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Life & Loves of Fletcher Christian
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Isabella was Fletcher Christian's first cousin. The Curwen lineage is an ancient and noble one which can be traced back to pre-Norman times. Curwens represented their county in Parliament for 18 terms from 1371 onwards. They held the posts of Knights of the Shire and High Sheriffs who played a major part in the bloody border wars.
Isabella Curwen was born on October 2nd 1765, the only child of Henry Curwen of Workington Hall who died when she was thirteen, leaving her the heiress of the estate and huge mining interests. John Christian, her cousin, was made her guardian and later became her husband. It was John who bought for her the island on Windermere which was named Belle Isle in her honor.
Christiam's Lost Love
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 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.
The Mutiny & Pitcairn Island
The Bounty sailed from Spithead in December 1787 under the command of Lieutenant William Bligh – its mission to transport breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies where they were to supply cheap food for the slaves who worked on the plantations. The ship arrived at Tahiti in October 1788 where the crew remained for six months, living amongst the natives and enjoying a life of near indolence on the island paradise. The Bounty set sail once more on April 4th 1789.
On the morning of April 28th 1789, after the 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.
The Role of William Wordsworth
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 defense. 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.
Return to England
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, tantalizingly, 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 and the open boat voyage Bligh was a national hero and despite the Christian family’s successful campaign to blacken his name he went on to have an illustrious naval career, serving under Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen. However he was later appointed Governor of New South Wales where he was the victim of another mutiny. He rose to the rank of Vice Admiral of the Blue and died in 1817 aged 64. He is buried in Lambeth churchyard where his grave bears the inscription, ‘Beloved, respected and lamented’.
Belle Isle, formerly known as the Great Island, is the largest island on Windermere and the only one to be inhabited. Situated in the centre of the lake, with views of the villages of Ambleside and Bowness and the mountain ranges bounding the Troutbeck Valley, it was the seat of the Lord of the Manor of Windermere ml it passed into the possession of the local Philipson family.
It was bought by a Mr. English in 1774 who instructed the architect John Plaw - later a leading master builder in Westminster who erected the church at Paddington and Montague House, Portman Square - to construct the unusual roundhouse. The construction of the house was not complete when Mr. English went bankrupt and sold the house and island for £1,720 to Isabella Curwen after whom it was then named.
The descendants of Isabella and her husband John Christian Curwen lived on the island until 1993.
John Christian Curwen
John Christian, Isabella's husband and also first cousin to Fletcher, took the name and arms of Curwen on his marriage to Isabella.
John was the head of the Cumberland Christians who inherited the Ewanrigg estate at Maryport. He was a prominent Whig MP, innovator of social welfare and an agricultural pioneer. His chief political opponent was the Earl of Lonsdale, nicknamed the Bad Earl because of his use of bribery, corruption and violence to win elections – on one occasion he went so far as to arm his colliers with bludgeons in an attempt to unseat Christian.
His work as an agricultural pioneer earned John Christian Curwen the title ‘The Father of Agriculture’ and he is credited with planting over three million larch trees on the banks of Windermere. As an early welfare reformer he set up compulsory sickness and unemployment benefit schemes for his workers which were in many ways precursors to the National Health Service.
Workington Hall in Cumbria is the ancestral home of the Curwens and was the main home of Fletcher Christian's cousin, Isabella, and her husband (and another of Fletcher's cousins) John Christian.
The site of Workington Hall on the banks of the Solway has been occupied since the 13th century. In 1568, when Mary Queen of Scots fled across the Solway after the defeat of her supporters at Langside she sought refuge at Workington before her nineteen years of captivity which ended in her execution. The Hall was left deserted in 1929 and the impressive ruins which still remain are of an 18th century mansion, containing the remains of a grand Tudor Hall and the original fortress of the 14th and 15th century.
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.