Thursday, August 25, 2011

Caroline Alexander's "The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty" (Steak Knives)

Here's another tale from history I had only a vague sense of, at least prior to reading this account.  I hadn't seen either film representation (Brando or Gibson), but somehow the idea of this mutiny was just part of my 'pop culture' awareness.

The story arc, in very short form, goes like this...

Captain Bligh is tasked with transplanting Breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies and charting the Endeavour Strait, based on his familiarity with the South Pacific, and all in the interest of the betterment of the empire.  His stop in Tahiti goes longer than planned, and the crew gets very comfortable with the surroundings and locals (particularly the exotic and 'liberal' women).  Shortly after embarking on the return voyage from the Pacific, Bligh is seized in his sleep, still in his PJ's, and thrown into a small launch with those still loyal to him to fend for themselves without charts or navigational instruments (an almost certain death sentence).  Bligh and his men survive over a month, traveling almost 7,000K to rescue at a Dutch outpost in Kupang.  Fletcher Christian, leading the mutineers, returns to Tahiti to kidnap some ladies and eventually settles with the remaining collaborators (after much strife) on Pitcairn Island.

Imagine 47 days and 6,700 KM on this tiny launch, open to the elements, without charts or instruments, and little food or drink.

The popularly believed cause for the mutiny is Bligh's rough and cruel treatment of the crew, and his treatment of Christian in particular.  While I shared this belief from my own vague familiarity with the story, Alexander argues persuasively that this is neither a fair nor realistic representation of the cause.  As the above synopsis implies, it was more about a return to the idyllic and sexually liberal life at Tahiti (or similar) that drove the mutineers to take control of the ship.

While this may sound like an overly simplistic account of the mutineers' motivation, Alexander adds to her case.  For example, the verbal abuses Bligh was accused of hurling at the court martial of the captured mutineers (yes, a few of them were captured and brought to justice to varying degrees - most hung*) was about standard for ship-banter at the time.  Let's acknowledge here that an 18th C. sailing ship was not the paragon of a PC or equitable work place.  As for physical abuse, it seems Bligh was actually conservative in his lashes to the crew, when compared to contemporary colleagues on other vessels - and by a substantial margin.

The blighting of Bligh's reputation followed the concerted efforts of Fletcher Christian's embarrassed but well connected family to discredit the captain.  In so doing, it was hoped they could absolve their son of the moral responsibility for leading a mutiny and lift their own shame.  (About this time, Fletcher's life is ending on Pitcairn - by suicide, murder or massacre according to varying reports).  The popular smear job sticks, despite Bligh's return to active service - getting back on the horse and re-tracing the Breadfruit mission with full success, and subsequently being called out personally by Admiral Nelson for his service at the Battle of Copenhagen.  He retires a Vice Admiral himself.

I was led to this one by way of my Captain Cook reading of late.  Bligh earlier sailed with Cook on his third and fatal voyage, with great success and demonstrating substantial skill in charting new and unfamiliar waters.  While this serves (I think) to bolster a pro-Bligh perspective on the mutiny, it also brings to mind how remote, romantic and exotic Tahiti (at that time called Otaheite) must have seemed to the crew.

Maybe we can empathize a little bit with their
motivations from here and now?
It's a fine set of Steak Knives.

* The text's first section is an account of the captured mutineers' return voyage to Great Britain, itself an amazing tale.  They sailed on the Pandora, kept in a cage they dubbed 'Pandora's Box.'  The ship struck a reef and was sunk of the coast of what is now Australia, with some of the prisoners going down with the ship.  Quite a journey, there and back...

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