The Mutiny on the Bounty By Charles Nordhoff and James Hall Summary and Analysis Chapters 14-15

Summary

Byam rows out to meet an arriving ship and learns that it is British, the Pandora, commanded by a Captain Edwards. After telling Edwards his name and that he was a midshipman aboard the Bounty, Byam is immediately locked in irons below deck and is told that Bligh reached England and told the proper authorities about the mutiny; more important, Bligh included Byam among the men who seized the Bounty. Byam maintains his innocence, but Edwards orders him to be silent. Hayward, on board the Pandora, is asked to identify Byam, which he does. On reaching the Pandora, Stewart, Joseph Coleman (the Bounty's armorer), and Skinner are also shackled alongside Byam.

A few days after his imprisonment, Byam meets the Pandora's doctor, Mr. Hamilton, in Hamilton's quarters. He learns that Bligh overheard Byam tell Christian "You can count on me" the night before the mutiny; this is why Bligh believes that Byam was one of the mutineers. However, Hamilton says, Sir Joseph Banks believes that Byam is innocent of the mutiny. Byam is then told that Norton, who could have testified on his behalf, was killed by savages on the island of Tofoa while accompanying Bligh back to England. Byam suddenly realizes that — now that Norton is dead — his innocence relies completely on Tinkler. Hamilton promises to ask Captain Edwards to let the shackled men be allowed to converse with each other, which they have been forbidden to do, and also to provide Byam with the means to continue his work on the Tahitian dictionary while the Pandora sails to England. He then gives Byam a letter from Sir Joseph Banks, in which Banks states his belief in Byam's innocence. Hamilton also shows Byam a letter which Bligh wrote to Byam's mother, in which he accuses Byam of mutiny, saying, "His baseness is beyond all description."

Analysis

Throughout these sections, the authors continually introduce matters that in a modern court of law would offer themselves as extenuating circumstances, or mitigating events. For example, in modern jurisprudence (legal matters), if a guilty person voluntarily surrenders himself, it is a point in his favor. Here, it should be obvious that if Byam were guilty of mutiny, he would never have reported to the Pandora and offered to help guide her to a safe anchoring. Yet at the court martial, this action has no bearing on the trial. Consequently, to understand the apparent total disregard for basic logic and basic psychological motivation, we have to return to the second chapter of the novel, "Sea Law," in which it is made clear that the laws of the sea are strict, unbending, and completely authoritarian. According to sea law, at a court-martial there can be nothing under consideration except the captain's word, and, as we will see later, in a great travesty of justice, the captain is not even present to be cross-examined. The judges are not concerned with the captain's injustices, his acts of inhumanity, his criminality, or his brutality. Upholding "sea law" is the most important factor to the judges.

Byam knows that he is innocent, and therefore he is horrified to find that he has been accused of mutiny. It is not until the good and humane Dr. Hamilton explains the reason for Byam's captivity that Byam realizes the severity of his situation. As noted, Bligh overheard Byam say to Christian, "You can count on me." This single sentence, uttered to Christian by Byam, will condemn Byam to death because of the inexorable law of the sea and the supposed infallibility of a captain's pronouncement. At present, these words are enough to put Byam in chains and placed in a smelly, filthy hole in the ship.

Hallet (later on in the novel) or Hayward (in Chapter 14) could have defended Byam or spoken up in his behalf, but because they need to conceal their own cowardice, they choose to send an innocent man to his death.

Byam's alleged crime seems even more horrible because, in addition to the gravity of the mutiny, Captain Bligh performed a navigational feat that could never have been accomplished by anyone except a truly extraordinary man. He navigated his men over thirty-six hundred miles of rough sea in an open boat with hardly any food or water — and with virtually no navigational equipment. Thus, because of the magnificence of this feat, Bligh becomes a national hero. His name becomes synonymous with British superiority at a time when, historically, the British were in need of a strong rallying point.

Glossary

an English frigate a small, fast naval ship, heavily armed.

orlop deck the lowermost deck at the bottom of the ship.

sentinels watchmen, or guards.

the Admiralty the Department of the Navy.

baseness cowardice; having despicable qualities.

scuttles small hatches or openings in the deck.

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