Mutiny on the Bounty
Mutiny on the Bounty
by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set mainly aboard naval vessels traveling between England and the South Seas from 1789 to 1793; published in 1932.
A young midshipman relates the travels of the Bounty and the mutiny that takes place aboard the vessel.
Charles Nordhoff and James Hall were two pilots who shared a common love of writing and adventure. Disenchanted with the post-World War I civilization, they decided to visit a place where money was not the only important medium of exchange. They subsequently journeyed to the South Seas. Shortly thereafter the two men wrote a historical novel based on an actual eighteenth-century mutiny that erupted on board a ship sailing near the island of Tahiti.
On April 28, 1789, His Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Bounty was seized from its captain and taken by mutineers. The decision to wrest control of the ship from its captain was a serious one. According to the strict naval code that ruled British ships at this time, those participating in the mutiny would be subject to the hangman’s noose.
While the events that provoked this incident vary depending on whose side of the tale one hears, the act of mutiny itself has been recorded with the utmost care. Two of the Bounty’s sailors, Fletcher Christian and Charles Churchill, entered Captain William Bligh’s cabin on the morning of April 28. Armed with bayonets, these men seized the captain and forced him on deck in only his nightshirt. There they tied him to one of the ship’s front masts and told him of their intent to take the vessel. During the passage from his cabin to the deck, Bligh could see that approximately twenty-one sailors were participating in the mutiny. Originally the mutineers had planned to set the captain and any of his followers adrift in the Bounty’s small cutter, a single-masted sailing vessel. Upon noting some damage to the cutter, however, they decided to give the captain the launch, a larger utility boat. They loaded this boat with the captain and eighteen faithful crewmen, along with some meager provisions. Although the mutineers knew of the hostility of some of the natives in the area, they gave the sailors in the launch only four cutlasses (short, curved swords) with which to defend themselves. Historian George Mackaness noted that the mutineers hurled insults such as “damn his eyes” and “blow his brains out” at their former leader as the launch was lowered into the water (Mackaness, p. 133).
Captain Bligh’s account
Although several accounts of the mutiny have been recorded, no history seems able to determine who deserves the blame for the events on board the Bounty. Certainly Captain Bligh’s tyrannical behavior could have driven his men to mutiny, but the navy contended that Bligh’s actions did not excuse the behavior of Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers. Bligh stated in the records he sent to the navy upon his return home that the desire to return to Tahiti provided the mutineers with their main motivation.
During their sojourn on the island, the sailors, normally accustomed to a life of hard labor, had enjoyed the pleasures of a paradise in the South Seas. This paradise had included native women. Bligh remarked that “the allurements of dissipation [on Tahiti] are more than equal to anything that can be conceived” (Bligh in Mackaness, p. 161). Indeed, one account of the mutineers’ struggles after taking the Bounty has them arguing among themselves about the seizure of women.
Bligh also asserted that the mutiny must have been long in its planning. While docked at Tahiti, two of the Bounty’s three anchor cables had been cut. Although at the time the captain assumed this to be the work of mischievous natives, he later maintained that the mutineers had played a part in the destruction.
Prior to his stint at the helm of the Bounty, Bligh had been regarded as a fair and capable sailor whose main concern lay with the health of his crew. Records show that he was involved in such acts of kindness as hiring fiddlers to entertain the men on the journey and giving up his bunk for sailors whose berths were wet. He blamed the problems experienced during the Bounty’s voyage on the ineptness of his officers.
As the leader of the mutineers, Fletcher Christian has become a figure of much debate in naval history. Was he or was he not correct in his actions? Private journals of other sailors aboard the Bounty state that Captain Bligh frequently used insulting language toward his men. It often amounted to what today would be called “verbal abuse.” He also regularly flogged (whipped) the sailors for minor offenses, such as insolence toward a superior. Although this type of conduct was not uncommon on naval ships in the eighteenth century, the severity with which Bligh carried out his punishments appears to have been unique. Each of the men whipped in such a manner eventually joined forces with the mutineers. It seems that the captain’s abuse of power formed a lasting impression on his men. Bligh did not reserve his short temper only for those under his command, either. During the stopover at Tahiti, Bligh had one of the natives whipped for supposedly stealing some of the Bounty’s goods. His crewmen, however, were the primary recipients of Bligh’s discipline. In fact, three men—Charles Churchill, John Millward, and William Muspratt—attempted to desert the ship when it was at Tahiti. Bligh caught the offenders soon enough, and these men later joined the other mutineers.
The crux of the problem between Bligh and his men appears to have stemmed from his dual role of captain and purser, or supply officer. Bligh frequently rationed food and drink as a form of punishment. The sailors viewed this action as an excuse for Bligh to line his own pockets with some of the ship’s wealth. On Tahiti several of the sailors made friends with the natives, who provided the crew with gifts of pork or fruits. Bligh seized these private stores and did with them as he pleased. When the men complained of these actions, he threatened to whip any sailor who appeared dissatisfied with his operation of the ship.
The patience of the crew finally gave way the day before the mutiny, when Bligh accused some of his officers of stealing from the ship’s store of coconuts. Out of thousands, four had been taken, yet the captain flew into a rage, cutting off all alcoholic beverages until the offender stepped forward. Reasoning that they had endured enough, over half of the crew joined together to overthrow their captain.
From slaves to breadfruit
The latter half of the 1700s saw a reduction in England’s involvement in the African slave trade. By 1807 Parliament had outlawed any British participation in the international exchange of slaves. Until this point, however, slave trading had provided a lucrative business for many English merchants. Ships leaving England would journey to the coast of Africa, where they would exchange their goods for slaves. They would then travel to the West Indies or to the American colonies to trade the slaves for the sugar and molasses produced in these regions. On the last leg of the triangle, the vessels would journey back to England for a repeat of the trip. These routes composed the “Triangle Trade.”
The purpose of the Bounty’s voyage was the acquisition of breadfruit trees in the South Pacific. In the novel Captain Bligh states, “Considering that the breadfruit might provide a cheap and wholesome food for their Negro slaves, several of the West India merchants and planters petitioned the Crown, asking that a vessel be fitted... to convey the breadfruit from Tahiti to the
West Indian islands” (Nordhoff and Hall, Mutiny on the Bounty, p. 10). Although Bligh’s original journey to obtain these plants did not prove successful, he returned some years later to gather this crop.
Told from a first-person point of view, the book records the travels of Roger Byam aboard the HMS Bounty. In the early spring of 1787, Byam and his mother entertain Captain William Bligh at their home in Withycomb, England. Enchanted by the Captain’s tales of adventure on the high seas, Byam postpones his Oxford University studies for an opportunity to sail with Bligh on his next voyage aboard the Bounty.
Destined for Tahiti, the vessel’s crew intends to gather the breadfruit trees that grow in abundance on the island. The breadfruit is viewed as a perfect food staple for black slaves being shuttled to the New World. Along with attending to other duties, Byam intends to compose a dictionary of the Tahitian language. Those in charge of the project hope that such a book will prove useful for future sailors’ interactions with the natives in the South Seas. On December 23, 1787, the Bounty heads out for Tahiti.
On board, Captain Bligh proves a more formidable character than his manner at Withycomb had suggested. He rules his sailors with an iron fist, frequently issuing floggings at the slightest provocation. Byam, meanwhile, works diligently at his duties and makes the acquaintance of almost every sailor on the ship. He takes a particular liking to one of the master’s mates, Fletcher Christian.
Once the Bounty reaches Tahiti, Byam spends most of his time on the island at the household of his taio, or native friend, Hitihiti. Because Hitihiti speaks English with relative fluency, Byam’s dictionary develops with rapid progress. When the Bounty sets sail a few months later, all of the sailors express regret at having to leave this tropical paradise. The days proceed without incident until the afternoon of April 7, 1789. Upon hearing that four coconuts among several thousand that had been collected are missing, Bligh flies into a rage. He accuses every sailor on board of thievery, attacking even his officer Christian. The next morning the captain awakens to the bayonets of the mutineers. Led by Christian, the men force Bligh and eighteen other sailors into a small boat and lower them overboard. Although Byam wishes to leave with the captain, the lack of room in the small boat prevents him from doing so.
The other sailors then turn the Bounty back toward Tahiti, confident that they have seen the last of their oppressive leader.
The mutineers realize that the British naval forces will soon come after the missing vessel. As a result, they decide not to drop anchor at so obvious a port as Tahiti. They do, however, allow those wishing to do so to abandon the Bounty and make their home on the tropical island. Byam and several others agree to this arrangement. For the following eighteen months, Byam lives with his Tahitian hosts and even marries one of the women, with whom he has a daughter. Soon enough, however, the British ship Pandora arrives at the island. Captain Bligh had apparently made his way to England and reported the mutiny.
The captain of the Pandora orders Byam and the others taken as prisoners. They find themselves caged like animals on the ship, which sets out for England. Before leaving the South Seas, however, the Pandora falls victim to a squall and sinks along with thirty-three of its sailors and four of the prisoners. Byam, along with some of the other prisoners and sailors, manages to escape this initial disaster, only to encounter harrowing times ahead. For the next ten months, the survivors drift slowly along, making their way to a Dutch settlement on the island of Timor. By the time they arrive at the settlement, they are barely alive.
Byam and the other prisoners are then shuttled in another vessel to England, where they will stand trial for their part in the mutiny. On June 19, 1793, more than four years after the departure of the Bounty, the sailors return to the English port from which they had sailed.
Although all men are initially found guilty, a last-minute witness clears Byam of any wrong-doing. The lives of two other sailors are spared by the king, but the remaining ones hang for their actions. Although Byam remains much disturbed by the events that took place on the Bounty, he rebounds and eventually embarks on a successful naval career.
Captain Bligh is a complex figure. While the events of the Bounty have labeled him a tyrant, few histories deny the captain’s capabilities at sea. A liberal user of floggings to maintain discipline, Bligh also accomplished feats equaled only by a select number of navy men. He survived the mutiny of over half of his crew and led the remainder of his men to safety. Moreover, the captain returned to Tahiti in 1793 to fulfill his original mission of gathering the breadfruit trees.
Nordhoff and Hall present a rather unbiased account of the mutiny against the captain. The authors side neither with the mutineers nor Bligh in restating the fairly complicated case. Although Mutiny on the Bounty only touches upon Bligh’s achievements in sailing the launch to safety and eventually returning to England, a subsequent novel dealt with this episode of his life in great detail.
Leading eighteen men, Captain Bligh sailed an open boat 3,618 miles across uncharted waters. He rationed the few provisions they had to a sip of water, an ounce of salt pork, and an ounce and a half of bread per man each day. In addition, said Bligh,
I issued for dinner about an ounce of salt pork to each person. I was often solicited for this pork, but I considered it better to give it in small quantities than to use all at once or twice, which would have been done if I had allowed it.
(Bligh adapted from McFarland, p. 35)
Although he attempted to land the launch at several islands to replenish supplies, the hostility of the natives quickly led the sailors back out to sea. Navigating through rain and coral reefs, Bligh landed his men at the safety of a Dutch settlement on June 14, 1789, more than two months after the mutiny.
Once he returned to England, Bligh continued with his navy career. It seems that the experience of the mutiny did not change his temperament. Later, serving as the governor of an Australian settlement, he again faced rebels who resisted his tyrannical rule.
Because the mutiny referred to in Nordhoff and Hall’s novel actually took place, the authors had several historical accounts to use as reference guides. Through Dr. Leslie Hotson at the British Museum and Elery Sedgwick, a trusted friend, the two authors began their research. They copied every report, chart, picture, and transcript that the museum held, and Commander E. C. Tufnell of the British navy sent them the deck and rigging plans of the Bounty. They searched booksellers and engravers for historical accounts pertaining to the period and for pictures of Captain Bligh. Finally the two men gathered their evidence and shipped off to Tahiti, where they co-authored the novel.
Some of the manuscripts Nordhoff and Hall may have used include the following:
- A factual account of the mutiny by Sir John Burrows
- Captain Bligh’s “A Narrative of the Mutiny on Board His Majesty’s Ship Bounty; and the Subsequent Voyage of Part of the Crew in the Ship’s Boat, from Tofoa, on to the Friendly Islands, to Timor, a Dutch Settlement in the East Indies”
- Letters from Bligh sent to Secretary Stephens of the British Admiralty, to Bligh’s wife, and to Sir Joseph Banks
- The log book of the HMS Bounty
- The journal of midshipman James Morrison
- The minutes of the court-martial of the mutineers upon their return to England
These documents would have provided the authors with the primary sources for interpreting the events that took place aboard the HMS Bounty.
The Royal Navy in World War I
Published in 1932, Mutiny on the Bounty was written by two men who had participated in World War I, flying for a French naval squadron. Always a naval power, Great Britain entered World War I with the largest and probably the most modern fleet of ships. The nation amassed eight hundred fighting ships, over twice the size of the fleet that its enemy Germany boasted. Furthermore, the British were engaged in their annual naval maneuvers when Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated in July of 1914 and the European powers moved toward war. As a result, they were already mobilized and prepared for action when hostilities began. Until the United States joined the other Allied forces (including England, France and Russia) in 1917, these nations relied on Great Britain for protection at sea.
Germany, however, was able to inflict some damage with its own navy, especially through the actions of Admiral von Spee in 1914. Von Spee commanded a fleet of German ships that was active in the South Pacific and Indian oceans, sinking British merchant ships and bombarding ports controlled by the Allies. Von Spee’s fleet won a decisive victory over a British fleet in November 1914 but was defeated a month later near the Falkland Islands, off the coast of South America. Von Spee himself was killed in the battle when his ship was sunk.
Later in the war, the Germans used submarines extensively. They adopted a policy of sinking any ships that provided supplies to England and other Allied countries. As a result, ships from the United States were torpedoed and Americans killed. These attacks were one of the main reasons that the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, siding with the Allies and fighting against Germany and the Central Powers. The U.S. Navy joined with the British in battling the German submarines and soon proved decisive. When the war ended in 1918, a total of 1,000 warships had been destroyed on all sides, and more than 300 of these belonged to Great Britain. The Royal Navy also lost 34,000 naval and merchant marine personnel—the largest human loss experienced by any participating navy.
Tahiti during and after World War I
After the war, anxious to escape to a remote area of the world untouched by the ills of modern society, Nordhoff and Hall went to Tahiti. Although it seemed to present a paradise, in actuality the island, a French colony since 1880, did not escape the First World War unscathed. In Papeete, the town off the bay where the Bounty originally docked, the Tahiti Yacht Club serves as a visual reminder of the island’s participation in the war. A great hole in one wall remains unmended, having been damaged by shellfire in a 1914 battle. In September of that year, two German ships, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, docked in Tahiti to restock supplies. While in port, they were attacked by a French gunboat, the Zéelée. After sinking the French boat, the Germans dropped a few shells into the center of Papeete, then headed out to the South Seas. During the shelling, the Yacht Club incurred the damage it still shows today. The two German vessels were later sunk by ships of the Allied forces. Each year, the island celebrates the anniversary of the attack as a holiday. In honor of its participation in the war, the Tahiti Yacht Club has preserved the giant hole.
Other evidence of modern society had found its way to the island by the time Nordhoff and Hall took up residence there. In addition to a smattering of hotels and commercial retailers, Tahiti boasted one of the first movie theaters in the South Seas. Not all of this exposure to the outside world resulted in welcome changes, however. By the early twentieth century, as one historian notes, “white man’s diseases [had] carried off whole generations of the best [natives]” (Eggleston, p. 21). In addition, many young men who left the island to participate in World War I and World War II lost their lives in the trenches of France.
In the novel, the character Roger Byam observes the beginnings of Tahitian loss. During his navy career, the former midshipman of the Bounty returned to the island he had so loved. He found that “war and the diseases introduced by the visits of European ships, had destroyed four fifths of the people... and the future of the island appeared dark indeed” (Mutiny on the Bounty, pp. 374-75).
Nordhoff and Hall in Tahiti
Although Nord-hoff and Hall had met while flying together for the navy in the war, neither one was anxious to pursue an aviation career. In addition to their love of flying, the two men also shared an affection for writing. They agreed to live together following the war and to jointly pursue the writing of travel articles. After a short period of time, Nordhoff and Hall convinced Harper’s Magazine to finance a series of articles about the South Seas. In 1920 the two men sailed to Tahiti to write the articles.
Like the character Byam, Hall’s first experience on the island involved the study of the Tahitian language. In his autobiography, he writes, “Their speech has great charm for a stranger from the northern latitudes. Only children of nature, isolated for centuries on such islands as these, could have fashioned words so warm and fragrant with the breath of the land” (My Island Home, p. 255). In Mutiny on the Bounty, Byam echoes these words stating, “It [Tahitian] is a simple language and a beautiful one.... It is rich in words descriptive of the moods of Nature” (Mutiny on the Bounty, pp. 85-6).
By 1929 the two authors had not experienced their anticipated literary success. They decided to collaborate on a novel and set off in search of a story that interested them. Hall proposed that they base their work on the history of the Bounty, using Sir John Barrow’s factual account as a guide. After reading Barrow’s book in one sitting, Nordhoff could not believe that no other novelist had written about so incredible a tale. He and Hall then set out to collect research and begin the book.
Reception of the novel
Originally Hall envisioned the tale of the Bounty as a trilogy. One novel would deal with the account of the mutiny; one would discuss Bligh’s open-boat voyage back to England; and the third would treat the subject of the mutineers who sailed with Fletcher Christian. Neither author, however, anticipated that public interest would be so great as to warrant the writing of all three novels. To their great shock and excitement, the first novel was widely popular. Eventually they completed the trilogy
with their novels Men against the Sea and Pitcairn’s Island.
Critics praised Mutiny for its suspense, faithfulness to reality, and inclusion of picturesque details. A review in the magazine Punch, however, criticized its portrait of Captain Bligh.
Bligh in sober truth was no monster.... If anything, Bligh seems to have been ahead of his time in his care for his crew, and, had he been the bloodthirsty ogre this book paints him, it would have been incredible that so many of his ship’s company should have elected to follow him to what must have seemed at the time the virtual certainty of a lingering death from starvation and thirst.
(Punch, p. 504)
This criticism, however, was a minority opinion. Other reviews described Mutiny on the Bounty as a skillfully wrought novel and a thrilling read.
Eggleston, George T. Tahiti. New York: Devin-Adair, 1953.
Hall, James Norman. My Island Home. Boston: Atlantic Monthly, 1952.
Halpern, Paul G. A Naval History of World War I. Annapolis: Naval Institute, 1994.
Mackaness, George. The Life of Vice-Admiral Bligh. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1931.
McFarland, Alfred. Mutiny in the “Bounty” and Story of the Pitcairn Islanders. Sydney: J. J. Moore, 1884.
Nordhoff, Charles, and James Norman Hall. Mutiny on the Bounty. New York: Back Bay, 1932.
Punch 184 (May 3, 1933): 504.