94. The Bounty (Caroline Alexander)

Friday, January 01, 2010
As you know by know, I'm a big fan of nonfiction, especially books on sailing, exploration, and all things nautical. It should come as no surprise then that I finished off 2009 with a book about probably the most famous mutiny in history. What is surprising though is that other than watching the movie version with Hannibal Lector Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson years and years ago, I knew almost nothing about the Bounty and the mutiny which occurred. Let me summarize briefly: promising British naval lieutenant William Bligh is commissioned to undertake a trip to the South Pacific in order to collect breadfruit plants which can be transplanted to the British slave colonies in the West Indies. After a stay in Tahiti to collect the plants, the Bounty begins the return home. However, just days after sailing from Tahiti, the crew mutinies and sets Bligh adrift along with other members of the crew. Caroline Alexander's The Bounty takes a fresh look at the events surrounding the voyage and the subsequent mutiny in an attempt to fix blame and discover the truth.

From the research she provides (and it is, indeed, quite extensive), it's clear that Christian Fletcher was the ringleader but that others are equally culpable either for their support of Fletcher or their lack of action and unwillingness to support Bligh. Unfortunately, thanks to just about everyone (except Bligh) changing their story at each telling over the years, contradictory journal entries and the loss of important sources, the real reasons leading up to the mutiny will never be known but Alexander does an admirable job of sorting through the convoluted mess that has been left behind.

While I enjoyed Alexander's book immensely, I found that she was hardly impartial in her assessment of blame. She concludes her book with a brief summation of what she feels were the reasons for this tragedy: "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..." (p. 407). Throughout her book, Alexander is consistent in her defense of William Bligh and, while she admits his methods were a bit unusual (something he picked up from his voyages with Captain Cook) and he had a passionate temper, the mutiny simply could not be laid at his feet. She points to reasons Bligh himself felt he could not have been at fault. When commissioned for this voyage, Bligh was not (as he and others expected) promoted to Captain; he retained his current rank of Lieutenant. While as an officer in His Majesty's navy, he would still have expected to be respected and his orders followed without question, the title of Captain would have instilled in the men under his command a greater sense of power, control and leadership ability. Unlike most voyages of a similar nature, Bligh was not granted the use of Marines aboard ship. If he had them at his disposal on board the Bounty, he would have felt more secure in his position and, he believed, the men would not have dared to mutiny.

My big complaint about The Bounty is the relative lack of space dedicated to the overloaded open air boat voyage Bligh and his shipmates undertook after the mutiny. It is truly remarkable that they survived the 3600 mile voyage and eventually made it back to England. And yet, she devotes only one chapter in the entire book to this portion of the whole story. A significantly larger part of the book is spent on the individual reports from the mutineers and men who accompanied Bligh. I would gladly have read an additional 100 pages if she had included more information.

The Bounty is a complete story. While other authors may have simply told the story and followed up with the outcome of the courtmartial, Alexander goes into great detail about the background and families of each of the men involved in an attempt to explain some of their actions as well as the intricate family connections amongst many of the sailors and with Bligh and even some of the judges - connections which would alter not only the outcome of the trial but the way that history has remembered the mutiny. Additionally, Alexander follows up with each of the crew members to see what became of them and how the events of 1789 affected each of their lives. Heavily laden with direct quotes from personal journals, letters, newspaper articles and official trial transcripts, The Bounty can, at times, make difficult reading given the flowery language used at the time and various spellings.

Curious? Check it out! Definately Captain recommended.


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