A crime, marked by such circumstances as to be unexampled in the annals of nautical history

So captain and faithful crew make it home eventually, and what happens to the mutineers? Famously, some started a colony on the uninhabited Pitcairn’s Island. Save them for later. Because the rest decide to stay in Tahiti, where they’re sure to be caught, and after a while they are.

Fletcher Christian, the ringleader of the mutineers, has a brother back home in London, Edward, who decides to publish the minutes of the court-martial of the mutineers brought back from Tahiti (Christian not among them), along with an appendix by himself. The minutes are fascinating. The survivors from the launch are interviewed about what happened that morning on the Bounty, and the main question at hand is, which of the defendants were participating in the mutiny and which, if any, were in fact being held on the Bounty against their will.

I should note something about the nature of mutiny. Nearly every document presented has a reminder that there is no justification for the crime of mutiny. The captain is the autocrat of the ship, period, and his rule is law. No kind of ill treatment by a captain, illegal activity, etc., nothing at all can be used as an affirmative defense against the charge of mutiny.

So of course none of the men try to mount such a defense, instead opting to claim they didn’t want to mutiny and were just stuck on the ship under the power of Christian and others. The prisoners get to ask the witnesses questions, and so many are of a single pathetic type: Don’t you remember I told you I didn’t want to mutiny? Don’t you remember my saying we could take back the ship? Don’t you remember I tried to put my clothes in the launch but Christian prevented me? Almost uniformly, the harsh answer of no rings out from the defendants—or an almost more damning “I do not remember.” And everyone is very serious, of course. Mr. Hayward, for example, testifies regarding Mr. Millward:

…saw him on the taffrail jeering us, and saying, Go see if you can live upon a quarter of a pound of yams per day, or something to that purpose.

I commend Mr. Hayward for his careful speech, and note that it’s never a good idea to go around taunting people who might later appear at your trial.

The court-martial minutes in themselves represent multiple documents to be reconciled. Each witness’s testimony must be compared and contrasted with the others, and eventually a general picture emerges. These guys were definitely up to something, these definitely weren’t, and these other ones just seem a little sketchy. Amazingly, my three-way split lined up exactly with the outcome of the case—the first group was convicted and hanged, the second acquitted, and the third convicted and pardoned. I was frankly astonished at how just the outcome seemed.

I don’t think Edward Christian would argue that, either. His appendix is concerned only with vindicating the honor of his brother—not with claiming his innocence. On the contrary, it is amazing how much he emphasizes Fletcher’s guilt and the unforgivable nature of the crime. He only wants to retrieve a shred of dignity for the brother he knew as a competent and faithful sailor and an honorable man. But to do so, he’s going to have to throw some muck at Bligh: the captain’s mistreatment of Christian is to be blamed, and no man could have supported such abuse. Edward Christian seems eminently reasonable:

And though public justice and the public safety can allow no vindication of any species of Mutiny, yet reason and humanity will distinguish the sudden unpremeditated act of desperation and phrenzy, from the foul deliberate contempt of every religious duty and honourable sentiment; and will deplore the uncertainty of human prospects, when they reflect that a young man is condemned to perpetual infamy, who, if he had served on board any other ship, or had perhaps been absent from the Bounty a single day, or one ill-fated hour, might still have been an honour to his country, and a glory and comfort to his friends.

At this point we get a lively he-said/he-said series of pamphlets between Edward Christian and William Bligh, both enlisting their friends in their cause. The mud-slinging is delicious. Bligh’s humble servant Ed. Harwood, late surgeon of his Majesty’s ship Providence, “trust[s] that this imbecile and highly illiberal attack, directed by the brother of the Arch-mutineer, will be received by the world with that indignation and contempt it so justly deserves.” Snap! And there is great controversy over whether Captain Bligh threatened to make his men “eat grass like cows” (!)—nearly everyone has something to say about that.

By the end of the exchange neither Bligh nor Christian had much credibility with me. To the one I wanted to say, “Sorry, your brother was a mutineer, suck it up.” And to the other, “Come on, were you really that much of a jerk about some cocoa-nuts?” No one’s coming out of this smelling like a rose.

And what of the men on Pitcairn’s Island? Another not very straightforward story, and frustratingly vague. Much more romantic to make off with some Tahitian women and start a secret colony in paradise than to go before a court-martial. Which I suppose is why I’ve saved it for last.

William Bligh’s “Narrative of the Mutiny”

Sometimes I think we hardly need fiction. It’s not just that truth is stranger—it’s also just as dramatic and just as fascinating. I’m very fond in general of reading fiction presented in the form of some other document—diary entries, letters, statements, legal records of all sorts, fiction within fiction, etc.—and when I read nonfiction put together in the same way I’m always surprised at how it seems just as ingeniously constructed as the novels.

The Bounty MutinyThe story of the Essex was exciting with its somewhat conflicting journal entries and long lost manuscripts, not to mention the high drama of the events themselves. But in terms of historical documents, The Bounty Mutiny‘s were more numerous, more varied, and more nasty.

The first document, though, is mostly remarkable for its similarity to Owen Chase’s account of the wreck of the Essex. Or rather the other way around, since the Bounty mutiny took place in 1789.

Captain Bligh begins his story with the mutiny itself. Since we have no knowledge of what preceded it, it is as inexplicable as the actions of the whale that destroys the Essex. Bligh professes complete surprise at his treatment and very quickly we are all in the launch with him and his few remaining comrades. The narrative of the journey in the launch is very like Chase’s: in the form of a ship’s log, without much going on except weather, rationing, and the setting in of weakness and possibly death.

Bligh’s men don’t seem nearly as hardy as Chase’s, though. The crew of the Essex are out and about for 90 days; Bligh makes it to Timor in something like half that time, and his men are significantly luckier in terms of both food and water supplies. Of course, it is still a harrowing trip, in the open ocean just a few inches above the water in a launch, and Bligh’s men faced other challenges. The seas were much less charted at that point, and the islands they encountered were all inhabited by unfriendly natives.

Bligh is just as obsessed by rationing as Owen Chase; it’s amazing the way these men do take responsibility for the lives of their fellows. Bligh is a little more melodramatic, though. He has some wine, to be used for medicinal purposes, and when he doles some out explains that he had saved it “expecting such a melancholy occasion.” No more than one page later is he giving the next dose of wine, which he “had saved for this dreadful stage.” At least when the boatswain tells Bligh he looks worse than anyone else in the launch “the simplicity with which he uttered such an opinion diverted me, and I had good humour enough to return him a better compliment.”

Even in such dire straits Bligh sits around charting the coast of Australia and noting the locations where a ship might pass through the Great Barrier Reef. The Bounty had been on a scientific mission, to pick up breadfruit from Tahiti* and transport it to the West Indies, and though he continually despairs at the failure of his mission the captain makes every effort to use his desperate trip to Timor as a voyage of exploration. Flora and fauna are noted, of course, and the presence and appearance of the natives (“naked, and apparently black, and their hair or wool bushy and short”). And the way they play the child’s game “Who Shall Have This?” to divide up all their caught food is darkly comic.

I’d rather be in Bligh’s boat than Chase’s. He does lose a man to some un-Friendly Islanders, but no one gets eaten, and they make it to Timor pretty much intact to enjoy the hospitality of the Dutch. Little did the mutineers expect the troupe to make it home. They only appear in Bligh’s account for a few pages, but after his tale ends they are found and brought to justice. Which is where the nastiness will begin…

*The appendix to this Penguin edition includes several descriptions of breadfruit, which have no bearing whatever on the story of the Bounty but which I’m quite glad to have read. Did you know that “it is as big as a penny-loaf when wheat is at five shillings the bushel”?