Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In late 1787, young Roger Byam accepts Lieutenant William Bligh’s offer of a berth as midshipman on the HMS Bounty, an armed British transport commissioned to ship breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies to provide a cheap source of food for the black slaves of English planters. Byam’s special duty, under the aegis of Sir Joseph Banks, a family friend and president of the Royal Society, will be to complete a Tahitian dictionary and grammar for the benefit of English seamen.
While still in port, Byam witnesses a brutal example of British naval law: A sailor is subjected to dozens of lashes with a cat-o’-nine-tails for striking an officer, and the punishment is carried out to its conclusion, even though the man dies midway through the flogging. Once the full complement of officers and crew—a total of forty-five men—is aboard and favorable winds prevail, the Bounty sets sail.
Byam, a novice sailor from a sheltered, well-to-do background, begins to learn the ways of a ship at sea and comes to realize that Captain Bligh, though a competent navigator, represents the worst traits of British naval commanders. Bligh’s unbending adherence to discipline, demonstrated through excessive floggings for minor infractions and his insensitivity toward the crew as human beings, is exacerbated by his exploitation of the men: Their food rations, barely edible, are reduced so the captain can profit.
(The entire section is 1295 words.)
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