MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, was one of the best-reading books of the '30s; the first film that emerged from it, with Charles Laughton's magnificent portrayal of Captain William Bligh as brute, tryant and sadist, ranked among Hollywood's greatest. Masquerading as history, both were fiction and, to boot, calumny in the nth degree.
They were, however, in the grand tradition, for in every generation since that mutiny in the South Pacific in 1789, volumes have been produced -- now numbered by the dozens -- cementing the reputation of a brave, essentially decent and immensely able officer into the mold of the nickname he was to acquire in the British Fleet -- the "Bounty Bastard."
A reader brought up on those volumes tends to fight Gavin Kennedy's book all the way. How can one accept that Fletcher Christian was a ruthless. killer and not the gallant, geroic martyr fixed in one's mind by Clark Gable, or that teen-age midshipman Peter Heywood (the character modeled after him so winsomely played by Franchot Tone) was a silly lad who became a vindictive and malicious liar?
But in the end -- indeed, early on -- Kennedy wins the day. His biography is surely the finest produced to date, a monument of prodigious research, skilled organization and argument as tight as a Euclidean proposition.
His thesis, presented with compelling evidence, is that the mutiny derived from "the coincidence of the collapse in the authority of the commander and an emotional storm in an immature and possibly mentally unstable young man." (Christian was only 24.)
The Bounty , was sent to Tahiti to collect breadfruit plants for transplanting in the West Indies as a source of food for slaves there. The ship was small, cramped and, even so, undermanned; those aboard, officers as well as men, were exceptionally lazy and incompentent. The Master and the Carpenter (a petty officer) flatly refused to obey reasonable and necessary commands. Halfway around the world from any enforcing authority -- the lash could not be used on officers -- and desperately needing the services of both men, Bligh could do nothing about what was essentially a mutiny months before the one at Tofua.
"At home," Kennedy argues, "among familiar surroundings, the naval hierarchy was reinforced by the presence of large numbers of people among whom the habit of deference was firmly established. Seamen who were punished at home or near home were isolated and impotent; the power of those over them was near absolute. But at sea, on a long voyage across the world, the bonds were loosened. The officers were themselves isolated, and brought down to the same level as the men; the social distance between the commander and the men was abbreviated, and the hazy indefinable line between fear and contempt, which is the threshold of mutiny, was easily broken. The Bounty , a small overcrowded ship captained by an unsupported lieutenant, alone and out of sight of the known world, was particularly vulnerable."
Viewed against the totality of British sailing ship history, the Bounty mutiny was comparatively unimportant, trivial and worthy of little subsequent note. It was the power connections of the Christian family in England fighting for Fletcher's vindication, a series of fraudulent documents and polemics concocted by some of the surviving mutineers (they may have been incompetent seamen but they were brilliant sea lawyers) and the hyped-up romance of the mutineers' escape to the South Sea "paradise" of Pitcairn Island (where they and their Tahitian slaves murdered each other until 10 years later there was only one survivor) which kept the story alive these 190 years.
With it, the slander was kept alive too. The truth is that it was Christian and his companions' subsequent behavior in the South Pacific, not Bligh's, that was of unrivaled brutality, bloodiness and insanify.
Kennedy's examination of the evidence covers every shred of documentary material. One by one, he explodes the alleged outrages of Bligh, the fraudulent charges and the mistakes of subsequent historians (including the insinuation that there was a soured homosexual relationship between him and Christian). He discusses the fascinating possibility that Christian may actually have escaped from Pitcairn and made his way back to England; in a unique departure from his willingness elsewhere to come to conclusions, the author frankly refuses to offer a judgment on the story.
Despite its punctilious scholarship, the narrative moves as swiftly as a thriller. It carries the "tempestuous voyage" of Bligh's life to its end: his incredible 3,900-mile open boat voyage to Timor after the mutiny, his superb fighting at Camperdown and Copenhagen (which endeared him to Nelson), and his miserable experience as Governor of New South Wales (Australia). That last, in a morbid way, was an episode analogous to the one on the Bounty: isolated from the enforcement powers of the Crown on the other side of the globe and confronted by a pack of scoundrels united in their greed and sitting as judges on their own actions, Bligh was defeated by a mutiny as little his fault as that two decades earlier.
That Bligh was a man of vile temper, given to passionate rages and uncurbed verbal abuse of his officers and men, there can be no doubt. If he did not cause the tempests that continually surrounded him, the only ones he dealt with skillfully were those caused by nature, at sea. But there can equally be no doubt that he was a man of immense skill at navigation and cartography, brave beyond the call of duty and harsh only in demanding that everyong around him execute the King's orders as obsessively as he.
The bad anme of the "bounty Bastard" may never be expunged, for lies circle the world before truth can draw on its boots. But Kennedy has cobbled the sturdiest pair of boots yet with which to make the pursuit.