Critical Essays Mutiny on the Bounty: The Historical Background


The Nordhoff and Hall novel is based on an actual, historical mutiny. The authors had at their disposal all of the historical documents associated with this famous mutiny, sometimes called the most celebrated mutiny in the history of navigation. This is due partly to the fact that the mutiny was followed by Captain Bligh's unbelievable South Sea voyage in an open boat, when he navigated over 3,600 miles without the benefit of instruments to bring himself and his loyal adherents to the island of Timor in the East Indies. This extraordinary feat made him a national public hero, and the subsequent capture and trial of some of the men further publicized the incident.

The reason for the Bounty's journey is historically the same as in the novel. In 1787, Bligh was appointed captain of the Bounty — a rather small, squat ship by the standards of the day — to travel to the island of Tahiti, which Bligh had visited before as an officer under the command of the famous Captain James Cook. The purpose of this trip was to secure breadfruit trees to be transplanted in the West Indies, where the trees would produce cheap food for the slaves owned by the English gentry.

After collecting the breadfruit trees in Tahiti, a task which required several months, during which many of the men became accustomed to the gentle treatment they received from the Tahitian women, the Bounty began its homeward journey. One month after leaving Tahiti, the mutiny occurred; Fletcher Christian, Bligh's second-in-command, joined by most of the crew, seized the ship and put Bligh and most of his loyal adherents out to sea in a small boat.

The cause of this mutiny has been a puzzle to everyone who has studied the case. Apparently, Bligh was not much stricter a disciplinarian than the typical captain of that era. The fact that Nordhoff and Hall, as well as the various movies which have been based on the incident, make him an unmitigated villain is not completely borne out by historical evidence. Bligh was clearly an enigmatic man — -a victim of three mutinies — yet he was nevertheless promoted in rank after each mutiny, and upon retirement, he achieved the highest rank possible, that of admiral.

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