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Highgate holds key to Mutiny on the Bounty

12:45 25 October 2011

Richard Fitzwilliams revealed the Highgate connection to the Mutiny on the Bounty. Picture: Polly Hancock

Richard Fitzwilliams revealed the Highgate connection to the Mutiny on the Bounty. Picture: Polly Hancock

Archant

In 1789 a group of mutineers, beguiled by the allure of the South Pacific island of Tahiti and fed up with their brutal treatment, overthrew their commander in what became known as the Mutiny on the Bounty.

FACTBOX: Mutiny on the Bounty timeline

1787: HMS Bounty sets sail for Tahiti to pick up breadfruit plants to transport to the West Indies

28 April 1789: Sailors mutiny on HMS Bounty near the Pacific island of Tahiti, after a deterioration of relations between the ship’s commander, Lieutenant Bligh, and Fletcher Christian, the master’s mate.

1791: Edward Edwards arrives to round up the mutineers and transport them back in the horrific Pandora, in which conditions were unspeakably bad.

1792: Heywood is fund guilty of mutiny but granted a Royal pardon.

1793: Fletcher Christian dies, although conflicting accounts say he either died of natural causes, or was murdered.

Lieutenant Bligh and the handful of loyal sailors were left afloat on a small boat in the midst of the harsh Pacific Ocean.

The rebellion sent shockwaves through the English establishment - and the rights and wrongs of Fletcher Christian, leader of the rebellion, whose character was resurrected posthumously, and Lieutenant Bligh, whose early glory later turned to ignoble dishonour, have been much debated.

But according to a Hampstead journalist, the secrets to rebellion lie with a young midshipman named Peter Heywood, who is buried in the crypt beneath Highgate School in North Road, Highgate.

Richard Fitzwilliams, the former editor of The International Who’s Who, said: “Whether Heywood actually participated in the mutiny is a matter of much debate, but on his return Bligh brands him a mutineer.

“Captain Edward Edwards is sent by the admiralty to round up the mutineers, and puts them, including Heywood, in a small box which measures just 18ft by 11ft and keeps them locked up in these filthy conditions for five months.

“Because they had become entangled in a mutiny, they were considered guilty until proven innocent.”

On his return to England, Heywood was found guilty of mutiny but spared the hangman’s noose by a Royal pardon following many months of frantic lobbying and even bribery from his well connected relatives.

Whether emboldened by his pardon, or out of grief for his old friend and rebel leader Fletcher Christian, who was killed by a group of Tahitians in 1793, Heywood wrote a short letter to a newspaper blaming Bligh’s brutality for the mutiny and depicting Christian as a just and honourable brother.

Bligh’s rebuttals could not silence doubts regarding his own conduct, and so began a depiction of the lieutenant as a callous, heartless, seaman that would remain for more than two hundred years.

Mr Fitzwilliams, of North End Road, Golders Green, said: “This letter was what changed everything.

“He had been close to Christian and wanted to help his family. This is what triggered Fletcher’s brother Edward Christian to go on a public relations offensive to resurrect his brother’s character.

“Edward Christian was one of the most distinguished lawyers of his day. He began the war of words, but nothing would have happened without this letter.”

In an added twist to the tale, Mr Fitzwilliams said that some believe Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s masterpiece The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was partially inspired by mutiny.

And the poet’s grave lies just a short walk away from Heywood’s in St Michael’s Church, Highgate.

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