The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty

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Overview

Just before sunrise on the morning of April 28, 1789, in the far reaches of the South Pacific. Master's Mate Fletcher Christian and three other men, armed with cutlasses, bayonets and a musket, apprehended Lieutenant William Bligh and placed him and eighteen officers and crewmen in a small boat. This mutiny on board His Majesty's armed transport Bounty impelled every man on a fateful course - Bligh and his loyalists on a historic boat voyage. Christian and his followers on their restless exile. Bligh himself ...
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The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty

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Overview

Just before sunrise on the morning of April 28, 1789, in the far reaches of the South Pacific. Master's Mate Fletcher Christian and three other men, armed with cutlasses, bayonets and a musket, apprehended Lieutenant William Bligh and placed him and eighteen officers and crewmen in a small boat. This mutiny on board His Majesty's armed transport Bounty impelled every man on a fateful course - Bligh and his loyalists on a historic boat voyage. Christian and his followers on their restless exile. Bligh himself returned to Britain as a hero, but that was not his final destiny. Ten of the Bounty's crew were eventually captured in Tahiti and brought back to England in irons to face their day in court and it was in the dynamics and politics of their court-martial and its aftermath that the story we know - or think we know - as the mutiny on the Bounty was shaped.

The facts of the mutiny itself are told in Admiralty records, but for the truth behind the story Alexander has ranged further, gleaning details from the wills, diaries and correspondence of figures not obviously connected to the events, from obscure news items and from the biographies and family pedigrees of seemingly minor players. She casts a radical new light on the events, on Bligh's character and on a welter of family connections and special interests that play crucial roles at different moments in the story. Using contemporary accounts, and particularly the mutineers' own testimony, she allows the men themselves to conjure the events and transport the reader back to the deck of the Bounty, to exotic islands in the South Pacific and to the back rooms of British naval power. Only when we look at the whole story, from beforethe Bounty left England until well after the death of the last participant, do we understand what happened and why.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
''What caused the mutiny on the Bounty?'' Alexander asks. ''The seductions of Tahiti, Bligh's harsh tongue -- perhaps. But more compellingly, a night of drinking and a proud man's pride, a low moment on one gray dawn, a momentary and fatal slip in a gentleman's code of discipline -- and then the rush of consequences to be lived out for a lifetime.'' This sounds almost like Conrad writing, and indeed it would have taken a Conrad to gives us a psychologically satisfactory Christian or Bligh. A sea mist hangs over this age-old tale. Alexander dispels it, to the reader's fascination. But when all the facts are told and the fates of the cast are duly chronicled, the sea mist settles in again, as impenetrable and yet more interesting than it has ever been. — Verlyn Klinkenborg
The Washington Post
As Caroline Alexander argues in this meticulously researched and smoothly readable revisionist history, the central part of the Bounty legend -- that William Bligh was a tyrannical captain and Fletcher Christian a heroic rebel -- simply is not true. — Jonathan Yardley
Publishers Weekly
A contributor to the New Yorker, Granta, Cond Nast Traveler and National Geographic, Alexander brings the past to life with travel narratives spanning continents and centuries. Alexander (The Endurance) again recreates a high seas voyage, retelling a familiar story-of the South Pacific misadventures of the small British naval vessel the Bounty-yet taking a fresh look at the drama. Commanded by William Bligh, the Bounty left England in December 1787 to transport breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies. During the 1789 mutiny, Bligh and crew members were set adrift in an open boat and eventually returned to England. Bligh-who up until now has been viewed as a tyrant-was praised at the time, Alexander finds, since "no feat of seamanship was deemed to surpass Bligh's navigation and command of The Bounty's 23-foot-long launch, and few feats of survival compared with his men's forty-eight-day ordeal on starvation rations." Alexander's reconstruction of the mutiny and its aftermath (thanks to her exhaustive research through books, reports, newspapers, correspondence, historical societies and archives) is almost as remarkable as Bligh's feat. She details daily events during the captured mutineers' court-martial, expanding on court transcripts. Separating facts from falsehoods and myths in the closing chapters, she finally turns to the life of the mutineers on Pitcairn Island, noting "this fantastic tale of escape to paradise at the far end of the world had the allure of something epic." Alexander's work is destined to become the definitive, enthralling history of a great seafaring adventure. Maps and illus. not seen by PW. (On sale Sept. 15) Forecast: Ads, a 15-city author tour, a 20-city radio satellite tour and first serial in the New Yorker are sure to send readers sailing into bookstores. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Alexander sold 750,000 copies of The Endurance in hardcover alone, so following up with the tale of another shipboard tragedy was probably smart. A 15-city author tour; first serial to The New Yorker. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Blending a smooth interpretation of events with primary-source material, Alexander profiles history's most famous mutiny in the same stylish manner she brought to Shackleton's Antarctic expedition (The Endurance, 1998, etc.). There's no dearth of original material to work from when piecing together what happened aboard the Bounty in 1789, when Fletcher Christian and a small band of men staged a mutiny against Captain William Bligh, and Alexander has harvested all the best of it: admiralty papers, personal letters, Bligh's logs, wills, memoirs, diaries, and even "correspondence of figures not obviously connected to events, obscure news items, and the biographies and family pedigrees of seemingly minor players." The author re-creates the crew's capture on Tahiti and the courts-martial of Bligh and the others, with their contradictory evidence and clashes of will. Considering the surfeit of interpretations, it's not surprising when Alexander concedes that "exactly why, or precisely when Christian had begun to succumb to the pressure of serving under his irascible commander is impossible to ascertain." She offers fascinating and credible explanations for the rise of the Fletcher Christian myth, and the devolution of Bligh to join the ranks of Quisling and Legree; in one scenario, Bligh's breadfruit mission was intended to supply cheap food for slaves in the West Indies, and Abolitionists created in Christian "a young gentleman who, 'agonized by unprovoked and incessant abuse and disgrace,' stood up for his natural rights and overthrew the oppressive tyrant." The discovery, years later, of the families of the mutineers on Pitcairn Island added further grist to the Romantic mill. A great seastory ("surpassed, perhaps, only by the Odyssey," the author remarks), handled with dexterity to capture characters and circumstances with faithfulness to the record and a steady feeling of anticipation for history in the making. (32 pp. illustrations, not seen) First serial to the New Yorker; author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641632662
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • Publication date: 9/15/2003
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.74 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.76 (d)

Meet the Author

 Caroline Alexander has written for The New Yorker, Granta, Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian, Outside, and National Geographic and is the author of four previous books.

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Read an Excerpt

PRELUDE

Spithead, winter 1787

His small vessel pitching in the squally winter sea, a young British naval lieutenant waited restlessly to embark upon the most important and daunting voyage of his still young but highly promising career. William Bligh, aged thirty-three, had been selected by His Majesty's government to collect breadfruit plants from the South Pacific island of Tahiti and to transport them to the plantations of the West Indies. Like most of the Pacific, Tahiti—Otaheite—was little known; in all the centuries of maritime travel, fewer than a dozen European ships had anchored in her waters. Bligh himself had been on one of these early voyages, ten years previously, when he had sailed under the command of the great Captain Cook. Now he was to lead his own expedition in a single small vessel called Bounty.

With his ship mustered and provisioned for eighteen months, Bligh had anxiously been awaiting the Admiralty's final orders, which would allow him to sail, since his arrival at Spithead in early November. A journey of some sixteen thousand miles lay ahead, including a passage around Cape Horn, some of the most tempestuous sailing in the world. Any further delay, Bligh knew, would ensure that he approached the Horn at the height of its worst weather. By the time the orders arrived in late November, the weather at Spithead itself had also deteriorated to the extent that Bligh had been able to advance no farther than the Isle of Wight, from where he wrote a frustrated letter to his uncle-in-law and mentor, Duncan Campbell.

"If there is any punishment that ought to be inflicted on a set of Men for neglect I am sure it ought on the Admiralty," he wrote irascibly on December 10, 1787, "for my three weeks detention at this place during a fine fair wind which carried all outward bound ships clear of the channel but me, who wanted it most."

Nearly two weeks later, he had retreated back to Spithead, still riding out bad weather.

"It is impossible to say what may be the result," Bligh wrote to Campbell, his anxiety mounting. "I shall endeavor to get round [the Horn]; but with heavy Gales, should it be accompanied with sleet & snow my people will not be able to stand it....Indeed I feel my voyage a very arduous one, and have only to hope in return that whatever the event may be my poor little Family may be provided for. I have this comfort," he continued with some complacency, "that my health is good and I know of nothing that can scarce happen but I have some resource for— My little Ship is in the best of order and my Men & officers all good & feel happy under my directions."

At last, on December 23, 1787, the Bounty departed England and after a rough passage arrived at Santa Cruz, in Tenerife. Here, fresh provisions were acquired and repairs made, for the ship had been mauled by severe storms.

"The first sea that struck us carryed away all my spare yards and some spars," Bligh reported, writing again to Campbell; "—the second broke the Boats chocks & stove them & I was buryed in the Sea with my poor little crew...."

Despite the exasperating delay of his departure, the tumultuous passage and the untold miles that still lay ahead, Bligh's spirits were now high—manifestly higher than when he had first set out. On February 17, 1788, off Tenerife, he took advantage of a passing British whaler, the Queen of London, to drop a line to Sir Joseph Banks, his patron and the man most responsible for the breadfruit venture.

"I am happy and satisfyed in my little Ship and we are now fit to go round half a score of worlds," Bligh wrote, "both Men & Officers tractable and well disposed & cheerfulness & content in the countenance of every one. I am sure nothing is even more conducive to health. —I have no cause to inflict punishments for I have no offenders and every thing turns out to my most sanguine expectations."

"My Officers and Young Gentlemen are all tractable and well disposed," he continued in the same vein to Campbell, "and we now understand each other so well that we shall remain so the whole voyage...."

Bligh fully expected these to be his last communications on the outward voyage. But monstrous weather off Cape Horn surpassed even his worst expectations. After battling contrary storms and gales for a full month, he conceded defeat and reversed his course for the Cape of Good Hope. He would approach Tahiti by way of the Indian Ocean and Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), a detour that would add well over ten thousand miles to his original voyage.

"I arrived here yesterday," he wrote to Campbell on May 25 from the southernmost tip of Africa, "after experiencing the worst of weather off Cape Horn for 30 Days....I thought I had seen the worst of every thing that could be met with at Sea, yet I have never seen such violent winds or such mountainous Seas." A Dutch ship, he could not resist adding, had also arrived at the Cape with thirty men having died on board and many more gravely ill; Bligh had brought his entire company through, safe and sound.

The Bounty passed a month at the Cape recovering, and was ready to sail at the end of June. A still arduous journey lay ahead but Bligh's confidence was now much greater than when he had embarked; indeed, in this respect he had shown himself to be the ideal commander, one whose courage, spirits and enthusiasm were rallied, not daunted, by difficulties and delays. Along with his ship and men, he had weathered the worst travails he could reasonably expect to face.

The long-anticipated silence followed; but when over a year later it was suddenly broken, Bligh's correspondence came not from the Cape, nor any other port of call on the expected route home, but from Coupang (Kupang) in the Dutch East Indies. The news he reported in letters to Duncan Campbell, to Joseph Banks and above all to his wife, Elizabeth, was so wholly unexpected, so unconnected to the stream of determined and complacent letters of the year before as to be almost incomprehensible.

"My Dear Dear Betsy," Bligh wrote with palpable exhaustion to his wife on August 19, 1789, "I am now in a part of the world that I never expected, it is however a place that has afforded me relief and saved my life....

"Know then my own Dear Betsy, I have lost the Bounty...."

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Table of Contents

The Bounty Ship's Company
Author's Note

Prelude
Pandora
Bounty
Voyage Out
Tahiti
Mutiny
Return
Portsmouth
Court-Martial
Defense
Sentence
Judgment
Latitude 25° S, Longitude 130° W
Home Is The Sailor

A Note on Sources
Select Bibliography
Acknowledgments
Index

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