Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Battle For Historical Narrative

"I hope never to see Fletcher Christian again. Unless it is to see him hanged." - Attributed to Capt. William Bligh, 1789

What's not to love about the story of the mutiny on the Bounty? British Empire, exploration, betrayals, Pacific paradise, beautiful women, what was perhaps the greatest tale of survival in naval history, a new civilization created, courtroom drama. Hollywood has certainly taken notice, as it has been the subject of five films so far. I've been fascinated by the event since I was a child.

Very briefly, the facts:

The Bounty was sent out under the patronage of British renaissance man Joseph Banks under the command of Lt. William Bligh. The mission was to sail from England around the dangerous waters of Cape Horn, to reach Tahiti. Tahiti had only been visited by a handful of British ships up to this time. The plan was the get hundreds of breadfruit plants from Tahiti and transport them to the West Indies, as they were seen as a cheap food source for slave labor. After a rough passage and failure to make it around the stormy seas of the Horn, the Bounty eventually did make it to Tahiti, where they were greeted warmly (the King remembered Bligh from his previous voyage under Capt. Cook, who was viewed almost as a god by the Tahitians). The Bounty stayed there for about 6 months, where the crew and officers developed close relations with the Tahitians. Once they did depart, trouble brewed onboard. Accounts vary widely, but Bligh was either acting as a tyrant or was the victim of a naturally rebellious crew. A mutiny occurred, led by officer Fletcher Christian. Christian set Bligh and about 18 other loyalists adrift in a skiff in the South Pacific, to certain death. Bligh incredibly navigated, without a compass or other equipment, the small boat an astounding 3600 miles to civilization. Meanwhile The Bounty returned to Tahiti under the command of Christian, where some of the mutineers disembarked, while others, along with some Tahitian women and men who were essentially duped and taken hostage, continued to sail. They finally settled on an uncharted island, started a new civilization that was rife with violence and intrigue, but that survives to this day on Pitcairn's Island, still inhabited by the Bounty's descendants, and is the least populated British possession. (A child-rape sex scandal that was much publicized rocked Pitcairn this last decade.)

When Bligh finally returned to England, he was rightfully hailed as a hero. His 3600 mile epic journey in a little boat in the South Pacific was, and still is, acknowledged as one of the greatest feats of navigation and survival in naval history, complete with battling hostile natives and stormy seas en route. But an interesting thing happened. Soon after his return and after he was exonerated in his own court martial regarding the loss of the Bounty, Bligh set out on another voyage that took him away from England for several years. Meanwhile, the mutineers who had disembarked on Tahiti were captured by the Pandora, a ship the British Navy specifically sent out to hunt down the mutineers. (The voyage of The Pandora is a story unto itself, as it sank off of Australia, and incredibly the mutineer-prisoners that had been captured in Tahiti had to endure a shorter version of the open boat journey they had forced Bligh to take!) The court martial of the captured mutineers was a news sensation at the time, with three eventually being hung, four acquitted, and three sentenced to death but later pardoned by the King.

Two families made it their mission to take control of the narrative. Fletcher Christian's family and mutineer/pardoned prisoner Peter Heywood's family were both families of the upper crust, but had severe financial troubles. Yet they still maintained their friends in high places. While Bligh was away, they published accounts turning the narrative from a crew of villains taking the ship and setting 18 of their comrades adrift to what they thought was certain death to romantic heroes standing up to the abuse and tyranny of the evil Capt. Bligh.

Another interesting aspect of the story is that this is happening amidst bigger world events, such as the French Revolution and the beginnings of a new movement in British literature by the likes of Wordsworth and Byron (both of which entered the Bounty fray with writings of their own).

I've read quite a few books on the subject (including Bligh's own published log). Caroline Alexander's The Bounty may be the best, albeit very thorough. We simply do not know everything that happened. There are many accounts from many players, and they are fascinating in their differences. Not only that, but there are multiple accounts from the same person over many years that contradict their own earlier accounts. Money was thrown around liberally to get statements favorable to Heywood. You don't have just one adventure, but many. The mutiny. Pitcairn's Island and its eventual discovery by an American whaling ship. The trial. Bligh's epic open boat journey.

But the battle for the historical narrative is one of the aspects that intrigues me. What may be my favorite passage in Alexander's book sums up the bigger forces at work behind how the people then (and now) view The Bounty's story, how it was symbolic of the changing of eras:
"It was Lieutenant Bligh's ill luck to have his own great adventure coincide exactly with the dawn of this new era, which saw a devotion to a code of duty and established authority as less honorable than the celebration of individual passions and liberty. Coleridge's Anciant Mariner was a crude forerunner of the full-blown Romantic hero to be glamorized by Byron; but Fletcher Christian was the forerunner of them all..."

Most serious studies of The Bounty fall somewhere either in between or side somewhat, and with serious caveats, on the side of Capt. Bligh. But Hollywood cannot resist the Romantic hero, and has portrayed Bligh as a blustering tyrant and Christian as the sensitive hero pushed too far. Just look at who has played Fletcher Christian in these films: Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Mel Gibson (pre-psycho). In reality, Christian was a troubled soul, and by all accounts he was haunted by his setting Bligh adrift until his own murder on Pitcairn's Island by the hands of the Tahitian men who accompanied the mutineers (all accounts do agree on the exchange between Bligh and Christian on deck, where Christian, wild-eyed, shouts "I am in hell!" and Bligh tries to unsuccessfully appeal to their former friendship, "Fletcher, you have bounced my children upon your knee!") Funny enough, the last straw seems to be an incident where Bligh flew into a rage accusing Christian of stealing from his private stash of coconuts. Christian admitted to taking only one, when he was on the overnight watch and wanted to quench his thirst. At any rate, no doubt many of the mutineers were drawn back to their lost paradise of Tahiti, where several of them had developed serious relationships with the island women. The crew was uncommonly interesting, even the seamen. Several of them were quite educated, and there is strong evidence that several of them influenced and "pushed" the fragile but well liked Christian into leading the mutiny.

Of all of the film versions, 1985's "The Bounty", starring Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Gibson as Christian, attempts the most even-handed treatment of these two men.

When Bligh returned to England, he and patron Banks tried to counter the propaganda campaign started by the Christian and Heywood camps. They were only marginally successful. I guess what continues to give this story life is that it is unclear what really happened over those almost two years in the South Pacific. Bligh certainly had a volcanic temper, but so did many other British captains of the time. Abuse from superiors was expected in the 1700's British navy. What made this voyage so different? That is what so many people, like myself, still try and figure out. The battle for the historical narrative, both in book and in film, and in the accounts of the many survivors, rages on.


ANCIANT said...

Interesting. I highly recommend to you the series of Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian. They start with "Master And Commander" and will repay endless rereading (at least they have in my case). Peter Heywood--or one of his relatives--is a minor figure in one of the books, and there are frequent references to Bligh's voyage in the open boat. Although that's not why to read them; read them b/c they're the best historical fiction ever written.

But, great post.

Dezmond said...

Thanks. High praise from someone who knows books, so I'll check those out. Peter Heywood probably should have been hanged with the others, but his family threw around their influence and they hired a couple of amazing lawyers to help him through the court martial. Even with that, he was sentenced to death but with a reccomendation that the King pardon him. Which he did. He went on to have a distinguished naval career and became a captain himself.

Bligh and Christian's relationship was deep and complicated, which also adds to the story. Christian (and Heywood, actually) had been among Bligh's favorites early on and, according to him, he took them under his wing. Also, the Bounty crew was not a group of faceless illiterates. Each member of the crew played important roles in the story (and the battle for the truth afterward). That is what also makes it all so compelling.

I know it really has its flaws, but I've always loved the '85 "The Bounty" film. Some of the acting is a bit over the top (Hopkins and Gibson in full bluster mode), but the accounts all indicate that it really was that heated and contentious, especially that morning. I just think the film really does capture the seductiveness of Tahiti to these men. Plus, the Vangelis score is awesome. Anyway, I saw it as a kid and it is what sparked a decades long interest in this story.

By the way, the Caroline Alexander book 'The Bounty' that I mention really is quite good. It is comprehensive, though.

Dezmond said...

I especially liked how she ties the story to the times and shifting of eras, and how Bligh and Christian came to represent the clashing eras. As shown with that quote in the post, she does a great job going into all of that. As she points out, Fletcher Christian out-Byron's Byron, with the accounts of that morning of his his wild long hair, open shirt, and almost insane fury at Bligh. She wrote that it was probably enough to make Byron jealous. That was pretty funny.

Anonymous said...

Boats, coats, timid resting place of skin