Summary and Analysis
The narrator, Roger Byam, tells of his home life and his background. He lives in a very conservative part of England, where his highly respected family has resided for over five hundred years. He then takes us back into the past. The year is 1787, and he is seventeen years old and expected to go to Oxford, as is the custom in his family.
One morning, however, a letter arrives from Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society and famous for his writings about explorations. He was a close friend of Roger's recently deceased father, and, in his letter, he tells them that a certain Captain William Bligh, who was an officer with the famous Captain Cook, an explorer of the Tahitian Islands, is visiting friends in the neighborhood.
Accordingly, the Byams extend Captain Bligh an invitation to their home, and when he arrives for dinner, the discussion turns to the islands of the South Sea. Captain Bligh tells them about his forthcoming trip to Tahiti in order to collect breadfruit trees as a cheap staple for the slaves of British gentry stationed in the West Indies. He has also been commissioned to formulate a dictionary of the Tahitian language, which he is incapable of doing. However, on learning that Roger has a gift for languages (he speaks fluent French, Italian, Latin, and is mastering German), Captain Bligh extends an invitation for Roger to join the expedition in order to compile a Tahitian dictionary. Surprisingly, since she is a recent widow, Roger's mother is wholeheartedly for the project, even though it will mean a two-year journey away from home for Roger.
Young Byam goes to London to join the crew of the Bounty, and while there, he visits Sir Joseph Banks, who gives him encouragement about the dictionary; it will be invaluable to the merchants and seamen who are traveling and trading in that area.
Toward the end of November, Byam joins the Bounty, whose "great cabin aft" has been converted into a garden for the reception of the breadfruit trees. This arrangement makes the living quarters of the men extremely cramped: four men to an 8 x 10 foot area; each of them has virtually no space to move around in, and only one person can get out of his berth at a time. Byam is then introduced to the first mate, Fletcher Christian, "a fine figure of a seaman," the master, Mr. Fryer, and the surgeon, Thomas Huggan.
Bligh and Byam are then invited to board another ship, the Tigress, to have dinner with the captain, and while they are on board, they witness the flogging of an able-bodied seaman who has died — yet continues to receive an additional 24 lashes with the cat-of-nine-tails. After this episode, the three go to the captain's cabin. Bligh and the host captain eat as though nothing happened. Byam, however, has little appetite.
The opening of the novel functions as a prologue to the entire novel. We first learn that the narrator of the novel has spent some forty years of his life at sea and now, at seventy-three, retired, and with much time on his hands, has decided to write about his adventures on the high seas. Of all his adventures at sea, he singles out the most significant: the mutiny aboard the Bounty. As a result of that mutiny, he was locked in irons, brought back to England, tried by a court-martial, and condemned to die by hanging. The prologue therefore arouses our curiosity because we are obviously interested in learning how he escaped death.
While this novel is based upon a historically true incident, the authors use their poetic license — that is, they change reality to create a fictional narrator, "Roger Byam," who will tell the story. They choose "Byam" in order to make the narrative more interesting: he will be representing the viewpoint of the upper class, a young man who is very conservative, a characteristic not readily associated with the concept of mutiny. He will be an innocent man, caught up in a tangled web of good and evil.
Sir Joseph Banks, who will become Byam's strongest defender at the end of the book, when Roger is accused of treason, is also introduced to the reader. Sir Joseph functions as the intermediary in introducing Byam to Captain William Bligh, who was with Captain Cook on his famous expeditions to the South Sea. At this time, the adventures of Captain Cook were well-known throughout Europe; his investigations into little-known cultures led many people to read the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who wrote extensively upon the "natural life of the native Indian," uncorrupted by modern civilization.
This idea is often referred to as the Noble Savage concept. It is an idealistic and romantic belief which Captain Bligh doesn't accept; in contrast to Rousseau, who believed in the nobility of the savage, Bligh is a realist who has no illusions about the natives. He knows that they are superstitious and live in a rigid, hierarchical society.
Chapter 1 also provides us with the reason for Byam's being taken on the expedition: his expert grasp of foreign languages makes him the perfect choice to formulate a dictionary of the Tahitian language. According to Sir Joseph, the value of such a dictionary is inestimable because the language is spoken over a great portion of the South Sea area and will be of great benefit for commerce with the islanders.
At the end of Chapter 1, we learn from Sir Joseph that Captain Bligh has a reputation for being a hard taskmaster and that he is infamous for his belief in "discipline's the thing." This knowledge foreshadows the later mutiny since Captain Bligh's indiscriminate and harsh application of unreasonable discipline will be one of the causes of the mutiny.
Another cause of the mutiny is introduced in Chapter 2. The ship, which is small, is cramped even further when the captain turns the great cabin into a garden, forcing the men to live in an area that is incredibly small. One should always keep in mind that the mutiny is not caused by one single incident. The novel presents multiple reasons for the seizure of the ship.
The incident of the dead man being flogged emphasizes the severity of "sea law" — law so severe that it will later be directly related to the mutiny. The incident is so unnerving to young Byam that he loses his appetite, and yet the incident has no effect at all on the experienced captains, who, as we learn later, have extensive experience in meting out severe punishment.
In addition to the above event, this chapter emphasizes the severity, and the need, of "sea law." As we see later, this sea law allows the captain to be an absolute tyrant because the seamen have no recourse for redress.
aft toward the stern, or tail, of the boat.
midshipman a sub-lieutenant, a young cadet.
blotted log a water-spotted ship's journal.
in irons having wide, iron cuffs around the wrists and ankles.
Captain Cook an English navigator and explorer (1728-79). Rediscovered the Hawaiian Islands (Sandwich Islands). Killed by Hawaiian natives.
woolgathering dreamy, inattentive.
petitioned the Crown petitioned the king and/or Parliament.
breadfruit melon-shaped fruit on medium-sized trees native to the tropics; the pulp resembles fresh bread.
the cut of his jib his personal appearance.
the old tars old sailors. our solicitor our lawyer.
the Royal Society an organization founded in 1662 to advance scientific knowledge, particularly the physical sciences, and further research.
cockades rosettes or knots of ribbon, usually worn on a hat, indicating rank.
forced to mess with forced to eat with.
wherries light, shallow rowboats.
bumboat men men who provide a ship with fresh provisions.
the master's mate an officer who is subordinate to the master.
your berth your bed, or sleeping place.
the larboard side starboard side; the right-hand side of a ship when looking forward.
a quadrant a navagational instrument used for measuring altitudes.
bilge water water that seeps into a boat and sours. of gentle birth well-born; born to honorable, upper-class parents.
a man-of-war an armed naval ship.
sup eat with.
the new reefers slang for new midshipmen. our sawbones our surgeon, or doctor.
halliards halyards; ropes or tackle for raising or lowering a sail.
the boatswain the ship's officer in charge of sails and rigging and summoning men to duty.
a quizzing glass a monocle, or single eyeglass.
his powdered queue a powdered pigtail.
keel-hauling hauling a person under the keel (the lowest part of a ship) for punishment.