A Tale of Two Bounties: The Christian Brothers, Mutinies, and Potential Piracies

A Tale of Two Bounties: The Christian Brothers, Mutinies, and Potential Piracies

BrandoA few years ago, I was delivering my first lecture to a hall full of well over one hundred students. Thinking I would impress them with my popular culture knowledge, I included a reference to Captain Jack Sparrow as an example of the type of piracy I did not research, and one of the many forms of piracy in which they should not participate. Crickets ensued. Thankfully, my follow-up joke about the crickets landed better, but this left me all the more surprised when a student exiting the lecture swung by the front desk and made a quick reference to Marlon Brandon being a better sailor than Johnny Depp. Embarrassed though I am to admit, it was a reference I did not understand until about a month ago.

Fletcher Christian was not the only member of his family involved with piracy, or with bounties. The masters mate and later lieutenant that led the infamous mutiny on the HMS Bounty in 1789, Fletcher was a pop culture fixture of his day. Infamous for seizing the ship from Captain William Bligh on the grounds of mistreatment, Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers settled on Tahiti and Pitcairn, with some eventually being found by British forces and the others either dying off or disappearing.[1] While Bligh and his followers made it back to Britain, and proceeded to court marshal the mutineers, reprimand some of the loyalists, and sent another ship out to capture Fletcher and his supporters, the incident more broadly illustrated many of the ongoing tensions in the British Empire, especially the place of sedition against state authority. The Hastings trial for example also questioned the abilities of British leaders, both publicly appointed and privately hired, to represent the empire abroad in a commercially and culturally effective way.

The general narrative on Fletcher Christian’s path to piracy, from an upwardly mobile English seamen to mutineer leader—a particularly effective type of pirate, given the superior training that most royal sailors received—to a new, hidden life as father and husband on Pitcairn, was initially heavily critical, with Bligh appearing as a much wronged captain, lauded for his efforts in attempting to discipline an exasperating crew. This perception was due in no small part to Bligh publishing two widely circulated accounts of his experience, on top of his exoneration. Yet, it was with the interventions of a very different type of mutiny, a mutiny against Bligh’s narrative, that this story switched. This intellectual rather than physical mutiny, if you will, was a change that resulted in the rise of Fletcher’s positive and Bligh’s dismal reputations, categories that lasted largely until the late twentieth century. Edward Christian, Fletcher’s more traditionally successful and far less incendiary older brother, was a lawyer and legal historian at the time of the Bounty mutiny (he’d go on to become a chief justice). Recruited by the counsel of one of the mutineers captured for trial, Edward wrote an appendix to William Muspratt’s Minutes of the Proceedings of the Court-Martial held at Portsmouth, August 12, 1792, On Ten Persons Charged with Mutiny on Board his Majesty’s Ship the Bounty.

In the Appendix of this rival account, Edward shrewdly flipped the story, presenting his brother’s behavior as undoubtedly illegal but merely a reaction to the far more vicious dictatorial actions of Bligh. What ensued was a back and forth in the press between Edward Christian and Bligh, effectively questioning not only the conduct of Bligh as a leader but under what terms of which authority should be followed.[2] In this exchange, public sentiment came to side with Edward Christian, and thus cultivated a strong sense of sympathy for his brother Fletcher. The timing was also key: this was not Edward’s first foray into legal interpretation, and the feud with Bligh coincided with the publishing of his edition William Blackstone’s seminal Commentaries of the Laws of England. Beginning in 1793, Edward Christian provided the Notes and Additions to what appears to be the authorized publishing house of Blackstone, Cadell and Davies. While my research on this relationship is ongoing, early findings point to Blackstone, personally or more likely his estate, selling the copyright to the Commentaries to Thomas Cadell.[3]

As a result, the Edward Christian English edition was not pirated but similar to the equivalent of an edited volume. So while Edward was not a pirate, he had a much harder time defending his books across oceans than he did his brother’s reputation back home. Given the popularity of the Commentaries—even today, it is still frequently cited by the Supreme Court—Edward Christian’s edition was quickly reprinted in Dublin and Philadelphia. So long as the Notes and Additions stayed within English borders, there were means of recourse that Edward or his publishers could follow to prevent piracy. But once the text moved around the Atlantic, to Ireland or America in particular, there was nothing either could do in the legal sphere and so had to rely on other resources. When pirated books, either reprints or hodge lodges of many authors in one, arrived or were produced in America, printers could do with them what they wanted, within the bounds of accepted trade practices.

The language of intellectual property in these practices, while certainly sharing many similarities and principles across the Atlantic, did diverge in some pointed ways in America. Copyrights were not the same thing as bounties: they did not stem from the same place legally and did not function the same way. Copyright was frequently interpreted in this period as an acknowledgment (and subsequent limitation) of a common law, labor-produced form of property. However, many early industrialists in the 1780s and 1790s bridged the rhetoric and functions of copyright and patents, adapting intellectual property to fit the specific context of American nation building and economic independence. Tench Coxe for example addressed the Pennsylvania Society for the Encouragement of Manufactures and the Useful Arts as the Constitutional Convention was underway. In his address, he stressed the importance of bounties as incentives for encouraging inventors and other creative workers to improve their individual circumstances and the nation’s as a whole. Bounties however were not a right but a privilege, a grant given more arbitrarily based on circumstance. If you were a physical pirate, your bounty was based on what you acquired in the moment. If you were an intellectual pirate, your bounties, while state sponsored, were similarly ambiguous.

The links between the clearly different paths of these two brothers goes beyond family connection and rhetorical coincidence, something I did not really consider back in that lecture hall. While it might sound obvious, there was and is a reason why physical and intellectual piracy use similar language, and in the early 1790s, that similarity was based in the interrelated notions of authority and authorization.[4] What was a legitimate show of authority on an individual and national level, what actions were authorized by both those individuals and their representatives, and what went on outside the jurisdiction and physical borders of both dominated discourses on piracy in its many forms.


[1] Only one man, John Adams, was known to survive until 1808 when he was found. Descendants of the sailors from the Bounty live today, both in Pitcairn and around the world.

[2] The exchange consisted of several pamphlets: Bligh’s initial response, An Answer to Certain Assertions Contained in The Appendix to a Pamphlet was followed by E. Christian’s A Short Reply to Capt. William Bligh’s Answer. These materials can be found at the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Huntington Library. Many thanks for their help with this ongoing research!

[3] I’ve been working at length with the Cadell and Davies collections, and found evidence that they maintained a fairly extensive copyright over the Commentaries at least until the early nineteenth century. What I don’t yet know is under what terms of when it began and lasted. This was a surprising find for me, as I initially thought that Christian was one of many authors, like Francis Hargrave in England and St. George Tucker in America for example, who worked with Blackstone. It does seem though, at this stage, that the Christian edition functioned some what differently. This however could change as I learn more information. Again, thanks to the William and Mary Swem Library, the Virginia Historical Society, and the Huntington for their help.

[4] For a few examples of scholarship that addresses these questions, you can check out Doron Ben Atar’s Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Origins of American Industrial Power, Adrian Johns’ Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, Peter Baldwin’s The Copyright Wars: Three Centuries of Trans-Atlantic Battle, Robert Spoo’s Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain, and Mark Rose’s classic Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright.

2 responses

  1. An interesting post, though I’m a bit puzzled as to why you imply that Fletcher Christian was a pirate – he didn’t seize other boats on the high seas. Mutiny against his own commander is a very different matter.
    I think Bligh’s reputation suffered particularly because he was on the receiving end of several mutinies – Nore (1797), but most seriously the mutiny of the New South Wales Corps in 1808 – which is sometimes called the Rum Rebellion. In the subsequent court martial of Colonel George Johnston (facsimile published, Ed J.T.Ritchie) a lot of the evidence turns on Bligh’s character, in a way that certainly wouldn’t be allowed in a trial today.
    I’ve heard it said – though I doubt if anyone could prove it – that Edward Christian’s law book was the only one available in Sydney during the months of legal wrangling that led up to the mutiny. Ironic, but also suggests you may be right about its quasi-authoritative status.


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