Thursday, August 20, 2015

Duty and a pile of coconuts

I've enjoyed a number of books about the great and not-so-great explorers who ventured into the unknown.  While there's certainly a romantic idea of being the first to see new lands and bring back great discoveries, more often than not the intrepid explorers faced dangers and incredible hardship in inhospitable places, and some were never heard from again.  For me, any thought of exploration kinda loses it's allure when the food runs out!  Even when expeditions were successful, the explorers didn't always return to fame and glory, but at least some got to sail in beautiful places like the south Pacific.  And I remember hearing in several of these books about "the mutiny on the Bounty."

While I was reading The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Caroline Alexander, I was surprised that no one I mentioned it to had heard of it.  I remember seeing a book about it years ago and I know several movies have been made over the years, but apparently it's not one of those bits of trivia most bother to remember.  In 1789, Lieutenant William Bligh sailed the Bounty, with its crew of 46, to the beautiful island of Tahiti.  He'd been there before with Captain James Cook, but now his goal was commerce: he was to obtain breadfruit plants to start plantations in the West Indies.  Bligh was a conscientious captain who looked out for the health and welfare of his men, even while insisting upon order.  Unfortunately, a combination of combustible personalities, the beauty of Tahiti and its women, and a pile of stolen coconuts led to a mutiny that left Bligh and 18 of the sailors abandoned on the rough seas in a very small boat.  It was so heavily loaded that even small waves broke over the sides, and it seemed a certain death sentence.

But Bligh managed to sail this tiny boat and crew for 3,500 nautical miles (over 4,000 land miles) through violent storms and open ocean (with almost no food!) to a safe harbor.  Even more incredible was that only one man died, and that was in a clash with unfriendly natives.  News of this amazing feat and the eventual court martial of most of the mutineers who were apprehended a few years later in Tahiti, was talked about for decades.  Some were hanged for their crimes, but Fletcher Christian, the one who led the mutiny, was never seen again.

But the story doesn't end there.  With savvy legal help, two of the mutineers managed to get pardons from His Royal Majesty, and several of the families involved worked hard to change the narrative of the incident.  Bligh's temper and salty language – particularly over the stolen coconuts – was soon blamed for inciting the mutiny.  But Caroline Alexander sorts through the facts and weaves a surprisingly interesting tale of the challenges of living on a small ship in a big ocean – and even tells what happened to Christian.  And it's a very detailed story, with so much information that I found it slow reading in the beginning.  Before long, however, I was caught up in it and couldn't put it down.  She even tells where Christian and the others ended up, and what became of the community they established.  The maps and illustrations were great to help follow the story, but I wished it had included a list of the 46 men on the ship and their positions at the beginning, since it was hard to tell them all apart.  The extensive detail and backstory might put some readers off, but in spite of a slow start it turned out to be a great summer read.

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