The Bounty by Caroline Alexander

Viking 2003   491 pp. 27.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 


Early on 28 April 1789, in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, Fletcher Christian ordered mutineers to lower a twenty-three foot launch from the deck of the Bounty, and place into it Lieutenant William Bligh, captain of the ship, and eighteen other men.  The conflicting stories regarding this event, in the words of Caroline Alexander’s new book, The Bounty, “became one of the most famous and abiding of all the great sagas of the sea-surpassed, perhaps, only by the Odyssey.”

Hollywood has long loved this story, remaking it numerous times, most famously with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, most recently with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins.  Alexander shows that this extraordinary story doesn’t need the Dream Machine to enhance its inherent interest.

The mutiny itself wasn’t an uncommon occurrence.  “The events that deprived Lieutenant Bligh of his ship … were not unprecedented for this great age of sail.  Mutiny of one kind or another was not unusual in the British navy; during the twenty-three years of the Napoleonic wars, for example, it is estimated that more than a thousand mutinous events took place.”

What followed the mutiny was, “in the all the centuries of the kingdom’s remarkable naval history,” more remarkable still: “against all imaginable odds, [Bligh] had commanded the little 23-foot-long craft 4,000 miles over a period of forty-eight days to Timor, in the Dutch East Indies.”  On starvation rations, with comically primitive navigation instrument, William Bligh demonstrated sailing skill almost the equal of Captain Cook.

His extraordinary navigation abilities were no accident, as he had learned them from Cook himself.  Although only 33 at the time of the Bounty’s sailing on 23 December 1787, Bligh was already an experienced seaman. “Bligh had served as sailing master of the Resolution on Cook’s last expedition, which had departed England eleven years before, in 1776. … Most unforgettably, Bligh had been present in Hawaii, when on February 14, 1779, James Cook was murdered by the island natives at Kealakekua Bay.”

In addition to a personal connection to the great Cook, Bligh was also the protégé of naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, who himself sailed with Cook in the Pacific, and who then directed his immense wealth, insatiable curiosity, and powerful political influence on his pet project: the importation of breadfruit (artocarpus incisa) from Tahiti to the West Indies.  “The principal object of the Bounty’s voyage, then, was to enable plantation owners to feed their human chattel as cheaply and as efficiently as possible.”  Hence, Banks was the man, more than any other, responsible for sending the Bounty on its way.

However, the voyage was modesty outfitted.  “Unlike the companies of the great men-of-war, hers did not number in the hundreds, but amounted to only forty-six souls.”  Bligh lacked the soldiers usually on board to keep order, and his authority consisted of his powerful personality and the sailors’ sporadically willing deference to it.

Bligh, however, found an ungovernable threat to his clout in the form of the beautiful, sensuous women of Tahiti.  After weeks on board ship, the sailors were not prepared to simply land, cultivate breadfruit, load it on the ship and depart.  This, however, was Bligh’s charge, and he sought to enforce it.  Mutiny befell the ship days out from Tahiti.

What caused the mutiny?  Was it Bligh’s “imperious manner” and “ungovernable temper”?  Or could it be explained more prosaically, by the powerful allure of an island full of bare-breasted, willing Tahitian women?

Alexander goes to great lengths to establish the facts.  Indeed, less than half of the book concerns the mutiny; the majority of it covers the subsequent capture of some of the mutineers and their trial in England.  Her account gives each man his say in extensive detail.  One important, and absent voice is that of Bligh himself: while the trial was being conducted he was once again (this time successfully) gathering breadfruit in the Pacific at the direction of Joseph Banks.

Alexander makes her view clear.  “It can be fairly said of Bligh that his great asset as a seaman was not only his unimpeachable professional skills, but his unshakable, complacent, immodest confidence in them. …  This confidence in turn sprang from a relentless perfectionism, an unwavering and exacting adherence to the strictest letter of the Iaws of his duty.”

In terms of the testimony of history, Bligh’s greatest enemy was not Fletcher Christian, ”but [his] ill Iuck to have his own great adventure coincide exactly with the dawn of [the new Romantic] era, which saw devotion to a code of duty and established authority as less honorable than the celebration of individual passions and liberty.” 

For history and for Hollywood, the head of the mutineers “had elicited the perfect Romantic hero--the tortured master’s mate, his long hair loose, his shirt collar open, he with his gentlemanly pedigree and almost mythic name: Fletcher Christian.”  Alexander helps both explain the popularity of this famous tale and dispel its many invented events.