Review of The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Caroline Alexander
I usually like to have two or three books going at once, alternating chapters between books. Fifty pages into this book I put all other reading aside. I let myself be whisked away back to the eighteenth century where I stood in judgment of the mutineers aboard the Bounty.
I was drawn to this book after reading the book Lost Paradise by Kathy Marks. That book tells the story of sexual abuse attributed to the male descendants of the Bounty mutineers who took refuge on Pitcairn island. Together these two books tell a story that was literally hundreds of years in the making. If you really want to immerse yourself in a story, I recommend that you read both books starting with The Bounty, even if you think you know the story.
Like most people, my introduction to the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty is from film, specifically the one with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins (which by the way I have added to my Blockbuster que). I vaguely remember seeing the one with Marlon Brando. The Mel Gibson film is a fair re-enactment that gives equal treatment to both sides of the story. One version is that Bligh was a tyrant who had it coming and that Fletcher Christian had simply had enough. The other version is that Fletcher had overreacted and the mutiny was a spur of the moment decision made under the influence of alcohol. The truth lies somewhere in between.
What makes this book such a compelling read is the author's reference to the plethora of written documentation from all parties before and after the mutiny. Who was behind the mutiny? Who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? The mutiny occurred in the early morning hours while most were asleep. The decisions made that day affected the lives of hundreds of people for generations.
The petty quarrels, personality conflicts, and abuses of authority are not that dissimilar to what occurs in your typical airline, where crews spend a lot of time cooped up together. In the case of the Bounty, however, we're talking years and not your typical three day trip. It's fascinating to look back over the events that led to the mutiny and see how one person's perception can differ so greatly from another. Bligh's reprimand of Fletcher for stealing a few coconuts may seem frivolous to anyone looking at it from a distance, but when the reprimand is given in front of the rest of the crew it takes on great importance in Fletcher's mind. Fletcher's decision to take command of the ship was made in haste. Bligh was not a tyrant, but he was also not entirely free of fault. In Bligh's mind his order for his men to sing and dance every evening was proof that his men were a happy bunch. The truth is that Bligh made some poor choices regarding punishment and food rationing. His humiliation of Fletcher in front of the crew pushed Fletcher over the edge.
But what of the other mutineers? Fletcher was not alone, but the vast majority of the men on board had no inclination that a mutiny was about to take place. Once the mutiny began, their reaction to it would have great consequences. Bligh and his supporters were put into a launch. There came a point where even Bligh had to tell his men to stay with the Bounty because there was no more room in the launch, but staying behind meant that they might be considered aligned with the mutineers. Getting in the launch meant certain suicide. Some who were seen in arms were counted as part of the mutiny. Later testimony indicated that there was some talk about retaking the ship and that they had taken up arms in order to fight the mutineers. Who was telling the truth? The fact is that innocent men were condemned for their actions and guilty men escaped justice.
The author gives a succinct summary. "What caused the mutiny on the Bounty? 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."
But the story doesn't end with the mutiny. The second book Lost Paradise tells the story of what happened to the descendants on Pitcairn island. Hints of what was to take place can be found in Caroline Alexander's book. Here is a passage from a captain who stumbled on the island describing what he found. "'It is not possible to behold finer forms,' Pipon observed delightedly. Venerable John Adams, the island patriarch, had complemented the young women's native modesty by instilling in them "a proper sense of religion and morality." According to Adams, since Christian's death, "'there had not been a single instance of any young woman proving unchaste; nor any attempt at seduction on the part of the men.'" To the English captains wandering beneath the luxuriant trees among the bare breasted virgins, it seemed they had entered a kind of paradise-a rich Eden with its own Adam, innocent of civilized wiles. Pitcairn had many of the attractions of Tahiti, enhanced by a recognizably English decency, the Book of Common Prayer and blushing modesty. Here, in short, a descent man might feel no shame in gawking at the island's naked girls.
But here again all was not as it appeared. All but a few of the women taken to Pitcairn were taken there unwillingly. They were sexually abused and treated as servants. Their fate and that of their offspring is perhaps the saddest outcome of the mutiny.
If you read this book I highly recommend watching the film The Bounty with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. The film brings to life the story in a way only film can.