The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty

by Caroline Alexander
ISBN: 067003133X

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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 Bligh.
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 [1789] 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 effect."

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, the Bounty.
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 gazes."
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 Laughton.
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 changed there.

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