Hell's Fire - By Brian Freemantle


Pitcairn Island is one of the remotest inhabited spots in the world, a volcanic chip of land one mile across and two miles long, lying almost midway between Panama and New Zealand. The nearest commercial airstrip is 1,300 miles away in Tahiti. Shipping companies ask for bookings to be made with either Panama or New Zealand as the listed destination, so unsure are they that weather conditions will permit passengers to disembark.

I never imagined, therefore, that there would be any possibility of my reaching the island to research this book, much less that I would have the opportunity to live among people only fifth-generation descendants of Fletcher Christian and his mutineers.

That I did was due to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and their vessel, the Sir Geraint. For making the trip initially possible, I thank Major ‘Tony’ Dixon and Lt-Col. Peter Hicks, at the Ministry of Defence.

To the master of the Sir Geraint, Captain James Bailey, and his officers I will remain forever grateful for their friendship and hospitality during the two-month South Pacific voyage.

I shall always remember with gratitude and affection the welcome given to me by Pitcairn chief magistrate Ivan Christian and his wife Dobrey, with whom I lived. And appreciate the willing help I received from the islanders to the sometimes intrusive enquiries I made.

Pitcairn, of course, represents only a part of the study made for this book. The staff of the London Library responded to every request with an enthusiasm and cheerfulness that is a feature of any dealing with that institution. So, to them, a final ‘thank you’.


This is a work of fiction, not history.

Fully aware of the irritation it may cause some historians of the period, I have made appear simultaneous events in the lives of Captain William Bligh and the man who led the mutiny against him on the Bounty, Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, which did, in fact, occur some years apart.

I have done this – consciously – for several reasons. For the fictional book it is intended to be, it makes for ease of narrative. I hope, too, that it enables me to highlight the conflicting characters of the two men.

And then it makes it possible to suggest the hidden secret that caused Fletcher Christian to rebel against the man who had been his friend, casting him and seventeen other crewmen adrift to what he could only have believed would be their certain death. For nowhere in the mass of surviving documents, records, first person accounts or on the island of Pitcairn itself is there a satisfactory answer to the question: why?

Bligh was not a tyrant, imposing the lash at the slightest infringement of regulations. He was an irascible nagger, certainly. He demanded a high standard aboard his ships and when it wasn’t achieved, the lash came from his tongue, not the cat-o’-nine-tails. Compared with other recorded punishments by contemporary captains, by eighteenth-century standards Bligh was soft-handed with his crew.

When, on the outward voyage of the Bounty, the crew deck became soaked by the storms of Cape Horn, he turned his own quarters over to his men so they could sleep dry. They didn’t like it, but he made them eat a carefully considered diet, rightly recognising ahead of his time that scurvy came from a vitamin deficiency. He reached Tahiti after a ten-month voyage with only one suspected case of the illness, an unparalleled record for the time.

So why?

Would an educated man like Christian, whose brothers were barristers and whose family was steeped in law, have considered mass murder because he had fallen in love with a native girl in Tahiti? Or because Bligh had harangued him to the point of tears in front of the whole crew for stealing a coconut? These are the explanations offered by Bligh, in the existing log of his amazing, 3,600-mile survival voyage and then in a book he wrote of the incident.

The transcript exists of the court martial of ten mutineers arrested in Tahiti and arraigned at Portsmouth on September 12, 1792. The dialogue and evidence I have created for the participants is based on recorded fact, moving, I hope, towards my conclusion. That recorded fact comes very little from the court hearing, however. Not once were any of the witnesses or prisoners asked to suggest a cause for the insurrection.

Bounty midshipman Edward Young followed Christian to Pitcairn, fomented a civil war on the island between the natives and the mutineers and then, in an act of dying contrition after all but one of the mutineers were