After the clashes on celluloid between Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard, and Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, there can be few who do not know the story of the mutiny on the Bounty. It is assuredly one of the greatest of all true stories: the insurrection in 1789 that seems to come out of nowhere, unlike that year's other, more famous convulsion; Captain Bligh (really only a lieutenant then) cast adrift on the Pacific to die but surviving after a 48-day, 3,600-mile journey in an open boat; the mutineers under Fletcher Christian dreaming of utopia but coming to grief on the remote Pitcairn Island in the eastern Pacific.
But does it need to be retold? I had similar misgivings over Caroline Alexander's last book, about Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance. Roland Huntford had already written the definitive biography of Shackleton, yet Alexander's volume scooped the worldwide sales. A new book about the Bounty by this author therefore requires a double justification, of significant new research and penetrating psychological analysis. It is sad to have to report that this handsomely produced book fails on both counts.
The initial problem is that Alexander's work is poorly structured, with a Godardian problem about beginnings, middle and ends that dissipates narrative tension. To borrow a term from the movies (appropriately, in this case), one might say that it suffers from a very poor second act, when Alexander reproduces the court-martial proceedings of those mutineers who had been recaptured (through their idiocy in returning to the fleshpots of Tahiti) at unconscionable length. It seems her main thesis is that Bligh was guilty of no more than flashes of temper, that Fletcher Christian was the mentally unbalanced one and that his paranoia (he became obsessed with the idea that Bligh might "bust" him or even flog him) precipitated the mutiny.
She also, confusingly, insinuates the argument that Midshipman George Stewart played Iago to Christian's Othello and was the evil genius of the piece. What is certain is that Bligh's rage over his officers allegedly pilfering some coconuts brought the bad feeling aboard the Bounty to crisis point. (This was the incident so memorably recreated by Herman Wouk in the strawberries episode of his novel The Caine Mutiny). But Alexander never probes deeply enough into either Christian or Stewart to convince us of her arguments.
So is Bligh a much-maligned man? Alexander is not the first student of the Bounty to push this idea, and it is true that the tyrannical archetype imprinted by Laughton et al is overdone. Ultimately, one must conclude that Bligh was so deficient at management and lacking in human understanding that, despite his genius as a navigator, he should never have been given command of a vessel. Just look at the man's record. It seems clear that he learnt nothing from Fletcher Christian's rebellion, to the point where he nearly experienced another mutiny while on the open-boat journey from Tofua to Timor between April and June 1789. In 1791-93, Bligh once more captained a ship on a long voyage, out to Tahiti and back to the West Indies. According to Lieutenant Francis Bond, his second-in-command, he again acted despotically; the third lieutenant on the same trip wrote of Bligh's "violent tornados of temper". Later, when he was master of the Warrior, his subordinate Lieutenant Frazier involved him in a court martial because Bligh had ordered him to work at a time when he had an injured foot. As captain of the Director, Bligh experienced disaffection again in the Nore mutiny of 1797. Finally, when he was appointed governor of New South Wales, he was ousted in a settlers' rebellion and imprisoned by them for two years (1808-10). To experience one mutiny may be a misfortune, but these events in his career look like more than just the product of carelessness.
To rehabilitate William Bligh, Alexander employs a number of curious and unconvincing arguments. She pokes fun at Fletcher Christian's cri de coeur ("I am in hell") and says of his statement to Bligh ("Sir, your abuse is so bad that I cannot do my duty with any pleasure") that duty is not intended to be pleasurable. Both responses miss the point. She never explains how, if Bligh was blameless, and his use of the whip and other violent measures mild compared to Captain Cook's, such a mutiny could have occurred in the first place. Even if Christian was a pathological case, as she hints, how did he win over all the other mutineers, if Bligh was sans peur et sans reproche? Although she writes well and has done a lot of archival sleuthing, Alexander tells me nothing new. Let us hope that this talented author will find a subject that has not already been written into the ground and will produce something truly original in her next book.
Frank McLynn's most recent book is Wagons West: the epic story of America's overland trails (Pimlico)