What do you think of when you hear the name William Bligh? A hot-tempered tyrant ready to punish the men of his ship for the slightest offense? When you hear of the mutiny on the Bounty, do you imagine a group of young romantics trying to break free from a dictatorial rule to live freely in an island paradise? If so, Caroline Alexander has a few surprising facts for you. In The Bounty, she delves into diary entries, letters, and court transcripts to uncover the facts behind the events of April 28, 1789, when a group of sailors forced Bligh and 18 of their other shipmates onto a small launch and left them adrift in the Pacific Ocean.
Bligh’s ship, The Bounty, was on its way back to England from a expedition to Tahiti to gather breadfruit. Bligh, then a lieutenant, had previously sailed with Captain Cook and was now on his first command. It seems clear that he ran a tight ship, but he did not whip his men as often as was typical, and he made a point of looking out for their health. It’s unclear exactly what happened to cause the men to mutiny.
In The Bounty, Alexander tells not only the story of that fateful night, but also the story of the years after, of Bligh’s 4,000-mile journey to safety; Bligh’s court-martial; the ill-fated journey of the Pandora, the ship that captured several of the mutineers in Tahiti; the court-martial of the captured mutineers; and the remaining mutineers’ settlement on Pitcairn Island. She also explains how Bligh’s name eventually became synonymous with tyrannical authoritarianism.
The story is a fascinating one, and Alexander handles it skillfully. She quotes extensively from journals, letters, and court transcripts. Bligh, of course, has the most say, because he kept the official ship’s log as well as a personal diary. However, Alexander makes a point of quoting others or seeking out facts to back up Bligh’s assertions. The true facts are at times difficult to discern, and Alexander is careful to indicate where different people’s accounts agree and disagree, and where their stories change over time. Like most popular histories, this book does not include footnotes, but the sources are described in detail in the back of the book.
There are times when Alexander goes into too much detail for a general reader like me; I was not especially interested in the details of each crewman’s background and ultimate fate, and the point-by-point description of the trial got tedious. However, once I decided that I didn’t need to remember every crewman’s name and position, as well as where he was on the night of the mutiny, this was less of a problem.
If you’re at all interested in seafaring stories of the 18th century, I highly recommend this book. It’s readable and very well researched. Alexander seems able to get her mind into an entirely different culture, looking at these sea-faring men in context and accepting their values for what they were instead of expecting them to live by the rules of the 21st century or of the landlubber. And that’s what I like in a history.
Published in 2003, this is my 24th book for the Countdown Challenge.