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Captain Bligh was framed!

Author Caroline Alexander debunks some of the myths of the Bounty's mutiny

We all know the famous story of the 1789 mutiny on the HMS Bounty. Or so thought Caroline Alexander of New Hampshire, author of the just-published book "The Bounty."

When she delved into the written record, she discovered that much of what she "knew" was wrong. The lessons of that discovery seem to be twofold: that "spinning" historical facts to serve a private interest is no modern invention, and that plain truth doesn't stand a chance against romantic myth.

Alexander's 1999 book, "The Endurance," told the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton, leader of a failed 1914 attempt to cross the Antarctic on foot. Shackleton managed to save his entire crew with shrewd leadership and a legendary 800-mile voyage in an open boat. The book was a bestseller and set off a Shackleton craze, with documentary films, a Kenneth Branagh movie, even a business book: "Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons From the Great Antarctic Explorer." For Alexander, a new book about an even more famous South Sea epic was a natural next act.

Soon after the Bounty, loaded with breadfruit trees, left the South Pacific island of Tahiti, master's mate Fletcher Christian and several others burst into Captain William Bligh's cabin at dawn on April 28, 1789. They hauled Bligh on deck at bayonet point and set him and 18 others adrift in a 23-foot lifeboat. While Bligh guided that boat on a 3,600-mile, 48-day voyage to safety, Christian and friends returned to Tahiti, left some of the crew there, took several native men and women aboard the Bounty, then sailed to remote Pitcairn's Island, where they lived out their lives.

Fourteen of those left at Tahiti were captured in 1791. Four died en route to England, and 10 were tried for mutiny. Four were acquitted, six were convicted, and three were hanged. Of the other three, one was reprieved on procedural grounds, and the others -- an ordinary seaman and a midshipman named Peter Heywood -- were given royal pardons.

Like the Bounty and its launch, here is pretty much where agreed-upon history and fanciful myth diverged. The elements of the true story are sailing ships, bayonets and cutlasses, and the roiling Southern ocean. The elements of the myth are political influence, tendentious histories, probably perjured testimony, poetry, novels, and finally movies.

Alexander spent three years poring over sources, which included: the full British admiralty record of the Bounty voyage and the mutineers' trial; Bligh's shipboard logs; books, memoirs, and pamphlets; and archives of letters and documents in England, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, and the United States. Many of the books and source materials have been known to scholars; others Alexander dug up for the first time, especially those relating to lesser-known but key players. Descendants of both Bligh and Christian assisted with private holdings.

As she explored the story, Alexander says, she learned something: "It was never safe to take even the most trivial facts for granted. The traditional story was constructed not accidentally but deliberately. It was the most tightly woven spin-doctoring. What was done to William Bligh was wicked."

A journey of her own

As a theme, the strenuous testing of men such as Bligh and Shackleton comes readily to Alexander. In her own life and way, she too has sought drama and adventure far from home.

Despite her faintly British accent, she grew up in Tallahassee, Fla., of British parents who frequently traveled abroad. She graduated from Florida State University in 1976, majoring in classics, then added degrees in philosophy and theology on a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford.

Learned though she was, the classroom and library could not contain her. "I intended to avoid an academic career," she says. After graduating from Oxford in 1980, she and two others persuaded the Oxford virology department to send them on a monthslong insect-collecting trip to Borneo, even though they knew little about insects.

"It was one of those glorious British amateur undertakings," she says, laughing. " `Why don't we go to Borneo and collect insects! That would be lovely fun!' We traveled all through Borneo and did indeed get the insects. It's a youthful story, the kind of thing you do when you are too naive and earnest to know the pitfalls."

One doesn't associate classics, philosophy, and theology, or insect collecting, with Olympic-type sports. But in 1982, Alexander returned to Florida to train full time for the US world team in modern pentathlon, an event combining running, swimming, shooting, fencing, and equestrian show jumping. She ended up as one of two alternates, just missing the team, but soon turned to other adventures.

"I had always wanted to live in Africa," she says, "for wholly romantic reasons. I wrote to every English-speaking institution in Africa, universities and elementary schools, suggesting I had a background teaching English as a second language." One positive response came from the University of Malawi, in southern Africa, which wanted not an English teacher but someone to set up a classics department. She went to Malawi and did so, from 1982 to 1985.

In 1985, she started a doctoral program in archaic Greek literature at Columbia University. Once again, however, book study did not satisfy, so in 1987 she took time off to retrace the 1893 journey of Englishwoman Mary Kingsley up the Ogooue River in Gabon, in West Africa. It became her first book, "One Dry Season," in 1990.

"She is this most amazing combination of modesty and self-assurance," says Laura Slatkin, Alexander's adviser at Columbia and now professor of classics at New York University and the University of Chicago. "Most classics scholars make trips to the stacks, if anywhere. Here was Caroline wanting to go up the Ogooue River. I would say, `You know, it's rather strenuous to make this trip,' and she would say, `Have I mentioned that I was a pentathlete and that I ran a school in Malawi?' "

She got a PhD in 1991 and began full-time writing. Three other books came before "The Endurance," and she wrote intellectual travel pieces for The New Yorker, Smithsonian magazine, National Geographic, and Granta. "The Bounty" is her longest, most ambitious work, and it put her skills at research and historical sleuthing to good use.

Fiction and fact

For most Americans, the Bounty story comes from movies. The best-selling 1932 novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, "Mutiny on the Bounty," became the 1935 movie, with Charles Laughton as the sadistic Bligh and Clark Gable as the noble mutineer Fletcher Christian. Bligh has a dead man flogged and another keelhauled. Speaking of the crew, the sinister Laughton snarls to Gable and says: "They respect but one law -- the law of fear." A 1962 remake, with Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando, was much like the first. (A 1984 version, "The Bounty," with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson, depicted Bligh as tough but no tyrant.)

In fact, as Alexander shows, the picture of Bligh as a sadist is baloney. The 35-year-old navy lieutenant (though he had a command, he had not yet attained the rank of captain) was unusually considerate of his men. He was loath to punish and did so sparingly, even when provoked by balky and insolent officers. Despite his temper and sharp tongue, there's no record of cruelty, and none was alleged by the court-martialed mutineers.

So why did the mutiny happen? Alexander concludes that there was no good reason and that the sulky and thin-skinned Christian, 23, led the mutiny in a fit of pique after a night of drinking. More central to her story is what happened later. Though the evidence isn't airtight, she suggests that the high-powered lawyer and well-connected family of midshipman Heywood, one of the two pardoned mutineers, bribed a witness at the trial to lie about Heywood's role in the mutiny.

Heywood still had a problem. There was testimony that he had laughed at Bligh during the mutiny and at one point had had a cutlass in his hand. Despite his pardon, a future naval career would be foreclosed unless the story could be revised in his favor. So he and his allies set about doing so, and Alexander tells how.

First came a 1794 published account of the mutiny by Edward Christian, Fletcher's brother, apparently promoted by Heywood. It defended the mutineers, mainly by painting Bligh as evil. Bligh published a response, but with no publicity ace on his side, his defense was blustery and ineffective.

In 1825, with Bligh and his advocates dead, Heywood published an autobiography, another attack on his old commander. Three years later came Sir John Barrow's "The Eventful History of the Mutiny . . . Its Causes and Consequences." Barrow was a friend of Heywood's son-in-law and used materials borrowed from the family, and he too pinned the blame on Bligh. Finally, in 1870, came "The Mutineers of the Bounty and Their Descendants," by Lady Diana Belcher, Heywood's stepdaughter. "It was written specifically to exonerate Peter Heywood," says Alexander, "and it was riddled with lies."

A myth endures

The campaign worked. Heywood died in 1831 after a long, successful naval career. (Bligh, who served with distinction in battles of the Napoleonic wars, had died in 1817.) And as Heywood's stature grew, Bligh's infamy as the villain of the Bounty, which dogged him in his lifetime, increased after his death. The injustice of it gets Alexander's blood up; you can hear it in her voice.

"Once you penetrate 18th-century thinking and realize how much name, reputation, honor, and duty counted," she says, "you become aware of what was done to Bligh, how savage that mauling was. For his service in all those battles, he should have been knighted. Many lesser men were."

She knows, however, that it was not only "spinning" that turned Bligh into a monster and the mutineers into innocents. The Romantic era, which dawned after the French Revolution, fell in love with the image of Christian as the solitary tragic hero. He appears directly or indirectly in the poetry of Byron and Wordsworth and possibly even partly inspired Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." When John Adams, the sole surviving mutineer, was found on Pitcairn's Island in 1808, not only was he not arrested, he was lionized in England as the benign patriarch of a tiny British colony.

Though Alexander's book is on The New York Times' bestseller list, the name of Bligh will probably always stand for cruelty. We like it that way. The more accurate 1984 movie was a box-office failure. One reviewer groused that it was "historically sound but dramatically unsatisfying. Without a true villain, the film becomes a series of anecdotes rather than a tightly knit story."

"I saw a quote by President Kennedy," Alexander says, "that the enemy of truth is not the lie but the myth. Once you have a myth, you can't deconstruct it. It's got a gorgeous life. The Charles Laughton version we'll always have with us. To the end of time, there will be Fletcher Christian, the romantic mutineer."

David Mehegan can be reached at

(Photo Courtesy of Captain Cook Memorial Museum)
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