In April 1789, crew members of HMS Bounty mutinied in the South Pacific near Tofua and set their captain adrift in a launch with eighteen loyal crew members. Some of the mutineers would settle on Tahiti. Others would settle on uninhabited Pitcairn. Three would eventually hang. Some would receive pardons, and others would be acquitted.
Alexander’s account begins with a young (thirty-three) naval officer, Lieutenant Bligh, awaiting his final sailing orders. The author notes some complications: Blligh is departing late in the year when he will meet the worst weather at Cape Horn. The ship is small, and the Admiralty has not assigned it marines, as was the custom.
The first section ends with the surprising (to the recipients) letters from Bligh from a Dutch colony—not where he is supposed to be—some to the authorities and one to his wife: “my dear dear Betsy…I have lost the Bounty.”
The author takes pains to document with primary sources every transaction—the letters, the public notices, the legal accounts. For example, in recounting the courts marital of the mutineers, she discusses the backgrounds of the judges and the weather on the days of the trials. This level of detail might seem tedious at times, but she has a story to tell, and she tells the complete story.
The recollections and testimonies of the various participants often conflict. The author relates each one with minimal interference. The narrative continues beyond the trial, with sentences carried out and pardons.
The author shows how the story became a sensation in its own time, with the truth disregarded for the sake of a good tale. She also posits that with all his faults, was Captain Bligh a Captain Bligh? That is, was his reputation as a martinet exaggerated, perhaps in an effort to save a well-connected young man? She examines his post-Bounty career.
The fate of the mutineers who were not apprehended is related, as much as it can be, by the single surviving crew member found on Pitcairn Island some twenty years after the mutiny.
I liked this book, despite its tendency to get bogged down in details on occasion. Thankfully, the author romanticized nothing and held up no one as a hero. There was no single answer as to why Fletcher Christian mutinied. Clearly, he was unhappy. The story left one with the impression of how sad it all was. After all, the original mission was to find a cheap food source for slaves in the West Indies.
Caroline Alexander (b. 1956) is an author, classicist, and filmmaker. She studied philosophy and theology at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and has a doctorate in classics from Columbia University. She has written for The New Yorker, Granta, Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian, Outside, and National Geographic. Her books include The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of the Iliad and the Trojan War (2009), Lost Gold of the Dark Ages: War, Treasure and the Mystery of the Saxons (2011), and The Iliad: A New Translation (2015).
Title: The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty
Author: Caroline Alexander (b. 1956)
First published: 2003
Review of “The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty”
2 thoughts on “Review of “The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty””
Sounds like a good book. I like history books that are well-researched and balanced in their approach to events. Seems like real stories still get told in a way to make them a good story instead of sticking to the facts.
It is a good book. Yes, there is plenty of story here. She goes a bit into the weeds at times, but it is worth it. I’d be interested in hearing what you think if you read it.