen him in Plymouth.