Are you a Charles Laughton/Clark Gable person, or a Trevor Howard/Marlon Brando one? (We’ll ignore the Hopkins/Gibson 1984 pairing for the purposes of this exercise.) I don’t think that I have ever (after a childhood marked by Sunday afternoon films on the telly followed by the Classic Serial – and don’t get me started on the amazing brouhaha of publicity, spin-offs and self-congratulation with which the BBC these days heralds what was formerly an unobtrusive and regular part of its output) seen either of these film versions (from 1935 and 1962) through from start to finish, possibly because I have never subscribed to the view that either Charles Laughton or Marlon Brando could act (as opposed to posing).
The 1935 film was based on a 1932 novel with the same title, and was a huge success. There had apparently been an Australian film in 1933 called In the Wake of the Bounty, remembered (if at all) as the first film of Errol Flynn’s career; and (staggeringly), in the 1980s, a West End musical, written by and starring David Essex, with Frank Finlay as ‘Captain’ Bligh (though commander of the ship, Bligh was a lieutenant at the time of the mutiny). Online reviews are unkind (to put it mildly) and it sounds like one of those strange productions where you see the advance publicity in the Sunday paper and wonder vaguely who was rash enough to put up the money for that.
Anyway, never mind films, musicals and novels: what you need to read is The Mutiny and Piratical Seizure of H.M.S. ‘Bounty’, first published in 1831 by Sir John Barrow, the Second Secretary to the Admiralty whose promotion of exploration led to so many British naval expeditions, especially to the Arctic. Barrow, in his preface, describes himself as the ‘editor’, not the author of the work, having been induced to bring ‘into one connected view what has hitherto appeared only in detached fragments (and some of these not generally accessible)’. The book went into many editions: we have reissued the 1852 version, which contains some additional material, including an account of cannibalism at sea.
Barrow’s account begins with a description of ‘Otaheite’, taken from the accounts of Captain Samuel Wallis, the first European to discover the island, in 1767, and the better known narratives of Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks (hurray!) of Cook’s first voyage two years later. The second chapter describes the breadfruit tree and its virtues, and the fatal decision, urged upon George III by Sir Joseph, to obtain trees from Tahiti which could be cultivated in the West Indies and provide a cheap staple food for the increasing numbers of slaves on British-owned plantations. A ship was chosen – H.M.S. Bounty – and a commander, Lieutenant William Bligh, who had served under Cook during his fatal last voyage of 1776–80.
Barrow describes, using Bligh’s own account (which we are also reissuing soon), the stay in Tahiti while the plants were collected: ‘being in seven hundred and seventy-four pots, thirty-nine tubs, and twenty-four boxes. The number of bread-fruit plants were one thousand and fifteen; besides which we had collected a number of other plants . . . [which] I was particularly recommended to collect, by my worthy friend, Sir Joseph Banks.’ They set sail: and the next chapter is called ‘The Mutiny’. What exactly happened depends on whose account you believe, and Barrow offers both the recollections of some of those involved and his own weighing of the evidence, especially with regard to the mutineers’ motives.
The description of Bligh’s epic feat of navigation in bringing the loyal crew members to safety in an open boat is taken largely from Bligh’s own account. There then follows the expedition of the Pandora to Tahiti to arrest any of the mutineers found there, the irony of her shipwreck, and of course the court martial of the ten men brought back to Portsmouth. Particular attention is paid to the case of Peter Heywood, sixteen years old at the time of the mutiny, who (again depending on who you believe) either joined the mutineers or was prevented by force from joining Bligh in the boat. He was condemned to death (the options for the court martial were to condemn or acquit, and the sentence invariable), but with a strong recommendation to His Majesty to use his prerogative of mercy (both his youth and the large numbers of friends in high places marshalled by his family probably contributed to this), and, on being reprieved, continued in the Navy, serving with distinction throughout the Napoleonic Wars. He died in 1831, having in 1825 contributed an account to Marshall’s Royal Naval Biography which did a lot to confirm the popular view of Bligh as paranoid and sadistic.
The final act in the drama took place in 1830. The mutineers from Tahiti had said that Fletcher Christian, the leader of the mutiny (who had sailed with Bligh on several previous voyages) had moved on from Tahiti with eight other crewmen and a number of Tahitian men and women. In 1808 a report came to London from the captain of a United States ship that had stopped at an uncharted island, where a man named Alexander Smith claimed to be the last survivor of the crew: Christian and the others had been attacked and killed by the Tahitian men. Strangely, the Admiralty did nothing to follow up on this information: in 1814, a British captain came across the island by chance and broadly confirmed the earlier account. Alexander Smith was now calling himself John Adams, and was the acknowledged patriarch of a strange little farming colony, well organised, decent, English-speaking and Christian. A new generation had now reached adulthood, including one strapping lad called Thursday October Christian.
Barrow himself, having seen the captain’s official report, wrote and asked for further details, which were duly supplied and are reproduced here. In 1825, Captain Beechey touched at the island, and provided a long account; Captain Waldegrave in 1830 numbered the inhabitants at 79 strong (a few more men had arrived, dropped off by passing whaling ships). The Admiralty decided to take no further action over the mutiny, and Barrow’s farewell to the little community is couched in the form of a prayer that they will avoid the terrible fate of the Tahitians – that is, to be ‘saved’ and ‘civilised’ by missionaries: ‘How lamentable is it to reflect, that an island on which Nature has lavished so many of her bounteous gifts . . . should be doomed to such a fate,– in an enlightened age, and by a people that call themselves civilised!’
Bligh, by the way, did not attend the court martial: he was at sea again, in command of the Providence, going to get more breadfruit trees. It is alleged that the scheme eventually failed, not because the plants didn’t flourish, but because the slaves refused to eat the resulting food.