Summary and Analysis
The prisoners are taken to the Duke while the members of the court deliberate and discuss the evidence against the men. Byam is then called into the great cabin, and the court announces that he is guilty of mutiny against the Bounty and that he is to be hanged. Morrison also receives the death penalty. Coleman, Norman, McIntosh, and Byrne are acquitted of all charges. Burkitt, Ellison, Millward, and Muspratt are called into the great cabin and all are found guilty and condemned to death. Morrison is called into the great cabin once again and is told that he has been recommended to His Majesty's mercy. The guilty men are taken back to the Hector to await the day that they will be hanged.
Sir Joseph comes to see Byam, bringing with him Byam's manuscript of the Tahitian dictionary. Byam is informed that he can work on the dictionary to help keep his mind busy if he so desires, which he does. Sir Joseph once again asserts that had Tinkler been present to give his testimony, Byam would have been acquitted of all charges. Before Sir Joseph leaves, he tells Byam that there is a possibility that Muspratt might still be cleared of the charge of mutiny.
While the men await the day that they are to be hanged, Dr. Hamilton comes to see Byam, and while the two are talking, Sir Joseph enters the room excitedly. Sir Joseph informs Byam that Tinkler has been found alive and that he is in London at that very moment. Byam learns further from Sir Joseph that Tinkler will be brought before Admiral Hood and that he will be questioned about the conversation between Christian and Byam the night before the mutiny. Dr. Hamilton and Sir Joseph then leave the ship.
A few days later, an armed guard comes to the room where the prisoners are being held and takes Burkitt, Millward, and Ellison away. The following day, Byam, Muspratt, and Morrison watch from their room as Burkitt, Millward, and Ellison are rowed to another boat on which they are to be hanged. While waiting to see the men hanged, Captain Montague of the Hector enters the room and informs Muspratt and Morrison that they have been granted mercy and that they are free to go. Captain Montague then informs Byam that Tinkler's testimony has been heard by Admiral Hood and that the charge of mutiny against Byam has been dropped.
On their way to Portsmouth Harbor, Byam, Morrison, and Muspratt are rowed past the ship on which Burkitt, Millward, and Ellison are to be hanged. A great gun breaks the silence, and as Byam looks back, he sees the bodies of the three men suspended in midair, twitching as they sway from side to side.
On the way to London, Byam is informed in a letter from Sir Joseph that a Mr. Erskine, a friend of Byam's deceased father, would like Byam to stay at his home for a while. Byam, Muspratt, and Morrison part ways once they reach London, and Byam heads for Mr. Erskine's residence.
Tinkler is waiting for Byam, and he relates the events leading up to his testimony before Admiral Hood. The two eat supper and retire for the evening.
Chapter 24 is one of the more emotional and suspenseful chapters of the novel. The scene is built around the verdict, and all of the people whom Byam knows and likes (Sir Joseph, Dr. Hamilton, Mr. Erskine, and Mr. Graham) are gathered to hear it. The reader has been led to hope that all of the extenuating testimony will bring about a verdict of acquittal for Byam, and we are shocked and stunned to discover that the verdict is "guilty" and that Byam is to be hanged. It is interesting how Byam receives this news. It is as though he were in a catatonic state. Only later will the full horror of this terrible ignominy be fully grasped.
At present, Byam's main concern focuses on the injustice that has been perpetrated against Morrison, who was convicted solely upon the unreliable and spiteful testimony of Hayward and Hallet.
Captain Montague's kindness towards Byam and his attempt to make Byam's present situation as endurable as possible, even to the point of granting him a personal cabin, is instrumental in causing Byam to change his mind later about returning to Tahiti.
Once again, in this scene, the complete authority and despotism of a sea captain is emphasized. Bligh's accusation is unquestioned and, as expressed by Sir Joseph, is clearly the ultimate, unexonerated law of the seas. To quote Sir Joseph:
There was no alternative, Byam. None. All the palliating circumstances — the fact that no man had seen you under arms, the testimony as to the excellent character you bore, and all the rest — were not sufficient to offset Bligh's damning statement as to your complicity with Christian in planning the mutiny. That statement stood unchallenged, except by yourself, throughout the court-martial.
Regardless of how corrupt, vindictive, evil, irrational, or neurotic a captain may be, his word is the supreme authority, and his absolute power is unquestioned. Byam's only comfort during his imprisonment is that the people whom he admires still believe in his innocence. Sir Joseph brings him the manuscript which will, in effect, keep him alive for another month, and Mr. Graham and Dr. Hamilton both visit him before leaving on another tour of duty.
The chapter ends with a sudden reversal. In literary terms, this technique is often criticized as a deus ex machina — literally, a "god in a machine." This means that the reader is not prepared for a sudden change of events, something that happens which has no motivation. In terms of this novel, we have been led to believe that Tinkler is dead; when he is suddenly "resurrected," the conclusion or resolution of the novel seems to have been brought about by artificial means. However, this device does satisfy the reader's demand for justice, and given the nature of the authoritarianism of sea law, Byam's life can be saved only by bringing back to life the presumably dead Tinkler. This technique could be further criticized in that we have not seen or known enough about Tinkler to be assured that he is the type who could intellectually and accurately reconstruct the conversation between Christian and Byam on the critical night.
After we hear the results of Tinkler's testimony, we witness the execution of Burkitt, Millward, and Ellison. By the laws of the time — humane or inhumane, though they may be — no reader can argue about the guilt of Burkitt and Millward — that is, even if one is opposed to the death penalty in modern times, nevertheless, these men are guilty of treason and mutiny, and the punishment for both is death. However, in the case of young Ellison, we have cause to complain. Ellison is an extremely young man — he did not "participate" in the mutiny; he suffered severely and unjustly under the unreasonable rule of Captain Bligh, and, therefore, it is easy to understand why he would taunt the captain in a moment of crisis. To put a young man to death for a spontaneous second of taunting is tantamount to supreme injustice. Byam complains of this very injustice; he wishes that Ellison were on the train with him to London. He ponders the cruel, infallible nature of sea law. The implacability of this law will be one of the factors that will make Byam consider rejecting civilization and returning to Tahiti. To become a part of this unjust law is difficult for him, and yet he will finally choose the sea as his vocation.
a midshipman's dirk his dagger.
the sun had passed the meridian It had passed the noonday position.
epaulettes ornamental shoulder pieces worn on uniforms.
palliating circumstances attempts to conceal the gravity of a situation.
a light chaise an open carriage, usually with a hood, drawn by a horse.
you stand acquitted you are found innocent of all charges.
postscript a "P.S." at the bottom of a letter.
shanks' mare to walk somewhere, rather than ride.
carriage and pair a carriage and a pair of horses.