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#57646 - 09/13/03 06:39 PM cool book on mutiny on the bounty
Marty Online   happy


The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty.
By Caroline Alexander.
Illustrated. 491 pp. New York: Viking. $27.95.

September 14, 2003
'The Bounty': He Was No Charles Laughton

The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty.
By Caroline Alexander.
Illustrated. 491 pp. New York: Viking. $27.95.
he events that took place aboard the Bounty at sunrise on April 28, 1789, boil down to the characters of two men, William Bligh, age 34, and the mutineer, Fletcher Christian, who was a decade younger. As he waited, hands bound behind him, to be lowered into the Bounty's overloaded launch -- and having shouted himself hoarse calling for aid -- Bligh asked Christian, who had sailed with him twice before, how he could have found the ingratitude to mutiny. Bligh recorded Christian's answer in his journal. ''That! -- Captain Bligh,'' said Christian, sounding much like Milton's Satan, ''that is the thing -- I am in hell -- I am in hell.''

Whereas it's safe to say that Bligh was not in hell. Not during the voyage to Tahiti to collect breadfruit trees, or during the mutiny or aboard the 23-foot launch in which he and 18 members of his crew made an astonishing 48-day, 3,600-mile journey. Bligh was not in hell even while awaiting transport home in Batavia, Java, now Jakarta, a pestilence-ridden city that actually was hell, according to contemporary accounts. Bligh sailed with a sublime self-confidence he had learned in part from Capt. James Cook, whose final expedition he had joined as sailing master. Bligh was a brilliant navigator and, like Cook, devoted to the physical health of his men at a time when scurvy still regularly felled ships' crews. He had the satisfaction of knowing his duty and doing it.

Particular Bligh certainly was, even pettily so. He had quarreled with Christian the day before the mutiny over the theft of some coconuts. Lacking a company of marines -- which Cook had always sailed with -- Bligh often had trouble enforcing his authority, in part because he tried to extend it to the very minutiae of shipboard life. But Bligh was no sadistic disciplinarian, no monster of the lash, not by Royal Navy standards. He lacked the inner Laughton we imagine him having. ''On the Bounty,'' Caroline Alexander writes in her stirring book about the mutiny, ''William Bligh had punished his crew with 229 lashes in the course of a voyage of 17 months to the South Pacific.'' In contrast, one of the captains who presided at the courts-martial of some of the Bounty mutineers ordered 278 lashes in just three and a half weeks aboard his ship, the Brunswick. This is the kind of detail that makes one rethink the satisfying tale that the mutiny on the Bounty has become in popular culture. Alexander's vigorous retelling in ''The Bounty'' leads to lots of vigorous rethinking.

To begin with, that old nugget of a tale, as most of us think we know it, is just that, a nugget, a concise dramatic turn aboard a ship overloaded with breadfruit after a long stay in Tahiti and bound for the West Indies. The popular versions of the story are usually over-motivated -- either a tyrannical Bligh, a la Laughton, or a maddeningly effete Christian, a la Brando -- because the actual mutiny seems, if anything, under-motivated. Had Christian appeared at the courts-martial held in Portsmouth harbor in 1792, he might have explained what hell it was that drove him to his actions. It would be worth knowing. The testimony of the mutineers who were court-martialed makes them, and Christian, seem terribly thin-skinned for late-18th-century sailors. Bligh may have been guilty of little more than being inconsiderate of their feelings.

But in 1792, of course, Christian was on Pitcairn Island, 20 degrees of longitude east of Tahiti, with a handful of mutineers and the women they had kidnapped from that island paradise. We have no direct evidence whether Pitcairn, too, was a version of hell for that willful master's mate, but the fact that Christian and all but one of his fellow mutineers on Pitcairn were murdered a few years later ''by their 'Otaheite servants,' who had risen against them'' suggests that it probably was. ''Which way I fly is hell,'' Satan said; ''myself am hell.'' Christian -- a somehow fitting name in the circumstances -- would probably have concurred.

It seems ironic now that Bligh, who survived to tell his tale after a stunning piece of open-boat navigation, should appear less palatable in subsequent retellings of the mutiny than Christian, who stole the Bounty, burned it against the cliffs of Pitcairn Island and vanished into silence, after having, as one mutineer put it, ''brought on himself the hatred and detestation of his companions.'' But there is nothing ironic about it. For Alexander's real story in ''The Bounty'' is not the mutiny itself -- though that is skillfully told. Her story is the Royal Navy's effort to bring the mutineers who did not escape to Pitcairn to justice, a proceeding complicated by the political, legal and social influence exerted to defend Christian's reputation in absentia and that of one of his well-born colleagues in mutiny. This was Peter Heywood, who was among those whom Christian left behind on Tahiti after the mutineers had eagerly returned there after seizing the Bounty. He surrendered to Capt. Edward Edwards aboard the Pandora in 1791.

How Heywood evaded punishment (some less well-connected mutineers were executed), and how Bligh became the undeserving villain of a tale that should have made him a hero, is a story of enormous complexity, one with ramifications that seem to spin off in every direction, into the bowels and high offices of the Royal Navy, into the faded lineage of the English and Manx gentry, into the associations of the Christian family with some of the major Romantic writers. Alexander is more than equal to the task. With this and her previous book, ''The Endurance,'' she has made the wondrous genre of open-boat-voyage narratives still more wondrous. Even a simple ship like the Bounty -- a cutter of 220 tons, only 85 feet long -- seems in her pages to distill the society that manned it and provisioned it. And though Bligh, not Christian or Heywood, embodied the august authority of the Royal Navy in the waters of the South Pacific, Heywood's legal and extralegal defense during his court-martial made it clear that there are rules behind the rules, rules of kinship, fraternization and interest that Bligh himself could not wield to his own benefit. Through this maze Alexander leads us with unflagging zeal.

In the early years of the 19th century, a rumor spread that Christian had been sighted in England. It was reported as certain knowledge by the poet Robert Southey in 1809. Christian was said by others to have worked as a smuggler on the Scottish border. These rumors, of course, make slightly better endings -- more soothing to the feelings of the Christian family, at least -- than the news that he was shot in an uprising while working in a field on Pitcairn Island. The ending the family feared most would, in fact, have been for Christian to tell his story before a court-martial, where the insubstantiality of his motives would have been weighed against the grievous substance of his crime. As for Bligh, he retired as a highly respected rear admiral, but not before failing as governor of New South Wales.

In ''The Bounty,'' Alexander doesn't set out overtly to reach a verdict on the mutiny itself. Absent the testimony of Christian -- who seems to have been part Adam, part Shelley, part Satan -- any such verdict is hopelessly incomplete. (And in Christian's case, a diagnosis would probably be preferable to a verdict.) The temptation to reduce the mutiny to a battle of symbols -- the solipsistic brooding of romanticism versus the dutiful log-keeping and chart-making of 18th-century rationalism -- is ultimately not very satisfying, and Alexander does not indulge herself. She prefers, as will her readers, the ambiguity of the plain facts. But she does come to judgment, and it only heightens the mystery of what was really going through Christian's mind as he took over the watch aboard the Bounty for the last time in the hours just before dawn that April day.

''What caused the mutiny on the Bounty?'' Alexander asks. ''The seductions of Tahiti, Bligh's harsh tongue -- perhaps. But more compellingly, 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.'' This sounds almost like Conrad writing, and indeed it would have taken a Conrad to gives us a psychologically satisfactory Christian or Bligh. A sea mist hangs over this age-old tale. Alexander dispels it, to the reader's fascination. But when all the facts are told and the fates of the cast are duly chronicled, the sea mist settles in again, as impenetrable and yet more interesting than it has ever been.

#57647 - 09/13/03 07:12 PM Re: cool book on mutiny on the bounty
Denny Shane Offline
Thanks Marty.... this will be an interesting addition to my collection. I've been researching my family history for over 30 years and am always looking for new material to add to my collections.

Fletcher Christian was my 15th cousin, 5 times removed (can't forget the removed part). I am actually going to Pitcairn next year. It should be a trip of a lifetime.

#57648 - 09/13/03 07:53 PM Re: cool book on mutiny on the bounty
Laguna Punta Offline
My recent book review reads as follows: Bligh betrayed!! PS. Hope no one calls me "horrifically heartless" this time.
Gone fishing!!

#57649 - 09/14/03 01:57 AM Re: cool book on mutiny on the bounty
Chloe Offline
Book review, read "Mutant Message, Down Under" by Marlo Morgan. Amazon.com. $13.00 What a walkabout/journey, in 187 pages.
Dare To Deviate

#57650 - 09/14/03 06:36 AM Re: cool book on mutiny on the bounty
Denny Shane Offline
Book Review: "Breadfruit Trees for Fun and Profit" by William Bligh 75th Edition Christian Publishing

#57651 - 09/14/03 11:29 AM Re: cool book on mutiny on the bounty
Marty Online   happy
thats exciting Denny!!!!
buccaneer blood, huh?

Bill, somehow heartless and your smiling face don't quite go together no matter what words are attached....

#57652 - 09/14/03 12:19 PM Re: cool book on mutiny on the bounty
Denny Shane Offline
I think so Marty... that must explain why I am so drawn to Rum when on the island. laugh

#57653 - 09/15/03 11:41 AM Re: cool book on mutiny on the bounty
Debbie Offline
There's just something about old salty dogs, rogues and pirates that fascinate me..... must have been a galley wench in a past life... laugh
Not to mention that Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean was soooo OOooo la la!!! :p

#57654 - 09/15/03 02:50 PM Re: cool book on mutiny on the bounty
Marty Online   happy
amen sister. dang he was good in that movie. of course he is ALWAYS good!


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