In the wake of Longitude, Dava Sobel's enormously successful tale of science and the high seas, Fourth Estate could be forgiven for trying to catch the same trade wind with Captain Bligh's Portable Nightmare by Australian historian John Toohey. Subtitled "from the Bounty to safety: 4,162 miles across the Pacific in a rowing boat," this is a well-aimed shot across the bows of Hall and Nordhoff's 1932 classic Mutiny on the Bounty.
But Toohey offers much more than boys' own entertainment, or a sly cajoling of one of history's more infamous villains. His account retains all the adrenalin of mutiny, marooning and maritime misdemeanour, but re-charges it with insights into Bligh's own character. Cooped up in their tiny launch, the 18 sailors survived their weeks of misery largely because of the Captain's ruthless discipline - which trait some of the mutineers' aristocratic families would later use to demonise him. Using Bligh's own writings and those of his seditious second-in-command, John Fryer, Toohey skilfully draws out the doubting, intimate voice within the man who was welcomed home as a British hero.
An equally famous history of exploration underpins Toby Green's odyssey. He is squarely Saddled with Darwin as he rides slowly from Uruguay into Patagonia, and then up from Cape Horn towards the Galapagos. Fascinated by the journals of Charles Darwin's five years on board HMS Beagle, Green decided to retrace the route on horseback - a clearly logical decision for a 22-year-old philosophy graduate whose knowledge of horses seems limited to Ladbroke's.
Green is assailed by "the drabness of Patagonia" as he trudges gamely from one estancia to the next. Though he is clearly a lunatic, smelly gringo on a mission which none of his hosts understands, he is greeted time after time with unstinting hospitality, regardless of the poverty of the owner.
He encounters enough tipos gauchos to cast a spaghetti western. Each complains bitterly about the desiccating impact of the ozone hole and the disastrous droughts that are killing their livelihoods, before slaying sheep for the barbecue, pouring the mate and settling in for a session.
There is tremendous honesty in Green's style, graciously accepting alms from the very poor whose severe lives he never romanticises. But the very sameness of these often desperate livelihoods does make him somewhat of a slave to the idea of his "ridiculous journey". Green skilfully splices interesting gobbets of Darwinian thought into his travelogue and comments intelligently on contemporary "selfish gene" arguments in evolutionary theory; but there remains a plodding relentlessness which is often reinforced, rather than dispelled, by the harsh lives that he meets on such a journey. What his limpid account gains by avoiding Bruce Chatwin's legendary Patagonian egotism, it loses by rarely evoking Chatwin's sense of theatre. Some of Green's best writing simply describes the pantomimic saddling of his horses, and the gauchos' frantic lassoing of other dumb animals. …