What would the Tahitians say?

Joyce Chaplin

  • Bligh: William Bligh in the South Seas by Anne Salmond
    California, 528 pp, £27.95, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 520 27056 5

The breadfruit is native to a number of Pacific islands, and is nowadays grown more widely in the tropics. It has never become a global commodity in the same way as other exotic foodstuffs – coffee, tea, sugar, bananas – even though it requires less labour than sugar or tobacco to grow, needs no more refrigeration than bananas for its transport and can be tinned or preserved.

Its stubborn resistance to globalisation has a long history. In 1789, a failed mission to transplant the fruit to the British West Indies resulted in a celebrated disaster. Two years earlier, William Bligh had been given command of the small armed vessel Bounty and ordered to cram it with as many Tahitian breadfruit saplings as it could carry before sailing to the Caribbean, where they were to be grown to feed slaves. En route to Tahiti, Bligh gave frequent demonstrations of his short temper, foul mouth and tendency to micromanage: a bad combination. He went berserk for instance after he tried to substitute pumpkin for bread rations midway across the Atlantic and the men objected. ‘You damn’d infernal scoundrels,’ he yelled. ‘I’ll make you eat grass before I have done with you!’ Tahiti offered a respite from his shipboard tirades, but a temporary one. Not four weeks into the ship’s return voyage, Fletcher Christian, who had been Bligh’s protégé and family friend, led a mutiny as a desperate solution to the abuse that Bligh had started dealing out again at sea. ‘I have been in Hell for this fortnight past,’ Christian told his former patron, just before he forced him, with 18 men perceived to be his creatures, into a small launch and set them adrift.

Amazingly, Bligh’s party fared better than the mutineers. With minimal navigational instruments, no charts and scant provisions, including ‘a few Cocoa Nutts and some Breadfruit, but the latter useless’, Bligh managed to reach the Dutch East Indies, 3600 miles away. Only 13 of the men survived. On his return to London, Bligh was court-martialled but exonerated. The Bounty meanwhile had gone back to Tahiti, and most of her sailors decided to stay there. The remainder, including Christian, fearing arrest, wanted to find an island less likely to be visited by Europeans. They recruited Tahitian friends, especially women whom they regarded as wives; other Tahitians stowed away on the ship. The small group, still with dangerously few women for the number of men, settled on Pitcairn Island, burned the Bounty and sank into perpetual and violent quarrels. Subsequently, a British ship sent to Tahiti apprehended those Bounty sailors who had remained there and fetched them back to Portsmouth for trial. Three were hanged for mutiny. The colony on Pitcairn was discovered by American whalers in 1808: only one of the mutineers was still alive. Christian had evidently been murdered by the Tahitians, who were tired of being treated as slaves by their erstwhile white companions.

The Bounty mutiny remains an ambiguous event. Each of its main actors had a life or death interest in interpreting events to his own advantage, and many and competing contemporary accounts survive. Both Bligh and Christian had their partisans, and still do. Because the British had recently conceded defeat in the American War, and given that the French Revolution broke out as the mutineers went on trial, reactions to the case were conditioned by debates over authority and liberty. Bligh, especially, was easy to lampoon either as the tyrannous product of an ancien régime or as a petty maritime Bonaparte. As part of the mutiny’s resonant afterlife, three Hollywood films (1935, 1962 and 1984) have dramatised it. Just as some people argue over whom to blame for it (a brutal Bligh? a conniving Christian?), others dispute the different versions of the 18th century implied, on the one hand, by Clark Gable’s starchily decent Mr Christian and, on the other, by Mel Gibson’s tattooed Man of Feeling, dripping with sweat.

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[*] Reviewed by Patrick O’Brian in the LRB of 4 August 1994.