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A shot across the bow

The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty; Caroline Alexander; Viking: 492 pp., $27.95

October 12, 2003|Mark Lewis | Mark Lewis is books editor of Forbes.com.

The rehabilitation of William Bligh is one of those quixotic projects that pit history against mythology, with predictable results. Remembered as a villain, the Bounty's captain was something closer to a hero: a humane commander who spared the lash, a brilliant navigator who guided an open boat full of castaways halfway across the Pacific to safety. He entered that boat at the point of a bayonet wielded by his erstwhile protege Fletcher Christian, who betrayed him and set him adrift in mid-ocean to face what looked like certain death. Yet it is the mutineer who claims posterity's sympathy, while "Bligh" remains a byword for sadistic tyranny.

Caroline Alexander is hardly the first author to attempt to set the record straight, but she has a better chance than most of succeeding. Her 1998 bestseller, "The Endurance," helped restore Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton to history's pantheon of heroes. Now, in "The Bounty," she nominates Bligh for admittance to that exalted company. To succeed, she must change readers' minds about a person they already know and detest: the brutal martinet immortalized by Charles Laughton in the 1935 film "Mutiny on the Bounty."

Laughton's Bligh is a fiend who flogs men to death, then flogs their corpses for good measure. History tells a different story. The real Bligh was a Royal Navy lieutenant assigned in 1787 to take the Bounty to Tahiti on an errand for the eminent naturalist Sir Joseph Banks. Bligh was to collect breadfruit plants for transport to the West Indies as a cheap source of food for slaves. In Alexander's telling, Bligh was a kindhearted commander, unusually solicitous of his crew's health. In wintry latitudes, he made sure they had hot porridge for breakfast. He brought a fiddler along on the voyage to provide nightly entertainment. He flogged offenders only rarely, with evident reluctance.

On Tahiti, intent on botanical glory, Bligh spent five months carefully potting breadfruit saplings. His crew, including Christian, cultivated the island's women. Three weeks after the Bounty finally left Tahiti, Christian abruptly seized the ship from an astounded Bligh. The captain and 18 loyalists were bundled into a 23-foot launch, given five days' worth of provisions and left to their fate, while the mutineers tossed the breadfruit trees overboard and sailed merrily back to Polynesia.

Bligh, who had learned his craft under Capt. James Cook, rose to the occasion. He piloted the launch west to Australia and eventually to a Dutch settlement on Timor, after a harrowing 48-day journey covering 3,600 miles. (To put this achievement in perspective, consider that Shackleton is justly celebrated for sailing a boat of similar size 800 miles, from Elephant Island to South Georgia.) After Bligh returned home, the admiralty dispatched an avenging frigate to Tahiti. Fourteen mutineers were captured there; the rest, led by Christian, had kidnapped some Tahitians and disappeared into the vast Pacific with the Bounty. Decades later, their descendants were discovered on Pitcairn Island, along with a single surviving mutineer. It wasn't Christian, who apparently had been murdered a few years after reaching Pitcairn. Most of the mutineers met violent ends, while Bligh lived to a ripe old age and retired a vice admiral of the blue. Historians long ago exonerated him of most of the charges his enemies leveled against him. Yet the dark legend lives on.

Alexander ably traces the process by which Bligh was transformed into the villain of the piece. Basically, he was done in by bad timing. The Bounty was seized only three months before the Bastille was stormed. As Alexander notes, it was the best of times for romantic rebels and the worst of times for stern authority figures: "Into this atmosphere of radical sympathizers and ardent abolitionists was now flung the saga of the Bounty -- a story of a young gentleman who, 'agonized by unprovoked and excessive abuse and disgrace,' stood up for his natural rights and overthrew the oppressive tyrant who was his captain. Bucking the despised authority, he sailed away to freedom in the South Pacific."

Against what she characterizes as "the power of a good story," Bligh stood no chance. Christian's partisans included William Wordsworth. Bligh's champion was Banks, president of the Royal Society, of which Bligh was a member. Poetry routed science, and it has held the field ever since. Alexander constructs a good story of her own from the historical record, and she is very much a Bligh partisan, but "The Bounty" is unlikely to overturn the myth. It will, however, please its readers.

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