The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty|
by Caroline Alexander
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|A Review of: The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on The Bounty
by George Fetherling
Caroline Alexander's book Endurance became a surprise bestseller
six years ago and started a revival of interest in the Antarctic
explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton-one that grew to include books about
the leadership lessons that executives can supposedly gain by
studying him. In fact, the success of Endurance launched the
publishing craze for books about the age of exploration generally.
Alexander herself now returns to the field with The Bounty, a much
more impressive work that will have a different effect. No one is
ever going to write a book called Management Secrets of Captain
People have been doing books about the Bounty for more than 200
years, and many previous writers, though none with Alexander's
access to the multitudes, have tried to defend William Bligh's
reputation and make guesses about Fletcher Christian's reasons for
leading the revolt against him. The strength of her book is her use
of primary sources (all of them known) in making a neat narrative
that's well considered and carefully written. One of these original
documents in particular fully captures the drama of the event.
"I have lost the Bounty," Bligh wrote, at the first
opportunity, to his frail, nervous wife back home. "On the
28th. April  at day light in the morning Christian having the
morning watch [...] with several others came into my Cabbin while
I was a Sleep, and seizing me, holding naked Bayonets at my Breast,
tied my Hands behind my back, and threatened instant destruction
if I uttered a word [...] I demanded of Christian the cause of such
a violent act, & severely degraded him for his Villainy but he could
only answer-not a word Sir or you are Dead.' I dared him to the act
& endeavoured to rally some one to a sense of their duty but to no
Even those who believe Bligh was a martinet have never questioned
his seamanship. When he and eighteen others were set adrift in a
23-foot open boat, Bligh, over the next 48 days, sailed it 3,618
miles to Timor in what were the Dutch East Indies and eventually
arrived back in Britain "in a blaze of triumph and white-hot
anger...." The Admiralty sent an expedition to round up the
mutineers, who were easily found on Tahiti-all but Christian and
eight others, who had taken the ship and vanished.
The animating character in the Bounty story is Sir Joseph Banks,
the botanist and president of the Royal Society. He had the idea
to take breadfruit plants from Tahiti, a place he had explored on
one of James Cook's voyages, and cultivate them in Jamaica as cheap
food for slaves. He shoehorned Bligh, whom he would continue to
champion from then on, into command of the expedition and its vessel,
Strictly speaking, the ship was never HMS Bounty, for it wasn't
even a sloop-of-war but a mere cutter, designated HMT-His Majesty's
Transport. It was only 85 1/2 feet in length but had a complement
of 54, all of them volunteers eager to see the delights of Otaheite,
as Tahiti was spelled. This total included many who, like the
sailmaker, Lawrence Labogue from Nova Scotia, had served under Bligh
on previous occasions.
Bligh was grateful to his patron but disappointed in the Navy. In
his glory days, he had been paid 50 a year. Now he was to be
compensated based on the rating of the ship-little more than 18 per
annum. He was a captain only in the sense of being in command.
Lieutenant was his rank, the same one he had held on his first
Pacific voyage as sailing master under Cook. He was the Bounty's
only commissioned officer.
When the appointment came through, Bligh, then on half-pay, was
living on the Isle of Man, where prices were lower. The Christian
family from Cumberland was living there too, and thus Bligh chose
Fletcher Christian, 23 years of age, as one of the master's mates.
Like Bligh, Christian had come to the navy from service aboard
merchant ships. He once told a relative that "it was very
easy to make one's self beloved and respected on board a ship; one
had only to be always ready to obey one's superior officer, and to
be kind to the common men."
Before departing on the Bounty, Christian told his brother, "I
delight to set the Men an Example. I not only can do every part of
a common Sailor's Duty, but am proud upon a par with a principal
part of the Officers.'" The brother, Charles, was awaiting
judgement for his part in a mutiny of his own. The incident arose,
he explained, "from a sudden ebullition of passion springing
from sympathy at seeing cruel usage exercised towards one who
deserved far different treatment...."
Bligh was optimistic as the Bounty crossed the Atlantic, writing
in the ship's log: "My Men all active good fellows, & what has
given me much pleasure is that I have not yet been obliged to punish
any one." Yet he seems to have been a person who didn't always
think before speaking. "Busily intent on his many burdensome
responsibilities, Bligh was unlikely," Alexander writes,
"to have taken note of his men's practiced and scrutinizing
The trouble began when despite repeated attempts the Bounty was
unable to make it round Cape Horn and Bligh decided to recross the
ocean and approach Tahiti from the other direction, via the Cape
of Good Hope. This added 10,000 miles to the voyage. While in
southern Africa making repairs, Bligh criticized the work of a
ship's carpenter who had gone ashore to cut wood. The sailor accused
Bligh of having left the ship "on purpose of finding fault."
Bligh decided not to punish him because "I could not bear the
loss of an able Working and healthy Man." And also because,
as Alexander comments, he "had no commissioned officer to turn
to for authority and moral support-and no marines to back him
up." The carpenter continued to foment trouble.
Having experienced the delights of Tahiti-climatic, culinary and
sexual-the men were reluctant to leave once the plants were loaded.
When they were forced to do so, resentment grew. But what led them
to revolt cannot be known. Bligh put it down to one factor:
"Insanity." Alexander is less sure and more poetic: "a
night of drinking and a proud man's pride, a low moment on one gray
dawn, a momentary and fatal slip in a gentleman's code of discipline-and
then the rush of consequences to be lived out for a lifetime."
Christian took the Bounty back to Tahiti, where the majority of the
rebels elected to stay. They were soon captured and taken to England
to face court-martial and, some of them, the gallows-those who
survived heartless confinement on the homeward voyage aboard a ship
that was wrecked along the way. By that time, the larger party had
quarrelled with Christian's group, which kidnapped a number of
Tahitian women (and Tahitian men as well), reboarded the Bounty and
began searching for a hiding place of their own.
They found it in Pitcairn Island, which for the past generation had
been misplaced on the Admiralty chart by 180 miles. Once there,
they beached the ship and burned it, after taking off anything of
possible use (except the cannon). Christian had been in command of
the vessel only about five months.
Sexual jealousies ran high and the women were mistreated. Violence
erupted between women and men on the one hand and between the
Tahitians and the English on the other. In the first of three
outbreaks, in 1793, Christian was shot in the back and killed while
digging in his yam patch. The killer, a "black" man as
the sailors said, was himself soon murdered.
The last mutineer left on the island, discovered in 1808 and left
unmolested, was John Adams (formerly Alexander Smith). He related
how Christian, in his telling a sullen fellow, had "by many
acts of cruelty and inhumanity, brought on himself the hatred and
detestation of his companions...."
As for Bligh, he was given a second (and bigger) ship to complete
the assignment with the breadfruit, but the species once taken to
the Caribbean proved unsuited to conditions there. He returned to
London just as England and France were going to war again and was
thus passed over for glory. In 1797, he was involved in what some
call his "second mutiny" but was actually more of a
job-action. Still, he fought under Lord Nelson at Copenhagen.
A few years later, in 1808, Sir Joseph Banks got him appointed
governor of New South Wales, but he was deposed in a kind of political
coup. He died in 1817, age 64. There Alexander's fluent narrative,
just the right mix of the serious and the popular, ends. I kept
waiting for the story told by Charles Laughton (who told it to Peter
Ustinov, who's now told everyone else).
When Laughton was going to Hollywood to star as Bligh, opposite
Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian in the MGM film Mutiny on the
Bounty, he stopped at Gieves, the famous military and naval tailor's
in London, to have his uniforms made. The tailor who was measuring
him asked, by way of up-chat, what the garments were needed for.
Laughton told him-and was met with incredulous cries of "Oh
no, Mr. Laughton. Oh no, sir, I don't think so." Before Laughton
could become fully offended, however, the shopkeeper had gone to
the cellar and produced the mannequin of the real William Bligh-who
was obviously a short small-boned man, rather the opposite of
As for Christian, who was never painted in life, he has been portrayed
in movies not only by Gable but also by Errol Flynn (who claimed
descent from one of the mutineers), Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson.
He looked like none of them. Bligh remembered him as "Dark &
very swarthy [with] Blackish or very dark brown [hair.] Standing
about five foot nine, he was strongly built [although his] knees
stands a little out and may be called bow legged."
This is an uncannily accurate description of Christian's
great-great-great-grandson, Tom Christian, with whom I once spent
a day at Pitcairn, where he is the island's patriarch. The last
British colony in the Pacific, with a population given variously
between 35 and 50, Pitcairn is now beset by a terrible scandal:
charges of longstanding sexual abuse brought against the majority
of the adult male population. In this sense, it seems, little has