More than two centuries have passed since Master's Mate Fletcher Christian mutinied against Lieutenant Bligh on a small, armed transport vessel called Bounty. Why the details of this obscure adventure at the end of the world remain vivid and enthralling is as intriguing as the truth behind the legend. In giving the Bounty mutiny its historical due, Caroline Alexander has chosen to frame her narrative by focusing on the court-martial of the ten mutineers who were captured in Tahiti and brought to justice in England. This fresh perspective revivifies the entire saga, and the salty, colorful language of the captured men themselves conjures the events of that April morning in 1789, when Christian's breakdown impelled every man on a fateful course: Bligh and his loyalists on the historic open boat voyage that revealed him to be one of history's great navigators; Christian on his restless exile; and the captured mutineers toward their day in court. As the book unfolds, each figure emerges as a full-blown character caught up in a drama that may well end on the gallows. And as Alexander shows, it was in a desperate fight to escape hanging that one of the accused defendants deliberately spun the mutiny into the myth we know today-of the tyrannical Lieutenant Bligh of the Bounty. Ultimately, Alexander concludes that the Bounty mutiny was sparked by that most unpredictable, combustible, and human of situations-the chemistry between strong personalities living in close quarters. Her account of the voyage, the trial, and the surprising fates of Bligh, Christian, and the mutineers is an epic of ambition, passion, pride, and duty at the dawn of the Romantic era.
Which is not to say that the reading is not compelling. Alexander goes to some pains to strip away the romantic veneer covering over the facts of the mutiny and those culpable in its execution. Nor does she provide complete exoneration to Captain Bligh, who is revealed as an able, conscientious and decent man, whose few failings were amplified by a flawed crew and lack of support (mainly in the absence of marines on board The Bounty) from the Admiralty. Oddly, but appropriately for such a scholarly work, Alexander pieces together much of what is known about lead mutineer Fletcher Christian from the extant evidence, which in most cases is second hand.
The exhaustive nature of the book does tend to drag in places. The build up to court martial introduces the tiresome (no more here though than she was doubtlessly so in life) Fanny Hayward, along with detailed explanation of the members of the court martial. Interesting and ultimately useful in sorting out the fractured loyalties that defined these men and their subsequent actions, it does get to be slow reading.
But more than a story of one mutiny in the Pacific, it is a tale of a changing world, where the virgin paradise of Tahiti is imbued with the failings of the British Empire, where Nelson's final words, "thank God I have done my duty," are not the anthem of a subsequent age but an epitaph for a waning one. An epic worth reading.
I'll have to try it again because I never finished it -- I simply lost interest because it was boring.
Alexander has done her research thoroughly and what I find most astounding is just how much source material she had to work with. I'm new to British Naval history and I was amazed that they'd managed to preserve the logs and letters.
What was even more astonishing was that the evidence she compiles for this book paints Bligh in such a contrasting light than the rest of the world knows him. We can all spout what we've 'heard' about the reputation of Captain Bligh, but when the facts are laid bare, the story changes dramatically.
I now find myself defending Captain Bligh at every turn and encouraging people to read this fantastic book. Alexander's writing is clear and supremely interesting. She takes the time to explain the naval lingo and the ramifications of log entries and the actions of the Admiralty.
I ended up feeling sympathy for Bligh and just a bit of rage at how he was mistreated. You may not be swept along as thoroughly as I was, but I doubt you'll be able to look at this epic true story in the same way again.
I do believe the basic story of "The Mutiny on the Bounty" is widely known: A British ship named Bounty, commanded by Lt. William Bligh, was seized by mutineers led by Fletcher Christian. Bligh and a group of loyalists journeyed thousands of miles in an overloaded open boat and eventually returned to England. Several of the mutineers were captured on Tahiti, returned to England, and tried, with all being convicted. Three were pardoned by King George III, three others were hanged. Years later, one surviving mutineer was discovered living on Pitcairn Island with a few Tahitian natives and some children fathered by mutineers. But by that time, relatively few cared. The End.
Thanks to high-level family connections, shrewd counsel, bogus investigations, and trash journalism, the tale, even before it had played out, was manipulated and twisted. In the popular mind, Bligh was a despicable villain with Christian becoming a folk hero. Novels and films have been spawned by the tale, and most of them have simply entrenched that idea: Bligh was a villain, Christian a misunderstood, introverted loner-hero.
Caroline Alexander may not be the first historian to research the records for the truth, but her book is the only one on the topic that I've read. She's done a thorough and commendable job. I think she does a good job of marshaling and dispensing the facts to maintain the mystery and our interest. What dialogue there is is taken from letters, trial testimony, written reports, and the like; no fictionalizing. I wouldn't call it a page-turner, and some readers will judge it plodding. I think it's interesting, methodical, thorough. Alexander presents facts, then asks questions and roots for more information and answers.
Having reached the end, I am satisfied. The feats of navigation and seafaring are simply incredible, the mutiny itself not really surprising, the intrigue and shenanigans before, during, and after the court-martial worthy of Trollope or Dickens
The book is very interesting for readers of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturing series (Master and Commander)
The Bounty is another one of those marvelous histories, which although documented (sources for each chapter are given at the end & thus there are no footnote encumbrances), reads likes a novel. I literally could not put this book down.
Sunrise, April 28, 1789. William Bligh, who was actually a lieutenant captaining the ship Bounty, sent from England to the South Pacific to gather of all things breadfruit (you have to read the book to understand this)was rudely awakened at swordpoint from his bunk to be informed that he would be leaving the ship. In charge of this operation was Mr. Fletcher Christian, (and God help me, I can't help but think of Mel Gibson every time his name was brought up), who explained that he was in Hell and could no longer abide the captain's behavior. Wearing only a nightshirt, Bligh was bound and lowered into a launch. Others soon followed suit...the ship was then in the hands of Fletcher Christian and a few others of it seems, like minds. So...the question is what brought on the mutiny? Was Captain Bligh really as nefarious and evil as history has painted him? What conditions led to Fletcher Christian's decision? And then, in probably what is the true meat of this story, how were the majority of the mutineers rounded up & brought to justice? We all know that Fletcher Christian and a few of his associates landed on & settled Pitcairn Island, which lay largely undiscovered...so what was the real story here? So many questions, so many answers, from various viewpoints, keep this account lively & leave the reader wanting to read more.
The book opens with the collection & transport of the mutineers who had escaped to Tahiti; some of them voluntarily going to the ship & thus their certain fates and others who had to be rounded up. The story then moves to part two, in which we are introduced to each of the crew members including Captain Bligh & Fletcher Christian. The voyage of the Bounty commences, and this part of the book ends with the mutiny. Part three recalls Captain Bligh's feat of navigation and getting himself & the others consigned to go with him back to civilization, and investigating his court-martial for losing the Bounty. Part four...the political wheelings & dealings involved with the trial of the captured prisoners...and then finally, how the name of Captain Bligh came to be permanently associated with martinet-like behavior & came to be a dirty word. Here too you will find differing views on what happened once the main body of mutineers reached Pitcairn island.
One fun piece of information is worth noting. The night before the mutiny, Captain Bligh got into it with his officers about some missing coconuts. He called upon all of them to account for how many they'd eaten. Not that this is earthshaking in itself, but those of you who have read The Caine Mutiny (one of my favorite books of all time) will remember the dastardly Captain Queeg and the strawberry incident. I couldn't help but laugh and draw parallels & even wonder if Herman Wouk had incorporated this part of the Bounty mutiny into his own work.
I would very very highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in this type of thing. Read it and savor it. Take it slow. Because Alexander (like any historian worth her salt) relies heavily on primary documents, the wording is often a bit difficult to read, but it is well worth the time you will take on it.
While the details about the mutiny are still unclear, the core issue was that many among the crew wanted to stay on Tahiti with those whom they were enamored, and Commander Bligh ordered them back to the ship. The mission was a moderate success—over 1,000 plants had been secured for transport—and the crew had spent a wonderful five months on the island. It was quite possibly the easiest mission there could be. But, several men of the Bounty, including the master’s mate grew attached to local women and didn’t want to leave. Bligh, being a man of dogmatic intensity and fierce devotion to his job, ordered them back or face severe consequences.
Alexander’s history tries to give a less heavy-handed version of the events than previous writers. Bligh is traditionally seen as a taskmaster with no real heart or humanity. Fletcher is the idealized image of every person finding happiness in a far-off land. But, the historical documents at hand tell a slightly different tale. True, there was a mutiny and, true, the men did disobey orders. Bligh was the only real officer on board and had to be the sole administrator of discipline and justice, but the extent to which his orders become tyrannical is up for debate. The author does an interesting job of countermanding previous assumptions and laying out a more balanced view of the story. A lively and entertaining book.
The reading is a bit dry, however, and the work drags as it goes into the known details of every crew member and their various influential friends and family members. On one hand, I have a hard time begrudging it this, as they did provide sometimes essential information. On the other, I cared little about the individual fates of most men. But each person's story (both during the mutiny, their testimony at the mutineer's trial, and their testimony in public afterwards) paints an amusing whole picture, and it would've been hard to edit that information out and still be readable.
Still. At one point, I got career summaries for each of the captains at the mutineer's trial. Important to show that they were all experienced and more likely to agree with Bligh's version of events and not have much of a sympathetic ear for mutineers, but it felt excessive. The part with the trial and convictions also felt interminable.
There is no "good guy" or "bad guy" here; rather, we have an even account of what occurred, or it is believed occurred before, during and after, the mutiny. Alexander uses official documents of the time: letters, journals, written interviews, ship logs, the proceedings of the courts-marshals, etc.
I believe anyone who has an interest in English history, nautical history, or just history in general will love this book. It took me away on the voyages, I met some interesting people and was a "fly on the wall" during closed English nautical courts-marshals. This is definitely not your typical ocean cruises to the South Seas.