Jul 172010

At first sight, it would seem unlikely that a Veracruz sugar plantation could be linked, even indirectly, to Mutiny on the Bounty. The connection, which also takes in the San Francisco earthquake and one of Mexico’s most famous tourist guide books, is made via Charles Bernard Nordhoff, born in London, England in 1887, to well-to-do American parents.

When Charles was very young, the family moved to Berlin, where his mother wrote in the family diary that, “Charlie undoubtedly began his study of water fowl, as his daily outing in a small pram or push cart led him first to the bakeries for a supply of stale buns and back to the lake to feed the ducks.” The family also lived on a ranch near Todos Santos in Baja California, where as a young child, Nordhoff learnt to hunt, sail and fish.

Later, the family moved to California. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, a journalist and  author, Charles Nordhoff wrote his first article at age 15 for an ornithological journal. He studied briefly at Stanford University, but left in the aftermath of the serious earthquake and fire of 1906.

After completing a B.A. at Harvard University, he moved back to Mexico in 1909 to work as a supervisor on a sugar plantation in Veracruz, where he was besotted with the owner’s attractive daughter. Unable to win the heart of the beautiful young lady, and with the Mexican Revolution breaking out around him, Nordhoff left Mexico in 1911; he never  returned.

But Nordoff’s adventures were far from over, In 1917, he joined the French Foreign Legion as a pilot, eventually winning the Croix de Guerre for his efforts. After the war, he wrote a history of the Lafayette Flying Corps. with James Norman Hall. Hall later landed the job of updating Terry’s Guide to Mexico, by far the most famous guidebook to Mexico of its era.

Nordhoff and Hall later moved to Tahiti to write travel articles for Harper’s, where Nordhoff married a Polynesian woman, Pepe Teara; they had six children. While Nordhoff wrote several books of his own, including several novels, he is best known for his collaboration with Hall on the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy about the famous 1789 mutiny in the South Seas. The novel was the basis for three movie versions, the first of which, released in 1935, won an Oscar for Best Picture.

Tragically, following a severe depression and heavy drinking, Nordhoff took his own life on 10 April 1947.

This is an edited excerpt of a biography that first appeared in Tony Burton’s Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an anthology of travellers’ tales (Sombrero Books, 2008). All rights reserved.

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