By Caroline Alexander
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner
The historical intent of Caroline Alexander’s new work, The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, is to unearth the true story of the Bounty mutiny in large part by unearthing the historical origins of the false story, the familiar popular account whose central components are the exceptional tyranny of Captain Bligh, the exceptionally sensual appeal of Tahitian culture, the romantic character of Fletcher Christian, and the founding of a colony on a remote, deserted, harbor less, south sea island.
The history of William Bligh lends, at least superficially, some support to the popular legend in that, apart from the Bounty incident, Bligh was also involved in two other uprisings one at the Nore, and one at Botany Bay. Three incidents of revolt by subordinates does require, if one is to assert that Bligh was not a horrible commander, some other explanation.
Alexander begins her exploration of Bligh’s character by explaining the Bounty incident. She demonstrates that Bligh, a protege of Cook’s, employed Cook’s methodologies and philosophy in regards to maintaining a healthy crew. She notes that Bligh ordered far fewer floggings than was usual in the British Naval Service. Alexander also lays great stress on the fact that the Bounty was rated a cutter, which left Bligh, only a Lieutenant himself, with no Lieutenants under him and, more importantly, no marines. Obviously there many Cutters in the Service, with a similar lack of muscle, but to send a ship of pressed seaman across the world, beyond the easy reach of other Service ships, without marines and high ranking subordinate officers, was certainly a mistake.
In essence Alexander argues that Bligh, though he had a temper, was not at all exceptional in the tyranny line. Furthermore, she points out, the later mutiny at the Nore was widespread and more of a work stoppage, in which Bligh’s role was minor. He was not, after all, on the list of one hundred Captains the mutineers demanded the removal of. The revolt by army officers to his governorship of Botany Bay Alexander explains as the result of the notorious corruption of the Rum Corp, whose revolt was aided by what was, by that time, Bligh’s reputation for tyranny.
Alexander’s account is constructed from the paper trail left by the trial of the Bounty mutineers, the letters of all concerned, their legal documents, and personal narratives. Her argument that the involvement of two old, powerful families, The Christian and Heywood families respectively, provided the resources to create the popular story of the mutiny in defense of the life and reputation of Peter Heywood, and the reputation of Fletcher Christian, is very persuasive. Furthermore, her point that, arriving at the dawn of the romantic movement in Britain, the popular version of the Mutiny, soaked in romantic sentiment, was simply too good a story for any sense of historical integrity to intrude.
The popular legend is a good story, as Nordhoff’s Bounty Trilogy, and the screen version starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, amply demonstrate. That the actual history of the Bounty, and all the complex individuals bound up with it, is also a good story, may be readily verified by reading Alexander’s balanced, insightful, authoritative and, truth to say, excellent account.