Tom Christian, 77, descendant of Bounty mutineer

Mr. Christian was a great-great-great-grandson of the mutiny’s leader.
New York Times/file 1967
Mr. Christian was a great-great-great-grandson of the mutiny’s leader.

NEW YORK — Tom Christian, known as the Voice of Pitcairn for his half-century-long role in keeping his tiny South Pacific island famed as the refuge of the Bounty mutineers connected to the world, died at his home there July 7. Mr. Christian, Pitcairn’s chief radio officer and a great-great-great-grandson of Fletcher Christian, the mutiny’s leader, was 77.

With his death, Pitcairn’s permanent population stands at 51.

The cause was complications of a recent stroke, his daughter Jacqueline Christian said.


Though Mr. Christian was the world’s best-known contemporary Pitcairner, word of his death reached a broad audience only last week, when it appeared in newspapers in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.

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Mr. Christian’s death is a window onto colonial history as played out in the South Pacific, and onto a storied 18th-century mutiny, which lives on in books and movies.

Mr. Christian also took a controversial public position on a 21st-century criminal case that made world headlines a decade ago. That led to his ostracism on the island on which he had lived his entire life.

Britain’s only remaining territory in the Pacific, the Pitcairn archipelago lies about equidistant between Peru and New Zealand, about 3,300 miles from each. It comprises four small islands: Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie, and Oeno. Only Pitcairn Island, named for the sailor who sighted it from a British ship in 1767, is inhabited.

Pitcairn, settled by the mutineers and their Tahitian consorts in 1790, is a rocky speck of about 2 square miles. Most of its inhabitants are descended from the mutineers and the Tahitian women.


Mr. Christian, who for his services to Pitcairn was named a Member of the British Empire in 1983, was long considered an elder statesman on the island. He served for years on the Island Council, the local governing body, and was a lay elder in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to which most islanders belong.

For decades, starting in the mid-1950s, he operated radio station ZBP, Pitcairn’s official lifeline to the world. His duties included filing daily reports to the island’s administrative headquarters, formerly in Suva, on Fiji, and now in Wellington, New Zealand.

Christian filed his reports in Morse code, switching to voice communication only in the mid-1980s after Pitcairn acquired a radiotelephone.

Though Pitcairn today has some trappings of 21st-century technology, it still maintains a striking degree of isolation. The island has no airstrip: it can be reached by flying to Tahiti and taking a once-a-week plane from there to Mangareva Island, in the Gambier Islands, followed by a two- to three-day sea voyage.

For many years Mr. Christian also manned a shortwave radio, which he used to converse with amateur radio operators around the globe. Over time — he officially retired in 2000 but continued his amateur broadcasting until just a few years ago — Mr. Christian reached more than 100,000 people.


As The Sunday Star-Times of Auckland wrote this week, “Tom Christian — along with the late King Hussein of Jordan — was the most popular contact in the ham radio world.”

On his occasional trips overseas, Mr. Christian lectured on Pitcairn’s history and daily life. To his enraptured listeners, he was, like the island itself, a living link between the 1700s and the present.

He brought the past to life in more tangible ways. In 1957, as a young assistant on a National Geographic-sponsored dive off Pitcairn, Mr. Christian helped bring up a cache of nails, carbonized wood, and old hull fittings — the sunken remains of the Bounty.

In December 1787, His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty left England for Tahiti to collect breadfruit with which to feed slaves on Britain’s Caribbean plantations. On April 28, 1789, less than a month into the return voyage, the master’s mate, Fletcher Christian, weary of what he described as the bullying of the captain, William Bligh, led crewmen in seizing control of the ship. Bligh and 18 sympathizers were cast adrift; most, Bligh included, eventually made their way to England. Christian and his men sailed the Bounty to Tubuai, in the Austral Islands, and then back to Tahiti, where some mutineers chose to remain.

Knowing that the British admiralty would scour the seas for him — and that a court-martial and a hanging would follow — Fletcher Christian set sail again with eight of his men, plus a small group of Tahitian men and women. They landed at Pitcairn, then uninhabited, in January 1790. The ship’s history was recounted in the popular 1932 novel “Mutiny on the Bounty,” by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Hollywood filmed it three times: in 1935, with Charles Laughton as Bligh and Clark Gable as Christian; in 1962, with Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando; and in 1984, with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson.

Besides his daughter Jacqueline, Mr. Christian leaves his wife, the former Betty Christian, whom he married in 1966 (like many Pitcairn couples, they are distant cousins); three other daughters; and six grandchildren.

Pitcairn received wide unwelcome attention in 2004, when seven men were tried on charges of sexually assaulting underage girls. The defendants maintained that initiating girls into sex was a time-honored South Seas custom and that they were unaware that British law was in effect on Pitcairn.

Mr. Christian, who was not implicated, publicly disputed the defendants’ contention, as did his wife. They were shunned by much of the island for years afterward.