Mutiny on the Bounty

by James Norman Hall, Charles Nordhoff

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Roger Byam, retired from the Royal Navy after forty years and a nautical scholar, writes in his journal, “fight(ing) the old battles over again.” As an impressionable youth of seventeen with a sense of adventure, he’s enlisted to sail with a former colleague of celebrated explorer Captain Cook: Lieutenant Bligh. Bligh comes across as a worldly, charismatic figure, and Byam is gratified to join his upcoming sea voyage.

It’s 1787, and the British have commissioned a “Man-of-War,” The Bounty, to haul a shipment of Tahitian Bread Fruit to its slave colonies in the West Indies. Breadfruit is a plentiful tropical staple (a starch), and spreading the plant will provide food for these natives, subjects of the British Empire. Naturally, Tahiti itself is a subject of fascination to the British: an indescribable paradise.

The Bounty will be rebuilt into a floating garden to accommodate the plants. Young Byam, good with languages and the son of a highly reputed Navigator, is tasked—by the naval commander, Sir Joseph Banks—to be a crewman and a contributor to a dictionary of Tahitian native languages.

The departure of The Bounty is a racket of industry as they set off. Generous rations of beer, wine, and grog keep the men’s morale bumping along. But dissension arises early during the long months at sea. It’s evident that Sea Law is exceptionally harsh; scofflaws receive upwards of two dozen merciless, public whippings. A series of incidents of lost, missing, or stolen food and beer set the deprived crewmen on edge, especially considering rumors of Bligh’s hoarding foodstuffs for the Captain’s table. That and professional envy on the part of the second-in-command, Master Flyer, towards the Master’s Mate, Fletcher Christian, further inflames tensions on board.

The Bounty makes port in Tahiti. Many are the nuances and novelties of the life and culture there, with sociality and romance in abundance, so Byam (and by extension, the claustrophobic seamen) can’t help but soak up the pleasure. Byam is dispatched to compile his Tahitian/English dictionary and falls under the enchantment of island life.

This island paradise is, of course, antithetical in spirit to Captain Bligh’s demands for discipline and fealty. At the point at which the crew must leave the island, the men, now accustomed to a degree of liberty and having been indulged by their island sweethearts, would again be pulled up short by the Captain. “Bligh’s harsh and ungovernable temper once more began to assert itself.” Adding insult to injury, the Captain reneges on gifts of livestock, fabric, and miscellaneous items from the Island families to the sea men, and vise-versa, considering anything that doesn’t benefit his larder to be theft.

On the last day in port, the islanders fete the crew. The open spirit of the people and the loveliness of the women will be missed keenly. Some of the crew use the party as cover for their desertion. This would be cause for capital punishment back at home, but certainly warrants flogging as the fugitives are recovered. The men have all formed attachments and entanglements on the island.

Routine is reestablished, in time. Their next landing, and island sojourn, is as negative an experience as Tahiti was positive. The captain continues his unreasonable path, and all the others suffer the consequences. The men are now angry that the breadfruit have to be tended and watered regularly, as the breadfruit generally has better lives than the powerless proles in Her Majesty’s Navy.

Fletcher Christian, the third officer in command, the Master’s Mate, asserts himself. Bligh is drunk with power, and his men are just drunk, spoiling for a fight and turning on each other, and, of course, Bligh. Full-blown mutiny ensues.

A party, including Byam (who’s innocent of mutiny) splits off and returns to Tahiti. The Bounty returns to England with Christian in command. This means arrest and court-marshal for the crewmen, who are extradited from their adopted country. And, in Byam’s case, have lived to tell the tale.

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