Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Bounty Buff

So I am something of a Bounty buff. What is a Bounty buff? It's actually not that coconut and chocolate candy bar you sometimes see. It is His Majesty's Ship Bounty, which sailed in the late 18th century from England to Tahiti to take the breadfruit tree from Tahiti to the English Caribbean plantations, which was intended to be a food for the slaves there. However, along the way there was a mutiny, the mutiny on the Bounty, in which some of the men, lead by Master's Mate Fletcher Christian, took over the Bounty from Lieutenant Bligh. Bligh and his loyalists were put adrift in an open boat in the South Pacific. They then made one of the most remarkable sea journeys ever, crossing over 2000 miles to a Dutch colony in what is now Indonesia, only losing one man in the journey. Ironically, several of them died from disease while in port. Meanwhile, the mutineers searched for a place to hide for the rest of their lives. In time, they, along with their Tahitian wives and some Tahitian men, settled the tiny island called Pitcairn's Island. The descendents of the mutineers still live on Pitcairn to this day. There were also a group of men who stayed on Tahiti, later captured by the HMS Pandora to be taken back to England for court martial. Along the way, the Pandora ran against a reef and sank. And then the men of the Pandora also had to make a similar journey in open air to port, though not as long of one.

It is the myth of the Bounty which is attractive, less than the reality, in many ways. No one is really sure why the Mutiny happened. But English sentiment created a myth to explain it.

Bligh became an overbearing arrogant beast of a man beating his sailors at the slightest whim. Christian was a romantic man from a good family; he would not commit an act of piracy without good reason! In fact, Bligh might have been overbearing or arrogant, but the corporal punishments on the Bounty were less than almost any similar ship in its day.

Tahiti was a paradise, the women like sirens that could not be resisted. The men were completely bewitched by this heaven on earth and could not abide to leave it behind. Tahiti is a wonderful place, I am sure, but in the myth of the Bounty, it took on all the good qualities which England lacked. Tahitians were the beautiful noble savages that we were all meant to be if it wasn't for our culture.

Fletcher Christian became an icon of the romantic, moody, noble man who would risk all for the love of his Tahitian wife. This romantic image of Christian became such that he was not allowed to die over on Pitcairn Island. Legends grew that he has escaped Pitcairn and was actually seen in England again. Another legend grew that Christian had not died in fights on Pitcairn, as is almost certain, but lived on as the Patriarch of the island. When the American ship Topaz discovered Pitcairn about 30 years later, there was in fact only one sailor named John Adams or Alexander Smith left, but the English were sure that this was in fact Christian.

Pitcairn itself took on the image of a new Garden of Eden. There, the best of English society and Tahitian merged to produce a new paradise - man as he was meant to be. The people of Pitcairn were carefree, strong, healthy, and Christian (the religion, not the man). In many ways it is remarkable that this legend grew, and persists, since in the first few years on the island literally every single man who had arrived on the Bounty was killed through violence, sickness, or madness. Upon discovery, there was only one man left alive, various Tahitian women, and the remaining children. One can see some of the seeds of their destruction in John Adams' description of who arrived on the island. According to him, there were so odd many English sailors, so odd many Tahitian women (all wives of the sailors), one child, and so odd many black men. What is remarkable about that description is that the black men were in fact Tahitian men. In the English mind of the time, they could see that their wives were women from a place, but in the men they could only see a non-white skin color. Much of the violence was between the wifeless, assumed-to-be-a-sservant Tahitians and the sailors.

As much as I can see the myths, and how they are created by the hopes of my culture, I am taken by them still. The myth of Tahiti holds me, for what it is pretended to be, not for what it is. The University here, being in Polynesia, like Tahiti, teaches many Polynesian languages, including Hawaiian, Samoan, Maori, Tongan, and Tahitian. I still hope to study Tahitian before I leave, in large part because of this mythology.

Though there are some good linguistic reasons too.

I learned of the story through reading Nordoff and Hall's historical fiction in 8th grade. Maybe it is because I was 12 and just liking girls, but I was totally smitten by the main character Roger Byam's wife Tehani. Roger Byam is a pseudo-fictional character who was taken on the Bounty as a teen midshipman to make the first Tahitian dictionary. If you are looking for the real story, you can try Carole Alexander's The Bounty. She is the same author who wrote of Shackleton's Endurance adventures, which was a best seller. For an account of life on Pitcairn today, which is less than romantic, you can try Serpent in Paradise. Another account if interested in why the Mutiny happened is Bligh's Bad Words. In the end, for me, the mutiny itself is rather boring. It is possible that Christian just got drunk one night. It is what came from the mutiny - the Pandora and court martials, Pitcairn, the open boat voyage - that is fascinating. The mutiny is just something that happened to them. What they did next defined who they were.


Killer Llama said...

Oh, oh, can I quote Batman?

"It's not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you."

Yes, I have been brainwashed by Hollywood.

pacatrue said...

Yeah, I gotta watch my pseudo-wisdom things. I just kinda threw that in to sound profound. Or maybe it was profound and so is Batman - or Katie Holmes or whatever her character was named or the screenwriter or something.