The Mutiny on the Bounty By Charles Nordhoff and James Hall Summary and Analysis Chapters 8-9

Summary

The Bounty's crew performs its duties as usual, but there is little heartiness displayed. The men feel morose and resentful after leaving the idyllic life of Tahiti.

The island of Namuka, one of "The Friendly Islands," is sighted on April 23. It is on this island that Bligh hopes to replenish the ship's water and wood supplies, but as soon as he sets foot on the island, the natives make trouble for the crew, and they are forced to hurry back to the boat. Bligh calls Christian a coward, and Christian abruptly leaves the deck.

The following day, after setting sail from Namuka, Bligh notices that some coconuts are missing. He orders all of the officers on deck and questions them. All deny knowledge of the missing coconuts. Bligh accuses the officers of shielding whoever is responsible, and, finally, he accuses Christian of having stolen the coconuts. Christian finds it incredible that Bligh (or any captain) would accuse his second-in-command of stealing. As a result of this coconut incident, the men's allowance of grog is cut off, and the yams are rationed from one pound per person to half a pound.

That evening, Byam and Tinkler realize that they can't sleep, so they go up on deck, and there, Tinkler admits to Byam that he stole one coconut and that Christian saw him, yet looked the other way. Tinkler falls asleep by a quarter-deck gun, just as Christian appears on deck to talk to Byam. He asks Byam to visit his family in England if he (Christian) doesn't make it back to England safely. Byam agrees, saying, "You can count on me." At this moment, Bligh interrupts the two men, putting an end to their conversation. Tinkler and Byam return to their berths below, Tinkler complaining to Byam that he got no sleep on deck because Christian and Byam were talking and he overheard the entire conversation.

Byam is suddenly shaken awake the following morning and learns that the ship has been seized by several of the crew members. He and Stewart are forced on deck and are surprised to learn that Christian is taking part in the mutiny. Bligh has his hands tied behind his back and is taunted by some of the mutineers — in particular, by Churchill, Mills, Isaac Martin, Skinner, and Burkitt. Ellison is ecstatic, dashing about Bligh and flourishing a bayonet. The men beg Christian to slit Bligh's throat, but Christian refuses, saying that he plans to take Bligh back to England to be tried for conduct unbecoming an officer. The men refuse to let him take Bligh to England, and, at this point, Christian realizes that he must alter his plans.

Christian decides to set Bligh and his followers adrift in the Bounty's launch. He gives each man the opportunity to join Bligh, and Byam and Stewart, along with some other crewmen and officers, decide to go. Byam and Stewart are told to get their belongings, so they descend to their cabin. Meanwhile, the launch is supplied with food and water, navigational instruments, and a few tools.

While in their berths, Byam and Stewart decide to use some Indian clubs that they got at the Friendly Islands and overpower Thompson, their guard, but the plan is foiled when Burkitt and McCoy join Thompson in guarding the door. By the time the men are escorted to the deck, the launch has already pushed off, heavily loaded with nineteen men, its top edge only seven or eight inches above the water. Byam, Stewart, Morrison, and the other men who took no part in the mutiny have no choice now: they must remain aboard the Bounty, along with the mutineers.

Analysis

The authors continue giving us evidence that Captain Bligh is an irrational tyrant, and, in doing so, they seem to approve the mutiny. Even such loyal men as Mr. Nelson (the botanist), who is "truly called the salt of the earth" and who is "a rock of peace in our turbulent ship's company," confesses to Byam that had he been one of the sailors, he would have deserted the ship, taken to the hills, and remained in Tahiti.

Bligh is particularly (and publicly) rude to Fletcher Christian. When Christian returns from his expedition to the island and reports some losses, Bligh flies "into a rage, cursing him in language that would have been out of place had he been speaking to a common sailor." Bligh, of course, is so thick-skinned that he has no concept of how galling such remarks can affect a man of breeding and honor. It was understood at that time that a naval officer would never, under any circumstance, make a derogatory comment about a fellow officer in the presence of common sailors. To do so would be a terrible breach of ethics. Therefore, for Bligh to call Christian "an incompetent cowardly rascal," who is afraid of a "crowd of bloody savages" is a professional breach of ethics so profound that it helps us to better understand Christian's actions during the mutiny. That is, the captain so violates Christian's personal rights as a human being and as an officer that we can understand why Christian would feel justified in taking some kind of redress.

In any case of mutiny, much of the blame must be laid on the captain, even though mutiny is such a horror to a naval man that, during the court-martial, the unjust actions of the captain are virtually never brought out. We, however, know of Bligh's cruelty. In this chapter, Byam observes that Bligh often seems to be insane when he goes into one of his rages, and that he often works himself into a passion over trivial matters of little consequence. One such episode concerns the disappearance of the coconuts. This scene presents Bligh as an absolute maniac; again, he humiliates Christian, calling him a thief and inhumanely rationing the men's food — all because of his irrational desire for revenge.

Concerning the above episodes on board the Bounty, the captain's behavior can easily be compared to two other irrational captains in modern literature. In The Caine Mutiny and, to a lesser degree, in Mister Roberts, the men revolt against the captains because of their reaction to trivial matters — the consumption of strawberries in the former and the moving of a plant in the latter. In each work, the captain is an unreasonable tyrant.

The end of Chapter 8 presents a scene that will be highly significant at the end of the novel. Here, young Tinkler and Byam are on deck talking, and Tinkler says that he is going to take a nap. Afterward, Byam talks with Fletcher Christian. The key to this scene is that Christian asks Byam to promise to explain matters to Christian's father — in case Christian never returns to England. At the moment that Byam promises Christian "You can count on me," Bligh arrives — just in time to overhear Byam's last comment. Later, Bligh will interpret that promise to mean that Byam had just told Christian that he could count on him to assist in the mutiny. The key to Byam's life, after he is judged guilty by a court-martial, lies in whether or not Tinkler can remember Byam's entire conversation with Christian. Here, Tinkler says that he was unable to sleep and heard everything they said. Later, however, will he be able to recall this seemingly insignificant conversation?

Chapter 9 is the central episode of the novel and, of course, gives the novel its title. Whereas on land, the word "treason" carries with it the strongest possible connotation of being the most despicable crime imaginable, likewise, aboard ship, "mutiny" is the highest possible crime. One doesn't mutiny for insignificant reasons, and yet after the mutiny has occurred, the reasons for the mutiny are hardly ever considered. Only the act of mutiny is significant; the mutineers are instantly guilty of a heinous crime. Significantly, the mutineers' motivation for committing the mutiny is seldom ever considered during their court-martial trials.

To repeat and belabor the point, mutiny is the most contemptible and horrendous crime that can be committed at sea. Consequently, many of the people who are sympathetic to the mutineers or who were outraged at Captain Bligh's intolerable and irrational behavior will nonetheless throw in their lot with the captain. The perfect example of this is Purcell, the carpenter, who, more than anyone else on the ship, despises the captain, even though he is regarded by the crew as "a tyrant second only to Bligh." However, he chooses to cast his lot with the dreaded and hateful Bligh rather than take part in a mutiny.

Ironically, in spite of the fact that Fletcher Christian will be considered a mutineer, a traitor, and a pirate (the ship he takes is the king's property), he is seen as a much more humane and decent captain than Bligh ever was. Left to their own devices, the able seamen who suffered so unjustly under the command of Captain Bligh would have eventually either brutalized or killed Bligh. It is paradoxical that Christian saves Bligh's life, enabling Bligh to retaliate, persecute, and condemn Christian later in the narrative.

Throughout the mutiny, there are bits and pieces of conversation which, if properly recalled, would have cleared Byam during this trial. For example, the first mate, Mr. Fryer, asks Mr. Byam, "Surely you are not concerned in this?" and Byam answers him, "No more than yourself, sir." Likewise, Mr. Nelson knows that he and Byam requested to be allowed to go with Bligh. Yet, according to sea law, all types of this kind of evidence are ignored, and the jury takes Bligh's word that Byam was part of the mutiny — in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Likewise, Hayward and Hallet, two of the midshipmen, could have testified on Byam's behalf because they were not only witnesses to Byam's wish to go with Bligh, but wanted to stay on the ship with Christian because of their cowardice. People such as Hayward and Hallet, who were "half-carried to the gangway" and who were "shedding tears and crying for mercy" and "clasping hands" and begging imploringly, "In God's name permit me to stay on the ship" — these kinds of people are not to be trusted; consequently, it is understandable that they wouldn't want to testify in Byam's behalf because their cowardice would be exposed.

Glossary

Slit the dog's gullet! Slit the guy's throat!

the cutter a small, single-masted boat.

the launch a heavy, open-deck rowboat.

a sextant an instrument used for measuring latitudes and longitudes.

the armourer one who repairs firearms.

foundering sinking.

calabashes of water hollowed-out gourds filled with water.

a whiff of grape smoke that follows a cannon blast of small, cast-iron balls, clustered together like grapes.

ten leagues distant A league is roughly three miles.

Huzza for Tahiti! Hurrah! Let's head for Tahiti!

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