226 years ago, eight mutineers aboard The Bounty tossed their captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, and 18 loyal crewmen into a lifeboat and set them adrift. As they made off with the ship, the mutineers, led by Fletcher Christian, dumped boxes of food into the water for the abandoned crew. No one is completely sure why the crew mutinied. There’s speculation that the 15 months they’d just spent in Tahiti had made them “turn native” and acquire a taste for the idyllic lifestyle.
The rebels took The Bounty to Tahiti, where they picked up twelve Polynesian women, and sailed to Pitcairn Island, where they settled down with the women.
I read an article on Salon a couple of weeks ago that talked about genetic diversification and Fletcher Christian’s heritage. The mutineers survived, and thrived. Currently, there are fifty residents on the island that are descended from the mutineers. But because the gene pool was so limited, nearly all of them have acquired directly from Fletcher Christian a gene that contributes to Parkinson’s disease.
It takes a lot of humans to provide a big enough gene pool so that in-breeding and reinforcement of recessive genes can be avoided. This “Minimum Viable Population” is the lowest number of adults needed to start over and thrive, and scientists estimate that number to be around 5,000.
Christian had seven men. The mutineers took over Pitcairn Island, and virtually enslaved the local male population, which caused a revolution of its own, and most of the mutineers perished.
That there are still direct descendants of Fletcher Christian on the island is remarkable.
But that’s not the most astonishing thing about the mutiny. The really staggering fact concerns the captain of the ship, William Bligh, who was abandoned in the lifeboat with his crew. In an extraordinary feat of seamanship, Bligh navigated the 23-foot open boat on a 47-day voyage to Timor in the Dutch East Indies, equipped with a quadrant and pocket watch and without charts or compass. He recorded the distance as 3,618 nautical miles. He then returned to Britain and reported the mutiny to the Admiralty on 15 March 1790, two years and 11 weeks after his original departure.
Now, that’s perseverance!