Magazine article The Spectator

The Bounty

Magazine article The Spectator

The Bounty

Article excerpt

The sea monster that never was THE BOUNTY by Caroline Alexander HarperCollins, L20, pp. 491, ISBN 0002572214

It is never easy to tell a story that everyone knows and still harder to tell one that everybody thinks he knows. For more than 200 years the mutiny on the Bounty has been part of British folklore, and its main protagonists - William Bligh and Fletcher Christian - enshrined in myth as types of brutal oppression and romantic defiance.

The interesting thing about the Bounty story, too, is just how early this popular caricature of events succeeded in passing itself off as history. For a brief period on his return to England Bligh found himself widely feted, but even before he had completed his second journey in search of the West Indian planters' breadfruit the innuendos, lies, slanders and misrepresentations that would transform him from naval hero into national villain had already done their work.

The other curious thing about the Bounty that Caroline Alexander's absorbing account brings out is how so essentially prosaic a business could ever have taken a hold on the popular imagination. Bligh's astonishing journey in the 23-foot launch was certainly a feat of navigation and endurance, but in all other respects he was a fairly ordinary man, a fine navigator but no Cook, a brave sailor but no Cochrane, a disciplinarian but no Belcher - in short no more an incarnation of tyranny or greatness than was the curiously anonymous Pletcher Christian the Byronic hero before the event.

There is, however, a tide in the affairs of nations as of men, and Bligh and Christian were victim and beneficiary of a period of such radical change that the world that provoked the mutiny and the world that judged it were severed forever. The mutiny trials took place in 1792 against a background of revolutionary violence abroad and unrest at home, and in the age of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Paine, Shelley and Byron, the transformation of Christian into hero and his captain into monster had an inevitability about it that probably only poor, myopic Bligh with his 18th-century optimism and almost Gibbonian complacency could not see coming.

In tackling this myth head-on, as it were, and showing Bligh as the essentially decent man he was, Caroline Alexander runs the risk of all demythologisers, and that is in making her story less colourful than fable would have it. It is certainly hard to argue with her portraits of either Bligh or Christian, but in cutting them free of legend there is the danger of robbing the whole drama of its symbolic power and reducing the Bounty story to the meaner historical dimensions of an under-officered and insignificant ship on a tawdry mission, captained by the irascible Bligh and crewed by a collection of tattooed yahoos and distressed gentry hell-bent on spreading venereal disease around the southern ocean. …

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