It started with a coconut. Or was it a kiss? When Fletcher Christian cracked open a coconut from the Bounty's supply to quench his thirst, he had no idea that his boss and erstwhile chum Captain Bligh would react so violently. What was, for Christian, an "act of no consequence" was seemingly the last wet towel on the bathroom floor that broke the lover's back, and set in motion a chain of global events so grisly and unjust that the full story, told here by Diana Souhami, brings us face to face with man at his vilest and makes for decidedly uncomfortable reading.
But first, that gay sub-plot in full: as anyone with a queer eye for naval history knows, Christian's reported assertion that if the tyrannical Bligh humiliated him any more, he'd take him in his arms and jump overboard with him, puts a particular slant on his relationship with his captain. Souhami points out that a nautical punishment for homosexuality was to tie the offending men together and throw them into the sea, and links this to contemporary reports of a "secret to do with his falling out with Bligh . . . too private to divulge".
The author - obsessed with history as chaos theory, and enchanted by the idea of retracing accidental journeys, as she did in her Whitbread-winning book Selkirk's Island (2001) - wants to see for herself the unforgiving place that gave birth to this extraordinary tale, so she sails for Pitcairn on a cargo ship to meet the descendants of the mutineers and their 19 trafficked Polynesian women, who have themselves latterly become famous for revelations of child sexual abuse. Indeed, the ship on which she travels is carrying material for the prison that the Pitcairn men are building to incarcerate themselves should they be convicted.
On the voyage out, Souhami is thrown together with the only other paying passenger, an eccentric, glamorous, Patsy-from-Ab-Fab type called Lady Myre, who makes it clear she is up for a drunken snog at the very least, and latches on to our bewildered narrator like a peroxided, libidinous limpet.
Accompanied by her unlikely sidekick (who finds Souhami awfully cute, but does wish she'd stop harping on about sisterhood and chaos theory), what she discovers among the descendants of these original few is scarcely more palatable. Until interference from outside, the practice of Pitcairn men using under-age girls for sex was allowed to continue unhindered by notions of consensuality. As one local woman says, "you can't be a girl on Pitcairn and not have sex".
The men, who treat their north-London lesbian writer of a guest with the circumspection you would expect, seem obsessed with proving their machismo by various acts of mastery over nature: when they are not racing around on quad bikes, they are telling tall tales of shark-killing, whale-baiting and storm-riding. So far, so everyman, you might think. But add to this the fact that everyone and everything is spattered with a blood-red mud that can't be washed out, that sometimes no boat would call for eight months, and that the island's religion is hard-core Seventh-Day Adventism, and a crazier place is hard to imagine.
Remembering that it all came about because Bligh was transporting breadfruit to the West Indies to feed slaves in the cheapest way possible, you can't but wonder and despair, along with Souhami, at the ingenious web of colonial history.
After leaving Pitcairn, depressed and flea- bitten, Souhami and her Lady stop off at Mangareva. Here are hippies and tranquil beaches, flower garlands and yachts. But there's a terror here, too - this one dating from the 1960s when, despite having outlawed rape and slavery, European man had discovered an even mightier way to prove his prowess. For it was these remote reefs and waters that General de Gaulle chose for his nuclear testing sites in 1962, and whose degraded population - blighted by the poisoning of its food supply - stands as a rebuke to anyone who asks why France should still subsidise this faraway place.
By the time they board the flight to London, Souhami turning right and Lady Myre turning left, it is as though the author has seen all the circles of heaven and hell and been left none the wiser, other than to note, as countless women have before her, that men, whether drunk on booze or freedom or power or the promise of paradise, have a seemingly limitless capacity for ill behaviour.
She also notes, in an afterword, that she has been somewhat poetic with the truth, and though the bare bones of her travelogue are real, we are not to take it all literally, but literarily. Which is no bad thing. Souhami is a name you can trust, and here, as in her previous books, she proves herself to be a master storyteller in whose elegant hands fact and fiction interweave with admirable grace.