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.
After sailing ten months and 27,000 miles, the Bounty arrives in Tahiti. In contrast to the tyrannical atmosphere aboard ship, the islands offer almost unbounded freedom. Crewmembers submit to tattooing, exchange their clothing for local garb, and acquire deep suntans. Eagerly adopting a traditional Tahitian custom, the men each choose a taio, or special friend, from among the indigenous people of the islands. During a sailor’s stay in Tahiti, the taio will supply him with all the delicacies the islands have to offer. Byam’s taio is Hitihiti, a respected chieftain who knows Captain Bligh from his previous visit to Tahiti accompanying the famous explorer Captain Cook.
During the stay at Tahiti, Byam, living ashore, collects information for his language study. Most of the sailors find women with whom they live on the island and to whom some of them marry. Fletcher Christian chooses as his female companion a woman named Maimiti, the niece of Byam’s taio. George Stewart chooses a Tahitian he calls Peggy. Byam is too devoted at the time to absorbing the culture, learning the language, and preparing his lexicon to become involved with a woman.
Unlike the rest of the crew, Captain Bligh seldom ventures from the Bounty and maintains the strictest decorum. He continues to exercise the cruelties that most of his underlings consider excessive, unfair, and illegal. One practice in particular that galls the crew is the captain’s insistence upon confiscating the sailors’ property, gifts from the island, when the Bounty sails again. These gifts include tapa cloth garments, fresh fruits, wildlife, handmade crafts, and pearls, which the...
(The entire section is 1295 words.)