What Really Happened on the “Bounty”
They stand within a few feet of each other on the quarterdeck of HMS Bounty. Fletcher Christian, the second in command, on the verge of hysteria, has in a wild, impulsive action “taken the ship,” mutinied, a crime for which the Royal Articles of War allow only one punishment: hanging. Captain William Bligh, showing the composure under extreme duress that was his hallmark and made him one of the greatest “foul-weather commanders” of his age, efficiently prepares to set forth in an open boat with those who choose to follow him—as it happens, half of the Bounty’s crew. He orders his men about with rude confidence, and finally calls to Christian, whose eyes are frantic with uncertainty, “They are a rabble, Mr. Christian. They were hard enough for me to command, and I commanded in the name of the law! You have nothing!”
The battle over the Bounty is with us again. Those who get their notions of history from the movies and television may think that this romantic story first broke upon the world with the best-selling pop fictionalized trilogy by Charles Bernard Nordhoff and James Norman Hall in the 30′s, followed by the hugely successful Hollywood film of 1935 with Clark Gable playing a noble Christian (could Clark Gable do any wrong?) and Charles Laughton a most villainous Captain Bligh. The movie was remade in 1962 with Marlon Brando playing a foppish, aristocratic Christian; although departing appreciably from the first version, this did not have the impact required to reverse the earlier stereotype.
Now we have still another version, a quite splendid film, with Australia’s Mel Gibson as Christian and Britain’s Anthony Hopkins as Bligh, both in superb performances. This version hews quite closely to the recent historical work, Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian, by Richard Hough. It displays a few examples of modest, forgivable artistic license and omits a great deal of material. But like the book, the movie gives as fair an evaluation as we are likely to get of the world’s most famous mutiny.
It takes a shaming ignorance of our own and British maritime history to call this movie “revisionist,” as did one of America’s leading liberal newspapers in its news columns. For the new film is revisionist only if Clark Gable is a major historian. The orthodox and prevailing view from Lord Byron and the British Admiralty on has been that Captain Bligh was no harsher than the other great captains of his age like Cook or Nelson; that he was in fact extraordinarily concerned with the health and well-being of his men; and that if he had an extremely unpleasant idiosyncrasy or two they were no more than his junior officers and men were expected to bear. According to this standard view, Christian was weak, indecisive, pampered; above all, he was no leader, as his behavior on Pit-cairn Island later proved.
In the code of the sea, mutiny is the ultimate crime. (For the captain of a ship the French still use the archaic expression, Maître après Dieu, “Master after God.”) And in the late 18th century, even though they sailed under the flags of societies in which personal freedom was evolving rapidly, ships were hardly little floating democracies. In their daily precarious battle for survival, the men lived in a Hobbesian universe: better a bad captain than anarchy. For under anarchy, they would perish, as indeed did almost every single man who followed Fletcher Christian—by sea, by his own hand, by the hand of native islanders, and worst of all by the hands of his shipmates.
By contrast, those who chose to follow Bligh in his open boat participated in one of the greatest ventures in the annals of the sea. Proceeding on one-fifth rations (i.e., on the verge of starvation), navigating largely by memory, with seven inches of freeboard and subject to swamping and drowning at any moment, Bligh took his frail vessel safely through the blood-chilling perils of the Great Barrier Reef and on to the island of Timor in the Dutch East Indies, crossing 4,000 miles of open water in a mere ship’s boat. It was an exploit which struck awe in the hearts of all those who, in the old phrase, went “down to the sea in ships,” and on Bligh’s return to England he was received as a hero by the king.
But first, the movie. Brilliantly acted by Gibson, Hopkins, and Liam Neeson (as Churchill, the master-at-arms), expertly directed by Roger Donaldson of New Zealand, handsomely costumed, the film uses as its “frame story” Bligh’s court-martial upon his return to England. In history this was the purest pro-forma ritual required by the Navy for every captain who “lost his ship” at sea, no matter what the cause. Bligh, a hero, was acquitted painlessly without the slightest doubt of the outcome. In the movie, however, the court-martial is shot with great tension as if Bligh might indeed be found guilty, and all the highly dramatic scenes surrounding the mutiny are shown in flashback. The shift (in terms of movie portrayals of the Bounty story) is that most of these scenes are now shown from the side of authority, from the point of view of Bligh who, halfway around the world, “Master after God,” is responsible for the safety of his ship and its crew.
We see Bligh, harsh but fearless, battling the winds of Cape Horn for a full, merciless month. Later we see the Bounty arriving at last at its goal of Tahiti, and the canoe-loads of beautiful, bare-breasted maidens coming forth to welcome it. Bligh’s mission is to carry a shipload of breadfruit cuttings for transplantation in the West Indies. To get the cuttings to take root in the Bounty‘s pots requires some six months, during which the crew avails itself to the full of the Polynesian women’s notorious sexual promiscuity, and Christian himself forms a romantic liaison with a particularly lovely princess, daughter of the local chief. When the time comes to set to sea again, there are sad farewells—although nowhere in the film is there anything to suggest that the coming mutiny is prompted by a longing on the part of the men to return to their Tahitian mistresses.
But the Bounty, in its six months in Tahiti, has become a slack ship. Bligh is in extremely bad temper and the brunt of it falls on his former favorite, Christian. It is Bligh’s unfortunate quirk to insult his officers in front of the crew—thereby diminishing their authority over the men. Distraught, tremulous, almost unstrung, Christian complains piteously (as the numerous records all concur), “I am in hell! I am in hell!” Note the complaint: not that Bligh is mistreating the crew, but only that he, Christian, is being mistreated.
Yet even with this strong dose of self-pity on Christian’s part and Bligh’s scathing remarks, there probably still would not have been a mutiny if it were not for the presence on the ship of an Iago, a twenty-one-year-old midshipman, Edward Young. In the film, catching Christian in the middle of the night as he prepares to cast off by himself on a tiny raft, an act equivalent to suicide, Young gently dissuades him and then in a soft, detached voice plants the seed of revolt. “If I were you, Christian, I would take the ship.” Then Young disappears—a trick he has when violent actions he has stage-managed come to a violent head. Before long, in the darkness, the deed is done. At the head of probably no more than a dozen men (out of a crew of forty-four), Christian has mutinied and seized the ship.
The present film, although far closer to the historical record than earlier movie versions, still prettifies, among other things, the Bounty‘s return to Tahiti. In the film, King Tynah disapproves strongly of the mutiny, telling Christian he has “disgraced” Tahiti and that King George will be angry and seek retribution (he is certainly right there). He nonetheless allows Christian’s men to rejoin their native consorts. Several of the mutineers prefer to take their chances on Tahiti rather than face the wide Pacific under Christian, and the king even assigns half-a-dozen Tahitians as seamen to Christian, who is short-handed. And then the Bounty sets sail for its secret island, Pitcairn, carrying some dozen loving couples with a few spare Tahitians to man the yardarms. (In historic fact, Christian was ashamed to confess to the chief that he had mutinied, and invented some cock-and-bull story about Bligh having encountered his “father,” Captain Cook, and gone off somewhere—a story which was not believed. Furthermore, besides himself only three of his mutineers had formed real attachments with the Tahitian girls, so, largely to solve the woman problem, Christian gave a big party aboard the Bounty, where the rum flowed like water and he surreptitiously hauled anchor and got under way. In short, all but four of the Tahitian women who formed the idyllic community on Pitcairn Island, and all of the Polynesian men, were shanghaied.)
In the film’s next-to-last sequence we see Captain Bligh, back in England, found innocent of any wrongdoing at his court-martial and marching, relieved but proud, from the audience chamber. The mood of the movie’s very last scene is utterly different, forlorn, even grim. Christian and his racially mixed crew are “safe” on their two-square-mile secret Eden, Pitcairn, and the Bounty—their last link with the outside world—is burning offshore. In the light of the flames the men’s faces are stricken. “We’ll never see England again,” says Young mournfully.
Whereupon we read on the screen that eighteen years later the tiny island of Pitcairn was rediscovered by the American whaling ship Topaz under the command of Captain Mayhew Folger. He found alive on the island nine women and twenty-three children, but only one man. Given that the original mutineers averaged in their twenties, there is something ominous in the fact that only one of them was still alive at the arrival of the Topaz, but not one moviegoer in a thousand can know just how gruesome the ends of the other mutineers were. Presumably Roger Donaldson and Orion Pictures decided that, having rehabilitated Bligh, shown Christian to be a weakling, and suggested that life on Pitcairn was not all sweetness and light, there was only so much Hobbesianism an audience could take. The copious literature about the mutiny has not been so squeamish—of which more later.
Even the welcome corrections the movie does make are less than completely faithful to the historical record. Bligh, first of all, is nowhere near as “rehabilitated” in this movie as he deserves to be. For in point of fact he was universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest navigators and seamen of his day. No less a figure than Captain Cook himself had chosen Bligh as his sailing master. Bligh had phenomenal gifts as a cartographer, draughtsman, and descriptive naturalist, and for his scientific achievements alone was elected to Britain’s Royal Society. He was such an obsessive and accurate keeper of logs and journals that, even half-starved on his prodigious 4,000-mile journey in an open boat, he drew the best charts and descriptions of those waters that the Royal Navy was to have for decades to come. The Admiralty was sufficiently pleased with Bligh after his first, abortive “breadfruit” run, mutiny or no mutiny, to have sent him out again immediately on exactly the same mission—this time completed without incident.
Nor was Bligh lacking in battle honors. He commanded one of Nelson’s ships at the Battle of Camper-down and was decorated for valor by Nelson himself. The three white stripes on Royal Navy uniforms stand for Nelson’s three greatest victories: Trafalgar, Copenhagen, and the Nile. And at one of these, Copenhagen, one of the commanders of Nelson’s ships of the line was, again, Captain Bligh. His years were not without further turbulence, but the judgment of the Admiralty speaks for the general view of his career as a whole: William Bligh retired with the lofty rank of Vice Admiral of the Blue.
And what of Christian and his romantic mutineers? Christian had no sooner sailed the Bounty to the badly charted Pitcairn, where it was ardently hoped that the Royal Navy would never find them, than it became clear he did not have it in him to exercise the leadership that would have been required to hold the community together. Anarchy and a series of revolts soon destroyed all but one of the eight Englishmen and one American (Isaac Martin of Nantucket) who had followed him on this adventure.
To begin with there was the shortage of women. At the start, each of the white men had his tyo, while the six Polynesians had to share two (or three) women among them. Since wife-sharing and some form of polyandry were common among the Polynesians, this was not initially as great a hardship as it might appear. But it was inconceivable from the very beginning that the white men—superior in their own eyes from the point of view of technology, literacy, religion, perseverance, and even bravery—were going to treat the Polynesian males as their equals, and the Polynesian men became virtually a slave caste.
The situation was compounded when two of the white men’s tyos died, one from falling off a cliff and a second from some obscure disease, and John Williams, the ship’s armorer and hence in a strong position, demanded one of the Polynesian men’s women as a replacement. “Sarah” or “Mary,” either would do. During a subsequent struggle, Sarah, thrilled at the prospect of becoming a white man’s tyo instead of a native’s, seized a huge stone and crushed her Tahitian husband’s skull.
Even so things might not have soured so rapidly had not John Adams and Midshipman Young taken to “mixing with the natives,” teaching them, among other things, to use the Englishmen’s muskets. Young once again played Iago, planting the idea in the heads of the Polynesian males that they could kill the white men and take over command, and once again he disappeared at the height of the action as the Polynesians, armed with the white man’s muskets, crept up on their unsuspecting quarry and, one by one, massacred Fletcher Christian and Seamen Martin, Williams (to the despair of his new wife), Mills, and Brown. The remaining Englishmen realized that they would not be safe while a male Polynesian remained alive on the island and, counterattacking vigorously, killed every last one.
But the final revolt was the revolt of the women. While every whaler, sailor, or merchant seaman knew that Polynesia was a paradise of female sexual promiscuity, it is extraordinary how discreet were the allusions to this in British and American writings of the 19th century. But a point that is missed even today about this nearly extinct culture is what it meant when these young Tahitian girls clambered aboard an incoming British vessel and freely and sometimes publicly, as Captain Cook wrote, “offered their persons.” To put it simply, there was some kind of rough equality between men and women. In sex, both were promiscuous. In intertribal wars the men, being stronger, were the “warriors,” but the women as well were combatants, throwing stones (a deadly weapon), and rushing in whenever an adversary was brought to earth to beat his brains out. So not only were Tahitian women highly promiscuous, they could be highly violent. Queen Iddeah, King Tynah’s wife, who does not appear in even this latest version of the Bounty, was a wrestling champion in her youth and remained umpire of all wrestling matches. But it was her sexual habits that flabbergasted Bligh. King Tynah’s efforts apparently being inadequate to quench her appetites, a male house servant, ennobled, was brought into the ménage, and the two men would labor in each other’s presence to satisfy the queen. So there were King Tynah, and Queen Iddeah, and then there was the house servant, as it were Adjunct Fornicator to Her Majesty.
Now at this point on Pitcairn Island, the women far outnumbered the men, of whom only four remained alive. So when the women announced that they had had enough and were determined to return to Tahiti, the demand was not taken lightly, for the Tahitians being as fickle in their general loyalty as in their sexual habits, and a kind of polygamy having been introduced, with two or three women to every man, no man knew when he fell asleep at night whether he would awake the following morning. During the “counterrevolt,” for example, Young’s wife had beheaded one of the natives with an axe as he slept.
The four Englishmen built a deliberately unseaworthy craft and the women set forth with all their children; when the vessel, as intended, foundered in the harbor, the women and children all swam back to shore. The only seaworthy vessel still remaining on the island was the Bounty‘s old cutter. But the women had been producing children at such a prodigious rate (and continued to do so for at least the next 150 years) that there was simply no way the cutter could hold both all the women and all their children. It was therefore fecundity that finally did in the women’s revolt.
The killing among the mutineers was not at an end, however. Of the four surviving men, two, McKoy and Quintal, were, or became, alcoholics. McKoy had worked in a distillery and before long the two were making a potent brew from one of the island’s plants. But the liquor did not bring happiness. One of the other mutineers had been heard to say that he would rather be hanged from a yardarm at Spithead than spend the rest of his life on these accursed islands (so much for our South Seas Arcadia). Soon McKoy bound his own hands and feet, tied a heavy weight around his neck, and leapt from a cliff to his death. Quintal was next. His mind rotted with alcohol, he turned aggressive; Young and Adams, short of powder perhaps, cut his head to pieces with an axe.
But this last murder—or perhaps the increasing loneliness—brought about a startling change in the island’s two remaining adult males. Young, who had played probably the most sinister role in the whole story, underwent a sharp religious conversion, repenting of his sins and ardently espousing the Christianity of his youth. So, too, did John Adams. But Young was dying of asthma, and John Adams was almost illiterate. In a desperate race against time, Young taught Adams to read and write so that, with the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible, he could Christianize the island.
Adams, in his new Christian mode, must have been a man of singular force of personality, because, all alone now as-patriarch of a pack of Tahitian women and an ever-increasing throng of children and grandchildren, he, single-handedly, not only converted them to a very devout form of Christianity but imposed on them the English language, English morals, and loyalty to the British crown. All by himself, and with no communications for decades, this ex-mutineer built on a two-mile rock in the middle of the Pacific a staunch outpost of the British empire. When a royal man-of-war finally found Pitcairn, Adams, now a white-haired old man, on being told Nelson had won a great victory over the French at Trafalgar, leapt into the air crying, “Old England forever!” It can be understood why the ship’s captain could not find it in his heart to bring him back in irons and hang him.
But other than those who survived 4,000 miles in an open boat with their captain, and those who sailed with Christian to Pitcairn and—with the exception of Adams—to death, there was a third group from the crew of the Bounty, those who had chosen to be put ashore at Tahiti. This was a mixed bag of sixteen, some loyal to Bligh but for whom no room could be found in the boat, and others, mutineers, who preferred to take their chances on Tahiti. Charles Churchill, the Bounty‘s master-at-arms and one of the most committed mutineers, went to another part of the island and succeeded in imposing himself as king of the local tribe. He was accompanied by his friend and shipmate Matthew Thompson, but the two men had a falling out. Thompson murdered Churchill, and for his pains was murdered in turn, his skull crushed with a heavy stone by Churchill’s loyal tribesmen.
Meanwhile, no sooner had word reached England of the mutiny on the Bounty than the Admiralty began fitting out a 24-gun frigate, the Pandora, with a strong company of marines aboard, to scour the South Seas for the mutineers. It was commanded by Captain Edward Edwards, a ferocious martinet compared with whom Bligh and most of the other captains of the age looked like Snow White. Once the Pandora was sighted coming into the harbor of Tahiti, more than half of the Bounty survivors rushed to give themselves up as non-mutineers. Only a hardened half-dozen took to the hills to make a stand, and even they eventually surrendered. The whole lot, mutineers and non-mutineers alike, were placed in irons on the Pandora.
Unfortunately, Captain Edwards was not so good a navigator as he was a severe martinet. On the night of August 28, 1791, the Pandora smashed straight into the Great Barrier Reef. Some of the men got off the ship in boats but thirty-five drowned, and four from the Bounty went to the bottom still in irons. Back in England, following the court-martial, three more from the Bounty were hanged, while three were sentenced to be hanged but pardoned under circumstances which still seem dubious. Of the men from the Bounty who survived the sinking of the Pandora at the Great Barrier Reef, only four were acquitted: three whom Bligh certified had been prevented by force from joining him in his open boat, and one blind fiddler.
Eight dead on Pitcairn, two murdered on Tahiti, four in irons at the bottom of the sea, and three hanged at Spithead. All because Mr. Christian had been in “hell.” By and large, it did not look as if the famous mutiny on the Bounty had been a paying proposition. It had been the indirect cause of other deaths as well: more than thirty men from the Pandora in addition to numerous Tahitians and other Polynesians. Even those who, with Bligh, survived the 4,000 miles in an open boat did not all make it back to England. In Batavia (now Jakarta), four of them caught malaria and died. Still another took passage on a Dutch ship which on its homeward journey was lost with all hands.
One of the things that has kept the story of the Bounty alive for so long is that so many of the people involved published their journals or memoirs. Captain Bligh, his perfunctory court-martial over, promptly wrote an account of the mutiny which became a best-seller. He later wrote still another version of the same story, also a best-seller. Lord Byron, whose grandfather had been an admiral, wrote a poem, The Island, based partly on Bligh’s original narrative (“The gallant chief within his cabin slept . . .”). To muddy the waters, an attack came against Bligh that seems to have been inspired by the urge to save the honor of two powerful English families, the Christians and the Heywoods.
Peter Heywood was a Bounty midshipman whose implication in the mutiny was strong enough to get him condemned to death at his court-martial, but whose influence (his uncle was a commodore), wealth (he inherited a large fortune during the court-martial itself), and ardent professions of loyalty to Bligh led to his pardon. No sooner was he pardoned, however, than he turned to Christian’s older brother, Edward, then one of England’s leading barristers, inciting him to launch an attack on Bligh’s character. This the elder Christian did in a vehement pamphlet.
Once Pitcairn was rediscovered, moreover, Adams, the mutineers’ widows, and the older children were all interviewed. One of these widows managed to induce a passing ship to take her back to her native Tahiti, where she encountered a New Zealand journalist with whose aid she, too, wrote her memoirs.
The abundance of documentation aside, there is a profusion of reasons why the Bounty should have become the most famous of mutinies. Most mutinies in those days began with the slaughter of the captain and all the ship’s officers, followed by the later slaughter of most of the chief mutineers (as in the most renowned mutiny in U.S. naval annals, that of the celebrated whaling ship Globe). On the Bounty, providing dramatic counterpoint, the mutiny was bloodless and “nobly” conducted, and both sides survived, at least for a time. Bligh’s voyage in an open boat across the Pacific was a stupendous feat of navigation and seamanship. The sinking of the Pandora added an extra note of tragedy. And then the surprise discovery of the remainder of Christian’s colony on Pitcairn eighteen years later by the U.S. whaler Topaz provided not only melodrama but a dénouement of the mutiny that no reasonable person had any right to expect.
For at least a century the story of John Adams, the last Pitcairn mutineer, became an inspirational tale for British and American Christians. Years after Adams’s death, when officials of the empire decided that his teeming colony of half-breeds would be happier with their “own people” and shipped them to Tahiti, the Pitcairners were disgusted by Tahitian mores and demanded to be sent back home. Such a very Christian place did Pitcairn become that even in the 1930′s it remained a tourist attraction for Americans who wanted to see these people whose ancestors had erred, but who had been redeemed and now lived “without sin.”
In 1831, some forty-two years after the mutiny, Sir John Barrow, Secretary of the Admiralty, wrote what was to stand for a century as the “definitive” account. Although making no attempt to disguise Bligh’s intemperate nature, he strongly stressed “the dreadful consequences that are almost certain to ensue from a state of insubordination and mutiny on board a ship of war” and laid down as an immutable law of the sea that officers and men must “remain faithful under all circumstances to their commanding officer.” The latest edition of Sir John Barrow’s account of the mutiny was published in 1981, exactly 150 years after the first edition (and almost 200 years after the mutiny). It carries in its introduction a statement by Gavin Kennedy, a modern Bounty scholar: “The fictional image of Bligh as a sadistic bully driving a demented and terrorized crew to mutiny by floggings and deprivations is such nonsense that it is hardly worth debunking. By 18th-century standards Bligh was, physically, a soft commander.”
Still, what might have maintained the Bounty‘s popularity over two centuries is precisely the preservation of Bligh as at least a highly authoritarian figure. For it was this image of Bligh that allowed the tale to acquire its resonance as a drama of order vs. justice, one of the ultimate problems facing men in an organized society. The Hobbesian principle could justify the most unlimited assumption of power; but under civilian conditions, on land, in time of peace, this seemed increasingly unacceptable in a dawning democratic age. (The mutiny on the Bounty took place in 1789, the same year as the fall of the Bastille in Paris.) The stage, therefore, was set. Beginning with the 1930′s there emerged a new view, featuring a fictionalized Bligh as merciless tyrant and an equally fictionalized Christian as a combination of Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.
One factor in the shift, it now seems obvious, was the disappearance from popular memory of the true conditions of life at sea. The simplest illustration is flogging. Historically, its use was once quite general; in the Royal Navy it was not abolished until as late as 1881. Captain Cook had all men flogged who would not eat the malt extract British chemists had concocted to protect them from the scourge of scurvy. Nelson flogged his men, as did every other commander (which did not noticeably diminish their fighting spirit at Nelson’s message before Trafalgar, “England expects every man to do his duty”). Once the age of flogging passed away, however, it became hard for a person of modern, humane sensibilities to read a detailed description of a flogging—let alone see it enacted in a film—without feeling he was witnessing a “cruel and unusual punishment.” So Bligh, a “soft” commander for his time, by one description a “lamb,” by this shift in mores was converted into a sadistic brute, and the framework of the whole story changed.
By a quirk of fate, though, the people who brought this particular version of the Bounty mutiny before the mass public were not pacifists, leftists, anti-imperialists, or anti-militarists, but two genuine war heroes from World War I, Charles Bernard Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Both men had flown in combat in the same Lafayette Escadrille, Nordhoff winning the Croix de Guerre and Hall the Croix de Guerre with five palms, the Légion d’Honneur, and the Medaille Militaire, France’s high military decoration. In 1918, both transferred to the newly formed U.S. Air Services, where Hall became one of the first two Americans in history to win the Distinguished Service Cross.
It is perhaps worth noting, however, that in the highly individualistic way in which aerial combat was conducted in World War I, with glamorized dogfights of “ace” against “ace,” neither of the two had ever commanded anybody. This was a part of military life of which they had no experience. They were, moreover, both highly romantic. Brought together to do a book on the Lafayette Escadrille, they discovered that they shared a desire to continue their life of adventure. Hall’s favorite writer was Joseph Conrad (whose writing his own does not much resemble, unfortunately). Whereas Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald went to Paris, Nordhoff and Hall went to Tahiti.
For Hall, a hard-core Arcadian who even hated the automobile (odd in a fighter pilot), it was a love affair that lasted a lifetime. For Nordhoff it lasted at least many years. They both married Tahitian women and had numerous children of mixed blood. Unquestionably, at the time they published the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy (beginning in 1932), they still felt that Polynesians were the “true successors of Adam and Eve in innocence, for here was Eden before the Fall.” So their own life experience led them to romanticize to the full the attraction that Tahiti had for Fletcher Christian and other 18th-century British seamen. When research material on the mutiny was sent them from London—they did not bother to go themselves—it no doubt struck them that Captain Bligh was a very mean person. And thus a great best-seller was born.
It is interesting to note that although the Nordhoff-Hall version conquered popular audiences, helped immensely by the Clark Gable movie, it was considered wildly unhistorical in academic circles. It is perhaps also worth pointing out that Nordhoff’s passion for “the islands” at some point snapped. Having already divorced a Tahitian woman to take a Tahitian mistress, he suddenly threw the whole game up and went to California, leaving behind no fewer than six half-breed children, some legitimate, some illegitimate, none of whom he ever saw again. Curiously he brought three daughters (all legitimate) back with him to California, where they were raised by his sister. But he remained quite cold to Hall’s plaintive letters warning that if he did not help his illegitimate Tahitian children financially they would “go bush.” What published evidence I can uncover seems to suggest that this is exactly what happened. In the end, Nordhoff took to drinking heavily and seems to have committed suicide.
Hall, for his part, never abandoned his Tahitian wife (herself a half-breed) and two children, but his Tahitian Arcadia was highly selective. Although during his trips through the islands he rejoiced in the absence of doctors, which he took as further indication of the Polynesians’ prelapsarian state, at the first hint of a personal ailment of his own he was off to the Harvard Medical School or the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He, but not Nordhoff, was at least spared the ultimate prelapsarian experience: returning home one afternoon to be greeted by one of his children with the cry, “Daddy, daddy! Mummy’s in bed with the new chauffeur!” These men, with varying elements of self-deception and hypocrisy, were living out in Tahiti some kind of daydream; their Fletcher Christian was a daydream; and their Mutiny on the Bounty was a daydream made to match.
But every age has its fashions. In 1965 (one is surprised it took so long) a book was written advancing the thesis that there had been a homosexual love affair between Bligh and Christian, and that the mutiny was the result of a lover’s quarrel between the two. Richard Hough’s Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian, like some intervening works, follows this line, although the author, in my view, twists his pièce à conviction unconscionably.
Midshipman Heywood was the last person to speak to Christian on the beach at Tahiti before the mutineer took the Bounty out to sea and, eventually, to Pitcairn. Since Heywood was his best friend, Christian entrusted to him a secret to be communicated to his family: “Other circumstances” connected with the mutiny, although they would in no way justify the “crime he committed against the laws of his country,” would nonetheless serve to “extenuate” his responsibility. At least this is what Heywood said in a letter to a fellow naval officer. What this secret was we do not know, since nothing has come down to us in either the Heywood or Christian family papers.
This, needless to say, has not stopped historians from guessing. The first guess has traditionally been venereal disease, which had affected nearly half the Bounty‘s crew and, we now know, was widespread in Polynesia before the arrival of Europeans. A homosexual connection is also not implausible. (Winston Churchill, with his catchy way of phrasing things, once said that the Royal Navy was ruled by “rum, sodomy, and the lash.”) But Hough is rather naughty in omitting that Heywood, in the same letter in which he refers to Christian’s claim that there were extenuating circumstances, wrote that these circumstances “can implicate none but himself [Christian].” Since a homosexual relationship would normally involve more than one person, this does not exactly support Hough’s theory. Barring an unexpected find, we shall probably never have an answer to this question, but in any event the film, mercifully, steers clear of the whole subject.
To my mind, a far deeper mystery is what drove these “iron men in wooden ships” to the far corners of the earth under such arduous and brutal circumstances. Even allowing for the practice of impressing seamen on the high seas and in the taverns of Navy towns, those impressed were usually already sailors, for the Navy wanted men who knew the work. If they had not gone to sea these men might have remained agricultural laborers or shopkeepers’ assistants; they would have led lives of poverty, admittedly, but with any kind of luck they would not have been flogged, or starved, or drowned. But this was a period in history when a strange vitality drove the people of Europe—not just Britons but almost all Europeans—to expand, to leave their mark upon the entire earth, to see what lay beyond the beyond.
At almost the exact period of the Bounty mutiny, the great African explorer Mungo Park (who had the same patron as Bligh, Sir Joseph Banks) was tracing the course of the Niger. As he made his way across West Africa, buying his right of passage from a series of extraordinarily acquisitive African chiefs—many of whom ruled small empires, having enslaved neighboring tribes they had conquered—Park encountered one who asked what he was about, his skin so pale, wandering so far from home. Park told the chief he wanted to see the Niger. The chief did not understand. Were there no great rivers in Park’s homeland? Park admitted there were. Well then, said the chief, why did he not just go look at one of them? This is a question that is harder to answer than it seems, and I am not certain that Park ever gave the chief satisfaction.
After writing his classic Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799), which had great success, Park returned to his native Scotland where he resumed the practice of medicine near Edinburgh. He was a close friend of Sir Walter Scott (Fletcher Christian, implausibly, had been a schoolmate of William Wordsworth), but the practice of medicine in Scotland was boring after Africa, and when the government asked Park to lead another expedition to the Niger he accepted with alacrity. Commissioned a captain for the purpose, he led a British force of forty-six inland from the coast. By the time they reached the Niger, thirty-five of them had died from fever or dysentery. But before his departure, Park had written that it was his fixed resolution to trace the entire, mysterious course of the great river. “Though all the Europeans who are with me should die, and though I were myself half dead, I would still persevere, and if I could not succeed in the object of my journey, I would at least die on the Niger.” Such, indeed, was to be his lot. During the last stage of his journey down the Niger by canoe, only four Europeans remained alive. Under attack from hostile natives on the banks, their canoe struck a rock and they all drowned except for one African bearer, who lived to tell the tale.
Captain Bligh in the South Pacific, Captain Park in Africa, there were thousands of them, daring men who never for one moment questioned the value of their missions or, to be frank, the primacy of their civilization. In their age, they were supported with boundless enthusiasm by the crown, the government, the aristocracy, the scientific and literary classes. Even Fletcher Christian felt he had committed a terrible crime against his country, and wherever he wandered in the islands of the Pacific, mutineer though he was, he planted the Union Jack.