Monday, November 28, 2011

The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, by Caroline Alexander

Going into this, I realized how little I knew about the story of the mutiny on the Bounty. Alexander posits that the story "everyone" knows is that Captain Bligh was a tyrant and Fletcher Christian a noble man pushed beyond the limits of endurance. I knew that Bligh was supposedly a taskmaster, but also that the mutineers' plan was to return to Tahiti and a life of indolence, so I never saw what they did as particularly noble. I mean, you signed up for the British navy, Mr. Christian.

(Also, I cannot read the name "Fletcher Christian" without hearing it sung to the tune of Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" in my head. But that's my problem. Actually, it's probably your problem too, now. Sorry about that.)

The vast majority of this book is taken up with the court-martial of several of the mutineers, who broke off from Christian's group and remained on Tahiti for a few years until a British ship picked them up. Christian took the Bounty on to Pitcairn Island (with several kidnapped Tahitian women who were used as sexual slaves by the mutineers) and started a small colony, but they were not discovered until years later.

Fascinatingly, it turns out you can have a court-martial on a mutiny even if the captain is not present. At the time of the court-martial, Bligh was off on another voyage, and Christian hadn't been found, so the official record of what happened is completely inconsistent. Everyone had a different story, which neither Bligh nor Christian was there to confirm or refute, and what comes through the various tellings and the entirety of the book is that no one knows why Christian did it. No one witnessed any argument severe enough to lead to a mutiny; the story that Christian had fallen in love with a Tahitian woman was actually fabricated years later; and though everyone is agreed that Christian ranted about having "been in hell for weeks" at the time of the mutiny, no one had seen any signs of that misery before.

No one knows what happened to Christian, either. They found his sons, and the other children of the mutineers and the Tahitian women, about twenty years later, but the one surviving mutineer gave about six different stories as to how Christian died (and there were some theories that this guy was actually Christian, giving the name of another mutineer to avoid being taken back to England). The colony on Pitcairn Island became sort of a tourist attraction, the statue of limitations on mutiny apparently having expired. Well, that and the fact that by then the story had been re-written so that it was all Bligh's fault.

Bligh, according to Alexander, was pretty cool. He didn't punish anyone without cause, and the health and survival rates of his men were absolutely unheard-of for a voyage of that duration. And it is generally agreed that his navigation of a small boat overloaded with loyalists and supplies (to the point that only 7 inches of it was above water) over 3,000 miles to Timor is an astonishing nautical feat.

But the families of Christian and another mutineer wanted to retrieve their reputations, and the only way to do that was to sabotage Bligh's. They joined forces with an abolitionist crowd who made much out of the fact that the Bounty's mission was to collect breadfruit that was destined to feed slaves in the Caribbean. Therefore Bligh could be characterized as a supporter of slavery, and it was a small step from there to characterize him as a slavemaster on his own ship.

This book is extraordinarily interesting, even if at the beginning I had a very hard time keeping the various players straight. Alexander does provide a list of the ship's company, which is helpful, but there is a sailor named Heywood and another named Harwood, and this caused me all kinds of problems. She writes elegantly and clearly, and though her sympathies are clearly with Bligh, she gives equal weight to the mutineers' testimony. I do wish that the Tahitian women's stories had been given more than a little postscript at the end: the myth of the men falling in love with Tahitian women and wanting to stay there in domestic bliss is definitely one I'd retained, and the reality of kidnapping and rape needs to be told.

Overall, I highly recommend it if you are interested in history.

Next up: One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson. If enough people start reading this blog, I will give the readers the chance to choose what I read next!

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