Mutiny musing, the next wave
‘Mutiny on the Bounty’
By Peter FitzSimons
Hachette Australia, 613pp, $49.99 (HB)
‘Mutiny, Mayhem, Mythology: Bounty’s Enigmatic Voyage’
By Alan Frost
Sydney University Press, 336pp, $40
‘By Sea & Stars: The Story of the First Fleet’
By Trent Dalton
Fourth Estate, 138pp, $24.99 (HB)
by ROSS FITZGERALD
It’s an epic tale of human frailty and alleged tyranny that has fascinated us for two centuries. The mutiny on the Bounty may have occurred in a remote part of the western Pacific on April 28, 1789, but it is well known and not just by history buffs.
The Bounty continues to attract attention of writers and, occasionally, Hollywood directors. Two new books, one by a leading popular historian, one by a professor of history, take a fresh look at the story.
Across the past three decades, Peter FitzSimons has produced a series of well-researched and entertaining nonfiction books, mainly about Australian history. His new one, ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, is replete with much fine detail and snappy dialogue. It is enticingly subtitled ‘A Saga of Survival, Sex, Sedition, Mayhem and Mutiny’.
As always, FitzSimons has relied on a team of researchers. In three months of hard work, his cousin Angus FitzSimons gathered a mass of documents, diaries, logs, letters, testimony and transcripts surrounding the Bounty saga. The author has put his cousin’s legwork to good effect.
In the main, FitzSimons manages to bring the oft-told story about Captain William Bligh, Fletcher Christian and the Bounty mutiny to life again for contemporary readers. He does this by writing in the present tense and constructing a narrative in the manner of a novel.
This doorstop of a book is buttressed by 1500 footnotes, which are the foundation on which this popular, not to say populist, history rests.
To tell a tale replete with death, despair, decadence, devotion and derring-do, FitzSimons acknowledges that his greatest debt is to English historian and novelist Owen Rutter (1889-1944), to whom the book is dedicated.
Throughout the 1930s, Rutter produced multiple volumes of carefully transcribed and collated examples of what he termed “Bountiana”. Thanks to the tenacious Rutter, FitzSimons and longstanding key researchers Libby Effeney and Peter Williams had access to the unfiltered voices of the Bounty court martial and to detailed stories of participants on the ship.
These include John Fryer (master), James Morrison (boatswain’s mate), William Purcell (carpenter), Peter Heywood (midshipman) and especially Bligh, who in my opinion often is dealt with unfairly throughout this book. This captivating tale is sometimes maddeningly anti-Bligh and generally pro-Christian and the mutineers, which is a rather subjective reading.
But, to be fair, FitzSimons does deal well with the remarkable fact that, after being set adrift in Bounty’s launch, Bligh managed to guide his 18 loyal men safely to the port of Coupang on the island of Timor, a journey of 3618 nautical miles or 6701km. This six-week voyage remains one of the most extraordinary feats of navigation.
FitzSimons is even-handed in depicting how many of the mutineers made a generally pleasant home on the previously obscure and uninhabited Pitcairn Island. He also explains Bligh’s complicated relationship with James Cook before the latter’s murder by the natives of Hawaii on February 14, 1779.
Early in the book, FitzSimons writes evocatively about initial contact with the people of Tahiti. As he later explains, before Christian steered the Bligh-less Bounty with eight of the mutineers and their Polynesian companions — men and women — to Pitcairn Island, it was Tahiti that had housed all of the mutineers.
Just as Rutter claimed to have known Bligh through reading the key documents — far better, he claimed, than he could have known him in life — so too FitzSimons says he feels that he has come to know and understand Bligh.
While I will leave the final judgment to other readers, suffice to say that I have grave doubts as to whether in this often engaging book FitzSimons actually gets Bligh right.
A far more nuanced — and far shorter — book that covers much of the same territory is ‘Mutiny, Mayhem, Mythology: Bounty’s Enigmatic Voyage’, by Alan Frost, emeritus professor of history at La Trobe University.
Frost’s scholarly account is an extremely helpful contribution to studies about the mutiny. In particular, he suggests we should abandon “the long fixation on the binary set of images of Good Bligh/Bad Christian and Bad Bligh/Good Christian”.
He strongly suggests we should take notice of what Pacific historian Harry Maude wrote 60 years ago: “The protagonists of Bligh and Christian are still engaged in apportioning the blame — an exercise which one feels at times tells us more about the personality of the writer than (about) the characters and motives of the two opponents.”
To my mind, this applies to FitzSimons.
Even though Bligh performed bravely in battle, was an excellent navigator and cartographer, and arguably gave fewer lashes to his crews than did Cook, Frost agrees that he was prone to tornadoes of temper. He fought — verbally — with many of those under his command and with others with whom he dealt.
During his voyage in 1806 to become governor of NSW, he “quarrelled bitterly with Joseph Short, the captain of the warship escorting Bligh’s convoy”. Once they arrived in Sydney, Bligh forced Short back to England to face a court martial, at which he was acquitted.
Then Bligh famously fought with leading colonist John Macarthur, who was himself an extremely difficult person. Indeed in January 1808, in what is arguably Australia’s only coup d’etat, Macarthur and the officers of the NSW Corps deposed Bligh as governor.
While this forcible overthrow is indisputable, it is hard to disagree with Frost when he concludes that there is much about the life of Bligh, including the history of Bounty’s voyage, mutiny and its aftermath, that we cannot know or be sure about. Later books and documents were sometimes replete with misrepresentations and omissions. Hence it is surely much better, as Frost so powerfully puts it, “to acknowledge the gaps and silences of the past than to seek to fill them with supposition, dubious theory, discredited psychologising and false consciousness, all of which obscure more than they enlighten”.
A slighter but engaging work is ‘By Sea & Stars’ by Queensland-based journalist and author Trent Dalton. This book of nonfiction follows on from Dalton’s first novel set in Brisbane’s working-class fringe, ‘Boy Swallows Universe’, which has gone gangbusters since being released in June.
Published in conjunction with this newspaper, where Dalton is a staff writer, ‘By Sea & Stars’ offers yet another account of the First Fleet. But unlike most popular studies, this fascinating little book is based on existing journal manuscripts, maps, charts, diaries and original letters, many of which are held in the Mitchell and Dixson collections at the State Library of NSW.
The book is essentially comprised of a series of illuminating articles, “Cook Rediscovered”, that was published in ‘The Australian’ across five days in September last year.
Dalton is particularly perspicacious when dealing in vivid detail with Cook’s epic voyage to the shores of Botany Bay in 1770, as told from the point of view of those who willingly or unwillingly were a central part of it.
He also writes powerfully about the central role of one of the brightest stars in the firmament of the British navy, Arthur Phillip, the first European founder and governor of the penal colony of NSW.
In January 1788 Phillip and his fleet of 11 ships landed first at Botany Bay. Finding that it was not suitable for settlement (with nowhere near enough fresh water), he sailed to the next bay, Port Jackson, now Sydney Harbour. In doing so, Phillip was pivotal to the founding of our nation.
Cook, Bligh and Phillip are still in many ways the stuff of myth and legend. And sometimes it’s hard to separate fact from fiction when discussing important historical figures.
But as an admirer of the naval exploits of Cook, especially in the Endeavour, Dalton is surely gratified that in 1785, six years after Cook’s death, George III posthumously awarded him a coat of arms, replete with two Latin mottos. These are translated as “Around the world” and “he left nothing unattempted”.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 40 books.
The Weekend Australian, December 15-16, 2018, review. Books, pp 20-21.