The Bounty, by Caroline Alexander

The Bounty

The Bounty is a strongly pro-Captain Bligh (who technically wasn’t a captain yet when he was in charge of the Bounty, but a lieutenant) telling of the most famous mutiny story in history. Not in the sense, necessarily, of being biased, but just that if you painstakingly pore over all extant records—which the author appears to have done—the (unbiased) view you’ll allegedly come to puts Bligh in a favorable light, highly favorable relative to the view of him that has come down from history, and especially from popular culture (movies, etc.), as a ferocious autocrat who bullied and abused those under his command.

I’ll say from the outset that I find the author’s take on things largely convincing. As noted, the research appears to have been very thorough, indeed extraordinarily so. Alexander relies chiefly on a mass of primary documents, e.g., shipboard logs/journals/diaries, transcripts of court-martials, and personal correspondence, and draws her conclusions from this evidence. If anything, she is reluctant to speculate very much beyond what the evidence strongly supports.

One quick note about that evidence: There is a great deal more concerning some relevant figures than others. There is the most on Bligh himself, and on one of the mutineers named Peter Heywood. There is a decent, but considerably lesser, amount on the leader of the mutineers Fletcher Christian, though really more on his family than him. There are varying amounts of evidence on the other mutineers and other significant figures in the story, and for that matter on the significant events.

In any case, the amount of available evidence is certainly not in exact proportion—or really even close proportion—to the importance of the person/event to the story. But it is in quite close proportion to how much space they get in this book.

That is to say, because Alexander seems to want to tell just about everything she found out about the Bounty there’s enormously more here on, say, Peter Heywood than Fletcher Christian, in spite of the fact that Christian is clearly the more important of the two. Indeed, at times the book reads more like the story of Peter Heywood than the story of the Bounty.

Another example: Many, many times more pages are devoted to the court-martials of (some of) the mutineers than to what happened to the mutineers who ended up on Pitcairn Island. That’s because there are transcripts of the court-martials, not to mention a large quantity of available personal correspondence to and from family members, attorneys, etc. about them, whereas there is very little available evidence about the fate of those who settled on Pitcairn Island.

But anyway, as best it can be pieced together, what is the true story of the mutiny on the Bounty? Assuming the author is to be believed—and as I noted, I find her to be highly credible—it was probably something like this:

Bligh was not a particularly harsh captain. Some of what he did was no doubt brutal, but relative to his peers if anything he leaned to the lenient side. That is, some of what he said and did can sound cruel and tyrannical, but when you take into account the institutional context, he was arguably a nice enough fellow who respected the people who served under him.

For example, did he have people flogged? Yes. But probably less than the average ship captain of his time, and a great deal less than the most brutal of them. He took it as a sign that you were doing something wrong if you had to flog people, and his goal for the Bounty’s voyage—and for the voyages he commanded in general—was to have zero floggings.

It sounds like his people skills were mixed, that in some ways he was an effective leader of men, but in some ways he was tone deaf. Overall he seems to have been better at acting according to the rules and according to his principles than in being flexible in dealing with specific people in specific circumstances. He certainly does not seem to have been sadistic by nature, nor for that matter corrupt or dishonest. He was a pretty strait-laced guy who held himself up to high standards and tried to hold others to high standards.

He also was excellent—maybe something of a savant—at the skills other than people skills needed for his job—navigation, organization, etc. He was more the intelligent and efficient nerd than the regular guy you’d like to have a beer with, and that’s probably what subtly rubbed some people the wrong way, not any tendency to be an irrational tyrant.

The object of the Bounty’s voyage was to obtain breadfruit plants from Tahiti, some of which would be returned to Britain for research and such, but most of which would be introduced into Jamaica and the West Indies, apparently in part to provide a source of food for slaves.

The journey to Tahiti was perhaps more harrowing than the average long voyage of its time—though really the seafaring life was always one of privation and high risk of death—and included dealing with horrific weather while trying to sail south of South America, which led to the decision to sail south of Africa instead, adding months to the voyage.

With the benefit of hindsight you can cherry pick certain incidents as clues to a growing rift between Bligh and his men, or between Bligh and Christian specifically, but really that’s a stretch. There was some disgruntlement here and there, and some tension between Bligh and Christian—based in part on the fact that Bligh had apparently lent Christian a large sum of money—but surely if you looked at any comparable voyage (that did not end in mutiny) equally closely you’d find as many signs of discord or of brutality on the part of a captain or what have you, and I would think usually considerably more. Really Bligh and the Bounty seemed to be doing fine.

They then spent several months on Tahiti, spreading a lot of venereal disease among other activities. Fairly early on the return voyage, one night Christian and some co-conspirators seized Bligh in the middle of the night, and eventually kicked him and various men loyal to him off the Bounty into the Bounty’s launch.

The obvious question is why. One theory is that Bligh had treated them so horribly that they just couldn’t take any more abuse from him so they rose up against him as a last resort. This has been the most common theory for a long time, but clearly one that Alexander doesn’t buy, since Bligh just wasn’t unusually brutal as sea captains go. It was a theory put forth for reasons of self-interest by mutineers being court-martialed, family members of mutineers seeking to defend the family honor, etc., but not one supported by the evidence.

What was it instead then? Again, Alexander is quite humble about drawing conclusions on insufficient evidence, and so she really doesn’t make definitive claims on this point, but instead suggests various factors that may have played a role.

A lot of it may well have been that Christian and a good number of the men had established emotional ties on Tahiti and wanted to stay. Some had paired off with Tahitian women as more or less full time girlfriends during their stay, in some cases impregnating the women. So there were individual attachments like that, but there was also a more general yearning for a life of ease in the tropics.

In short, they’d enjoyed their vacation and wanted to make it permanent. They didn’t want to return to the discipline and risk of sailing all the way back home by way of the Caribbean.

Another factor is that Christian seems to have been a rather prickly, unstable sort. Not to the point of being mentally ill necessarily, but just kind of soft in a way, maybe prone to an emotional breakdown. There was talk later that shortly before the mutiny he had spoken of a foolhardy plan to possibly jump ship in a raft to try to get back to Tahiti. He was apparently drinking quite a bit, and there’s some evidence he was drunk the night of the mutiny specifically. Due to his mental state, it may be inappropriate to seek some fully rational explanation for his actions.

Another factor has more to do with why the mutiny succeeded rather than why it occurred. Apparently the norm for large ships was for there to be a certain number of “marines” aboard in addition to the officers and crew. These were like M.P.s, or special guards available to the captain, precisely to discourage or quell mutiny and disciplinary problems. The Bounty was borderline as to whether it was big enough to include marines, but it lacked them. On a ship without marines, there was even more pressure on the captain to maintain his authority through the moral force of his will, because if things did break down he wouldn’t have this armed force to call upon to set them right again.

The author suggests that there may have been a class factor as well, that some of the men under Bligh, including Christian and Heywood, may have chafed at what they took to be belittling treatment by someone they saw as their social inferior. Not that Bligh was some sort of commoner, nor that Christian and Heywood came from exceedingly wealthy backgrounds. But it’s one of those subtle English class things that tend to correlate with money but with plenty of exceptions. Christian and Heywood’s families were not exactly in enviable financial circumstances in fact, but there was still that vague sense that those families were higher class than the Bligh family.

Youth and inexperience may well have been another factor. On a voyage like this, the bulk of the crew were in their teens and twenties. These are basically a bunch of kids going through very stressful times unlike anything they’ve ever experienced. It’s not surprising that such people could not be counted on to remain disciplined, to anticipate the consequences of their actions, to calmly reflect on what their duty and for that matter their self-interest required, etc., not when everything was happening so fast and they had to make spontaneous decisions of whom to side with and such.

Imagine being roused out of bed at 15 or 16 and gradually figuring out that some people—you’re not even sure how many—have forcibly taken over the ship, and that they seem to be the ones with all the weapons, and that various people from various sides are screaming at you and giving you orders. And you have to respond immediately.

Christian and a small number of cohorts more or less presented the bulk of the crew with a fait accompli, and a lot of them went along with it.

(Interestingly, a lot of them did not, however. Christian was reportedly surprised and a bit miffed at how many people chose to remain loyal to their captain. Most of them ended up in the launch with Bligh, but some who wanted to join him were not allowed to, in some cases because the mutineers didn’t want to give up them and their skills since they needed people to sail the ship, but mostly because Bligh’s launch was seriously overloaded already.)

That’s not to deny that resentment over Bligh’s treatment of the crew wasn’t a factor at all. Even if he was no worse than the average captain, and probably a bit better, in his treatment of his men, there was still a harshness in some of his dealings with them, and no doubt there were those who were glad to be rid of him. There’s no reason to think that alone would have caused a mutiny—since in that case one would expect mutinies on practically all ships of that era—but as one of many factors it certainly may have played a role.

I’m not clear why Bligh and some of his loyalists were sent off on the smaller boat, rather than just being killed. It’s almost like the mutineers wanted to be sporting about it. Really the expectation was that they were all going to die, but they gave them a fighting chance.

A lot of that seems to have been spontaneous, and could have been decided very differently. At first they were going to put Bligh and his people in an even smaller boat, but that turned out to be worm-eaten and would have sunk almost immediately. There was talk of letting him have more supplies than he ended up with, or less. There was also the chance that they’d kill them after all; after Bligh and his men were in the launch, the mutineers’ broke into the liquor and started partying, making their mood darker and their actions more unpredictable, and Bligh ceased trying to negotiate with them and high-tailed it out of there while he could.

Letting them go certainly increased the risk to the mutineers though. Chances were that Bligh and the loyalists would soon be dead, but that wasn’t guaranteed. If they survived, they could finger the mutineers, who of course were guilty of a capital crime.

Bligh and his loyalists in the launch did indeed survive, but it was something of a miracle that they did, or at least a testament to Bligh’s incredible seafaring skills. Alexander says the successful voyage of the launch was as impressive an example of navigation and survival as any in nautical history.

They were wary of stopping at any island, much as they needed to in order to get supplies, repair the boat, sit out particularly bad weather, etc., because they were afraid of hostile natives. The one time they did stop at an island early in their journey, they were able to get supplies and accomplish some of what they wanted, but then it got ugly. There were indeed natives there, and initially they had been more or less friendly, willing to trade with Bligh’s men and such, but as more and more of them congregated to watch the British sailors, their mood gradually turned more ominous, until eventually they fell upon them in a violent attack. The men had seen what was developing and were already in the process of making their way back to the boat, so they were able to escape. But they did suffer one casualty as one of their men was grabbed and beaten to death as the rest made their getaway.

There were to be no more stops on uncertain islands after that, even though arguably the risk of not stopping was even greater. But somehow they eventually made it to the Dutch colony of Timor, and from there were able to take a proper ship back home.

Bligh had to go through a court-martial as a matter of course for losing his ship, and he was exonerated. He appears to have had no self-doubt about his capacity to captain a ship, no thought of avoiding getting burned again by seeking out some other line of work. Soon not only was he in charge of another ship, but he was sailing back to Tahiti to basically duplicate the breadfruit run the Bounty had been on.

Getting immediately back in the saddle like that seems to have been the right decision, as that second voyage mostly went fine. There were difficulties here and there, as is inevitable when sailing halfway around the world, but it was pretty much a success.

The British at about this same time sent a ship back to Tahiti and surrounding areas to capture the mutineers. You’d think the mutineers would be pretty safe, given the extraordinary isolation of where they were. Remember, this was an era when it took months at best to sail that far, and cost a fortune. It’s sort of like a sheriff on foot trying to track down some bad guys a hundred miles off in the wilderness. But apparently that’s how important it was to them not to let a mutiny go unpunished.

By then some of the mutineers were dead, and the rest were scattered in different places. They had indeed returned to Tahiti, twice, but only some of them then settled there permanently. The rest, including Christian himself, took their Tahitian “wives” and a few other Tahitians with them and sought a better hiding place, eventually ending up on Pitcairn Island, which had been mapped incorrectly and so would be harder for anyone to find intentionally.

The “law enforcement” ship—the Pandora—managed to capture the ones on Tahiti, but gave up looking for the others after futilely scouting around that part of the ocean for a while. They put the captives—including those frantically insisting they’d been loyal to Bligh and remained on the Bounty against their will—in chains and stuck them in some horrible little box—dubbed “Pandora’s box”—for the trip home.

Then the Pandora promptly sank, sailing through the same treacherous area Bligh had navigated successfully in the hopelessly overloaded little launch. There were some casualties, including among the Bounty mutineers, but after much additional suffering and uncertainty most of the people from the Pandora eventually made it home.

There followed the court-martial of the mutineers, at least of those who had been captured and had survived the voyage home.

The laws regarding mutiny specify that you are guilty of mutiny not only if you participate in it, but if you fail to oppose it with all means at your disposal. You’re not supposed to just go along with it because the situation the mutineers have created makes it in your self-interest to do so, which is surely what many men on the Bounty did. You pretty much have to have had no choice in the matter, like if you were held at gunpoint the whole time. There’s a strong presumption that if you survived a mutiny and stayed with the ship when it was under the control of mutineers that you yourself are a mutineer.

To a limited extent the men being court-martialed cited allegedly abusive behavior by Bligh, but mostly they didn’t go there, as it’s unlikely that could have gotten them very far in that venue, where they were being judged by other ship captains, many of whom were frankly considerably harsher than Bligh ever was.

So instead they mostly tried to claim they had never gone along with the mutiny willingly. In a small number of cases that was actually true, and Bligh himself had in fact already testified that certain of the men that remained on the Bounty had done so reluctantly and were still loyal to him. All of those men were in fact acquitted.

The others were likely all either fudging a bit or just out-and-out lying to try to save their hide. All but two of them were convicted and executed.

The other two were convicted, but with a recommendation that they be pardoned by the king, which in fact they were.

Were those two in fact somehow less guilty, more deserving of leniency? In all likelihood, no.

One of them was Heywood, and as I mentioned above there is by far the most information about his case. He—and this is true of the other pardoned fellow too—probably deserved no better and no worse a fate than the others, but he had a hot shot lawyer and important family connections, so as a result of political clout rather than merit he got off.

For what it’s worth, Heywood, who was only a teenager at the time of the mutiny, seems to have done all he could to make up for whatever youthful misdeeds he may have been guilty of. After sidestepping the hangman he became a pious, good person in a conventional sense, and went on to have a distinguished naval career, rising to be a captain himself. Plus, the author points out, he presumably lived the whole rest of his life knowing that anything he achieved could be snatched away from him at once if any of the remaining mutineers surfaced and revealed just how willing a participant he had been, which is something of a punishment in itself.

Even if painting Bligh as a cruel villain hadn’t been the most promising legal strategy in a court-martial, it was recognized that it could still have potential in the court of public opinion. So in defense of their loved ones’ honor, this is the route some of the mutineers’ family members took, including Christian’s brother, who undertook a supposed investigation of his own, interviewing witnesses and such, and reached the predictable conclusion that Christian and the mutineers had been driven to the end of their rope by Bligh’s abuse.

Public opinion, and the opinions that matter more in certain higher circles, did indeed gradually shift.

When Bligh had returned to England after his extraordinary efforts in saving himself and his crew in the Bounty’s launch, and then been exonerated by his own court-martial, he had mostly been regarded as a sympathetic figure, and to some extent as a hero. When he then followed that up with a successful voyage to do what the Bounty voyage had failed to do, he had every reason to expect upon his return that he would be promoted and would receive more prestigious assignments.

Things had changed while he was away getting breadfruit that second time, however. He was now regarded with a certain suspicion, like even if it was important just on general principles not to endorse a mutiny, you’d have to think the mutiny was provoked by something Bligh did, and you’d want to be careful placing him in a responsible position.

Alexander notes how he was blatantly snubbed by those higher up in the naval hierarchy. As a matter of routine, at least most of his officers from his last successful voyage that he recommended for promotion should have been promoted, but in fact zero were. Naval bigwigs he tried to meet with ignored him while he sat in their waiting room and watched people he outranked being freely admitted. And of course he didn’t receive his anticipated promotion and more desirable assignments.

In the long run his career did not remain under a cloud like that, but was more up and down. On the positive side, he was indeed eventually promoted, and in fact made it as high as admiral, plus he was recognized as something of a war hero in the naval war against revolutionary France. On the negative side he had a disastrous posting late in life as governor of the British colony in Australia (he was again trying to do everything by the book instead of adjusting for imperfect circumstances and imperfect people, and there was basically a coup against him by corrupt local officials; he was again exonerated, but not without some accompanying whispers about how trouble seemed to follow him around).

But his reputation really never fully recovered, and if anything got worse after his death, as the insinuations of the Christian and Heywood families and others became more or less the accepted narrative of the mutiny.

And what of Christian himself? His fate is shrouded in mystery.

Eventually ships did stumble upon Pitcairn Island, some of which reported what they found out to the British government and press. But so much time had passed by then that there was a lot less interest. Certainly there was no move to send a ship back to that part of the world to capture anyone.

In fact by the time reports reached England, there was only one surviving mutineer. He gave contradictory accounts to different visitors from different ships about many things concerning the mutineers’ lives on Pitcairn Island, including what happened to Christian.

One version was that the Tahitian men had risen up one night only a few years into their stay on the island and massacred most of the mutineers, including Christian, because the mutineers had basically assumed that as white men they could treat the Tahitian men like servants if not slaves and the Tahitian men were sick of it. The Tahitian women—the “wives” of the mutineers—then retaliated by killing most or all of the Tahitian men.

Another version was mostly like that, except instead of a massacre one night all at once, the killing had gone on sporadically for months or years.

Another story was that it was in fact the women, on their own or aided by the Tahitian men, who had risen up against the mutineers and killed most of them.

The latter is a little more plausible—that the Tahitian women would be on the side of the Tahitian men instead of on the side of the mutineers—not just in terms of ethnic loyalty, but because only a minority of the women had come along willingly with mutineers they were in relationships with. The majority of them were tricked onto the Bounty and then pretty much kidnapped, taken to another island far away by force, to be separated from their homes and families for the rest of their lives.

Another version was that the principle strife had instead been mutineers against mutineers, and that Christian had died in one of those conflicts. There’s considerable plausibility to that too, as there were many accounts that even before some of them ended up on Pitcairn Island the mutineers had split into bitter factions and any attempt by Christian or anyone to lead them as a unified force had fallen apart.

If that’s how so many mutineers died so soon after arriving at Pitcairn Island, then presumably the one survivor was on the “winning” side, and perhaps had killed Christian himself.

But that remaining mutineer also claimed at various times that Christian had committed suicide or that he had died of natural causes, and sometimes added that however he had died he had first gone insane.

According to the records kept by the lone survivor, there had been at least a few ships that had stopped at Pitcairn Island before the ones that interviewed him extensively and reported their findings back to the British. That news gave rise to yet another possibility, which was that Christian, with or without others of the mutineers, had left the island on an earlier ship.

There were persistent rumors, in fact, that Christian had secretly returned to England and was back with his family. While some of the claims that allegedly support this hypothesis are easy to dismiss, Alexander does not treat it as an absurd possibility. I think if you put a gun to her head she’d say it’s more likely Christian died, one way or another, on Pitcairn Island, but the alternative that he returned home is not completely lacking in credible evidence.

There were people close to the Christian family who claimed it quite confidently, and that was in private correspondence not in sensationalist books or newspaper articles or something where you could argue they were just trying to make money or gain fame for revealing some big secret.

There were many claimed sightings of Christian back in England, only some of which were easily identifiable as lies or errors. Heywood himself reportedly was convinced he had seen Christian on the street one day. Not someone off in the distance that might have been him, but someone he saw face to face right in front of him, who reacted with a fearful expression and fled as fast he could.

So it’s probably baloney, but it’s not quite on the level of silliness of, say, the Paul McCartney is dead story. No one really knows for sure what happened to Christian.

Meanwhile, back on Pitcairn Island, while there was only one mutineer left, it’s not like he was alone. There were plenty of Tahitians still there, and by then there were plenty of offspring of the mutineers and the Tahitian women as well. In fact, the island is still inhabited by their descendants.

One final thing worth mentioning that I took from the book is how sad it almost always was when Europeans encountered non-Europeans, with the British exploration of the Pacific islands being no exception. Almost all that Bligh, Christian, and the others from the Bounty had loved about the Tahitians and their idyllic island paradise was already gone by the time Bligh returned on his next breadfruit voyage. The tanned and healthy islanders who had been running around the island nearly naked were already in some cases wearing castoff clothing from British sailors. The occasional little conflicts among different groups or tribes on the island were now being settled by firearms introduced by the British. The sexually liberated island women that the sailors had been so taken with now seemed much more calculating and prostitution-oriented in their efforts to manipulate the sailors and get something in exchange for their favors.

The Bounty is a very thorough account of the famous mutiny and seemingly anything related that there is any record of anywhere. Because there isn’t in fact a reliable record of everything, there are still plenty of holes in the story, and much room for speculation. As much as I’ve written about this book, I’ve really only conveyed a tiny percentage of its contents. There’s a great deal of interesting stuff here.

In the end, though, I think Alexander has succeeded in establishing that for the most part Bligh was an honorable man who behaved at least as well as the average of his ship captain peers and probably considerably better.

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