The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty
By Caroline Alexander
Published by Penguin Audio
Read by Michael York
Not sure why I picked up this book. I did read the classic Nordhoff and Hall The Bounty Trilogy back when I was in junior high school and watched at least one of the films. Until encountering this book I had not realized what a distortion of the facts those versions were. Oh I expected that Fletcher Christian was romanticized to some extent and that Bligh was vilified, possibly if only to heighten the drama, but I honestly had not realized just how badly the facts had been twisted until black was white and right was wrong until I read Caroline Alexander’s book.
I did know that William Bligh had served a long and distinguished career before and after the infamous Bounty incident, including his stint as the Governor of New South Wales and was eventually promoted to Rear Admiral, and I knew he had earlier served with Captain James Cook on his third and fatal voyage into the Pacific, but I had not known that he had commanded a ship at the Battle of Copenhagen from which one could see both Admiral Nelson’s signal to fight and Admiral Parker’s signal to retreat. This is the famous battle in which Nelson held a spyglass to his blind eye and declared he saw no signal. Bligh was the captain in a position in his battle group to see both signals and chose to follow Nelson. Had he echoed the retreat signal, the battle may likely have been a disaster for England.
The author expended an extraordinary effort of academic research to find contemporary documents, such as Bligh’s log of the Bounty voyage and the descriptions by various crewmen, both loyalists and mutineers as well as similar documents from the time and it painted a far different picture of Bligh and conditions on the Bounty. Most versions of the Bounty story paint William Bligh as a cruel taskmaster who put his crew on starvation rations and flogged them frequently. The truth may well be that Bligh was actually less harsh than most men in command of British ships of that day. We must keep in mind that Sailors in the 18th Century expected corporal punishment for certain crimes and wrong doings while on board their ships. Bligh’s log and some testimony clearly shows that he was averse to corporal punishment and on several occasions lectured guilty men rather than putting them to the lash. However, he does seem to have had a temper and a very sharp tongue. I suppose it’s possible those tough men of the sea of old were more easily bruised by a tongue lashing than at the hand of a cat o’ nine tails.
As for starving them, Bligh, having learned from Cook, prided himself on being able to feed his crew by foraging from or trading with various islands along the way. He felt that scurvy was a sign of his own neglect of the crew and had a shipboard doctor to see to the health of the men on board, and to treat them for venereal disease, which apparently quite a few picked up while on Tahiti. There were on short rations on leaving Tahiti, that much is true, which was why they had acquired a large pile of coconuts on one of the islands. The coconut pile stood as high as the rail of the ship when stacked up, but when, the next morning, the pile was much lower, Bligh became angry and accused Christian for their loss, since he was the officer-on-deck at the time.
I seriously doubt the matter of the coconuts were anything but an excuse for the mutiny. It seems more likely that after six months of light work collecting breadfruits on Tahiti and living a by-and-large hedonistic life, many of the men were unwilling to go back to the rigors of life at sea. Christian’s claim that he was “in Hell” due to the way Bligh treated him begins to sound more like the complaints of an overly-entitled twit who could not stand to be berated inform of the crew and, earlier, the islanders of Tahiti. Indeed, he comes off as rather childish, so why is he the great romantic hero of most versions of the Bounty story?
This as Ms. Alexander shows us was due to the actions of the well-connected families of two of the mutineers. These were the distantly related families of Peter Heywood and Fletcher Christian. Heywood, it should be noted was found guilty of mutiny, but was pardoned, supposedly due to his young age (he was 17 at the time) but it should be noted he had been serving since he was 14. He sounds all the more treacherous when you learn that Bligh took him on as a special favor and even served as his host while waiting for the ship to be readied. Christian was another veteran of the sea by the time Bounty had sailed, and had served on three of the same ships Bligh had. Following the mutiny trials to exonerate Heywood (who was eventually allowed to serve in the navy again and even rose to command) and to attempt to remove the stain from the Christian name, the stories began to change.
Charles Christian, brother of Fletcher, put together his own inquiry into the mutiny, leading a committee composed mostly of abolitionists who would not look kindly on Bligh who had sailed in the sugar trade and whose Breadfruit mission was conceived to bring cheap, nutritious food to the West Indies to further the keeping of slaves. (I’d like to note here that even after Bligh brought breadfruit to the Indies in his second attempt, it turns out that the slaves refused to eat it although today it is a popular ingredient in Puerto Rican cuisine). Men who had testified on Bligh’s behalf in the courts martial regarding the Bounty suddenly started telling darker tales, ones that more closely fit what you see in the movies. Even so it becomes clear that in order to salvage their own reputations, the Christians turned Fletcher into the first “Romantic Hero,” an image that remains today.
This twisting of the facts haunted Bligh for the rest of his career, for even while he received multiple promotions, there was always the cloud over him and his reputation for cruel words and a bad temper.
The story of what really happened was further obscured, by the inconsistent stories told on Pitcairn Island by the last remaining mutineer, John Adams (who it turns out had sailed under the alias, Alexander Smith, while on Bounty. Why? I don’t know, but maybe he was hiding something too? In any case his accounts of what happened tended to vary from telling to telling so it is uncertain how accurate his accounts might be. By the time one gets to the end of the book, however the reader will have been exposed to many different versions of Bligh and the Bounty mutiny
All told, Alexander’s book was a fascinating and edifying account of what was, probably, the most well-known mutiny of all time.
I would not expect Michael York to read at any level below excellent and he does not disappoint this time. If someone had told me he managed to read this book dramatically I would either have shuddered in horror at the notion of a dramatic reading of what is a history book, or else have simply not believed them. However, he is never over the top and the bits of dramatic reading are actually nice accents that kept me interested throughout.
There was something wrong with my copy of the audiobook and the tracks were badly out of order. Strangely enough, after listening to some autobiographies lately that bounced back and forth between times and places, this was not as annoying as I might have expected and even out of order it was easy to follow the historical narration and the time line it represented. The fact that there was a fair amount of repetition as each different version of the story was presented might actually have helped there.
So, this is a really interesting telling of the Bounty Mutiny and the events that followed and presented in a manner that will hold the reader from beginning to end and if you like listening to books, Michael York is a great reader to listen to.