I’ve just finished the first part of the trilogy, Mutiny on the Bounty, and I’m so enthused about that book that I decided not to wait until I have finished all three books to start writing the review.
(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)
I have seen a couple of the film adaptations of Mutiny on the Bounty previously and always enjoyed the story. So I was impelled recently to hunt out the book to see what I thought of the more detailed treatment in the book and to discover just how closely the movies kept to the original text.
The story of the Bounty is the collision of a melancholy and headstrong Englishman, Fletcher Christian, with a brilliant naval officer, William Bligh, who was at the same time a venal, cruel and boorish man who inflicted brutal floggings on his crew for situations that he himself caused. He starved his men for the sake of pocketing the savings he made on provisioning the ship and he belittled and accused his officers of petty offenses that he dwelt upon because of his obsessive nature.
The story is told from the point of view of one of the midshipmen, Roger Byam, a young gentleman whom Bligh convinced to join the journey in order to create a dictionary and grammar of the Tahitian language for a mutual friend of theirs Sir Joseph Banks who was the President of the Royal Society. The mission of the Bounty was to sail to Tahiti and collect hundreds of saplings of the breadfruit tree and then transport the plants to the British West Indies where they might become a cheap food source for the slaves on the sugar plantations there.
The story chronicles the outward voyage to Tahiti and the mission on the island. We meet all of the more notable members of the crew and several of the Tahitians who are important to the personal stories of the main characters. Christian, Byam and several other characters become intimately involved with women on the island and this adds to the unhappiness when the return voyage begins.
Bligh and his minions in the crew confiscate the food and other material souvenirs from the men and officers, ostensibly for equal sharing but in reality, for Bligh’s benefit. And when some of this plunder, a few cocoanuts, are stolen one night by one of the younger crewmen, Bligh accuses Christian of the theft. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. At daybreak Christian enlists some of the seamen who had been most afflicted by Bligh’s punishments and they seized muskets from the weapons locker, took Bligh prisoner and took possession of the ship.
Christian and his mutineers formulated a plan. Bligh and the officers and anyone who wanted to remain loyal to him would be set adrift in the ship’s launch. The Bounty would be commandeered to take the mutineers to an island where they hoped to avoid discovery by the British Navy. But in the event, it turned out that there were too many loyalists to fit in the launch. The excess loyalists, including Byam had to remain with the Bounty and Christian finally decided to make a trip to Tahiti to drop off the loyalists, purchase provisions and convince some Tahitian women and men to join the mutineers in their new home.
Once the Bounty leaves Tahiti the story revolves around the fate of the Byam and his comrades both on Tahiti and later on when a British Navy vessel comes looking for the Bounty. Contrary to all expectations, Bligh was able to navigate his tiny craft 4,200 miles to Timor in the East Indies. On finally reaching England he alerted the authorities of the mutiny and a man of war, the Pandora, was sent to the South Sea to find and recover the Bounty and bring the mutineers back for trial. The loyalists left on Tahiti and some mutineers who decided to stay on Tahiti were all rounded up by the captain of the Pandora and the ship searched among the islands of the south Seas looking, unsuccessfully for the Bounty. But when the Pandora struck a reef in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, the surviving crew and prisoners were in a similar situation to what Bligh suffered in travelling thousands of miles in lifeboats to reach port.
Finally, the story reaches its climax in the court martial trial of Byam and his companions. And here we see circumstances conspiring to paint Byam as a mutineer. Bligh misunderstood an innocent conversation between Byam and Christian the night before the mutiny and reported it as proof that Byam was part of the mutiny. But the only one who had heard the whole conversation had disappeared in a ship wreck before the trial. And so Byam is convicted and sentenced to hang. By a miraculous coincidence the missing crewman is rescued and gives testimony of Byam’s innocence just a few days before his execution would have occurred. After the trial Byam returns to naval duty and has a long and illustrious career. But an epilogue has him return to Tahiti where the paradise that he had experienced there had been destroyed by exposure to the conflicting pressures that European lifestyle put on the natives. Almost all of his friends were dead of disease or war and the population was reduced to a miserable and sparse remnant of what he remembered.
Mutiny on the Bounty is a fictionalized version of the actual Bounty story. Although the characters are all based on actual people, I’m sure the authors have injected their own details and personality traits to give the story the desired tone. It is not a history. And for that reason, I will rate it as a work of fiction. I consider it an excellent adventure story. Being based on actual events the authors strove to convey the extraordinary hardships that the characters suffered while trying to survive the almost impossible conditions of their grueling sea voyages. And the description of the idyllic world of the Tahitians in this early stage of their introduction to Europeans is remarkably effective in conveying a sense of sheer happiness. It literally sounds like heaven on earth. I haven’t read the other two installments of the Bounty Trilogy but I highly recommend the Mutiny on the Bounty story to anyone who enjoys adventure stories.