Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Adventure classics -- Becoming history's most famous mutiny

Mutiny on the Bounty

by Charles Nordhoff & James Norman Hall


What does it take to become the most famous shipboard mutiny in history? Location, location, location.

After all, who can imagine the nonlethal takeover of a ship in peacetime carrying a cargo of fruit trees, such as occurred on HMS Bounty in 1789 still resonating if it hadn’t occurred in the glorious islands of the South Seas, destination of dreamers like Paul Gauguin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Thor Heyerdahl?

American journalists Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall were relatively footloose after the First World War. They wrote first separately, then in collaboration on a history of the Lafayette flying squadron in which both had served. But they wanted a place where their money could stretch further than it did in the U.S.

“Each had ambitions, talents, and memories of great price. To transmute these intangibles into three meals per diem was the prosaic problem put to me,” Atlantic Magazine editor Ellery Sedgwick wrote in his introduction to the 1932 edition of the pair’s most famous collaboration. Over lunch at an Italian restaurant, “I called for a geography. We opened it at Mercator’s projection, and hardly were the pages pinned down by twin cruets of oil and vinegar, when both the adventures with a single swoop pointed to the route which Stevenson had taken.”

Nordhoff remained in Tahiti for twenty years, Hall for life. They married island women, sailed, fished and wrote, including the fictionalized volumes of the Bounty trilogy -- Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea (the story of Bounty captain William Bligh’s incredible voyage in a small boat after the mutiny), and Pitcairn’s Island, the story of the mutineers who left Tahiti under the command of Fletcher Christian.

Nordhoff and Hall laid blame for the mutiny on Bligh’s tyrannical behavior, exacerbated by an exceptionally long outward voyage. (After the Bounty was unsuccessful in attempting to reach Tahiti by way of South America’s Cape Horn, it recrossed the Atlantic and rounded the Cape of Good Hope, a ten month voyage.)

Bligh’s own 1790 narrative blamed the attractions of easy living and local women, with whom numerous members of the Bounty’s crew formed relationships during the lengthy layover needed to prepare its cargo of breadfruit trees for transport. So add sex and island languor to a list of requirements for a really famous mutiny. Or just file those under “location.”

Although the mutineers hardly expected Bligh to survive his ordeal at sea, it was only a matter of time before more ships would arrive to investigate the Bounty’s disappearance. Surprisingly, several mutineers chose to stay on Tahiti. The rest fled with Christian, searching for refuge for some of those dots on the map still undiscovered in the late eighteenth century. With a crew of mutineers and Polynesians, they founded a colony on the then unhabited Pitcairn Island. In 1825, the sole surviving mutineer, John Adams (also known as Alexander Smith), was granted amnesty for his role. Descendents of the mutineers are still among the fewer than fifty inhabitants of the tiny island.

Although Fletcher Christian seems the obvious main character, Nordhoff and Hall chose instead young midshipman Roger Bynam, a fictionalized version of actual crewman Peter Heywood. This choice enabled them to follow the fate of the mutineers and innocent crew members not marooned with Bligh, saving Christian’s story for the final volume of their trilogy.

And enabled them to close with a heartbreaking scene for Bynam, who remained with the British Navy for another twenty years of exile from his Tahitian wife and child. He returns after the Napoleonic wars to find the island devastated by the diseases and vices of civilization, his wife dead, and only a single Polynesian friend remaining.

“All these years, while my country has been engaged in constant wars, I have dreamed of coming back,“ Bynam tells his old friend Tuahu. “I wish to see my daughter; not to make myself known to her. To tell her I am her father, to embrace her, to speak with her of her mother, would be more than I could endure. You understand?”

Tuahu smiled sorrowfully. “I understand,” he said.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics begins a September of young adventurers with Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.)

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