Monday, October 04, 2004

...and now for something completely different

I'm sick and tired of the God-cursed election, so--for a change--I thought I'd talk about what I've been reading lately.

The last book I read was Patrick O'Brien's Post-Captain, which is the the second book in the Aubrey-Maturin series and even better than its predecessor, Master & Commander. This is only the latest in my year-long binge on 17th and 18th-Century British Maritime novels, which has also included the Mutiny on the Bounty Trilogy, as well as Dava Sobel's Longitude (six books on a topic within a year counts as a binge, right? Right?)

The Bounty Trilogy is both an excellent story and a rather fascinating piece of historical fiction. For any who are shaky on the subject, the story concerns the HMS Bounty, commanded by Lt. William Bligh, which left England in 1788 on a mission to bring live breadfruit treesfrom their native Tahiti to the British Caribbean (it was believed at the time that breadfruit would provide a cheap and effective staple food for the slaves--turned out not to be the case). Though Bligh was an excellent seaman and navigator, he managed to alienate both his crew and his officers on the journey out. through a combination of a bad temper, ambition (his desire to circumnavigate the globe costs them months of wasted time), and the usual strict disapline that goes hand-in-hand with a British naval ship. Suffice to say, everyone--except Bligh--was overjoyed when they reached Tahiti, and most of the men promptly took Tahitian wives/mistresses. Disapline went from rather severe, to extreme lax.

Some monts later, the breadfruits were loaded and Bligh ordered the men back on the ship. Without too much incident, they complied. While some of the men were eager to return to their families, others clearly wanted to return to Tahiti. One such man was the ship's acting second in command, Flecther Christian (Bligh had had a falling out with the ship;s Master, John Fryer, whom Bligh accused of cowardice.). Though circumstances immeadiately proceeding the mutiny are unclear, within a very short period of time Christian and his followers gained control of the ship in a bloodless coup. Some of the men wanted to kill Bligh then and there, but Christian argued for clemency, and Bligh was put into the ship's launch with 18 men loyal to him, and cast off with some food, a few sabers, and and a medical kit--no navigational tools or maps.

At this point, the story splits. Christian and the mutineers sailed the Bounty back to Tahiti, where they dropped-off some of the men who were either loyal to Bligh but were unable to accompany him in the skiff, or men who were willing to risk capture to stay on the island paradise. The remaining mutineers--a rather nasty bunch, with the exception of Christain--set sail for some of the least explored parts of pacific, eventually beaching and destroying the
Bounty on a beautiful and sublime little island named Pitcairn's Island, which--they discovered--was not located correctly on any map. But while the Island provided them with both safety and sustenance required for a micro-civilization, the citizens were not up to the task; by the time the Island was finally discovered 18 years later, all but one of the men had been killed by the other islanders, as well as some women. What should have turned into an eden-esque isle of innocence, turns into a harrowing distopia; Lord of the Flies, just with adults and alcohol.

But if people killing each other on an island paradise isn't ironic enough, the fate of 19 men in a 23-foot skiff, commanded by a man famous for his temper, turns out to be an incredibly up-lifting story. Despite all of his many problems as a leader in good times, Bligh was master at rallying his men together through the worst adversity and--rather convienently--an almost inhumanly good navigator. Over the following six weeks, Bligh managed to navigate over 3,600 miles to the nearest port, while losing only one man (who was murdered by unfriendly natives at one of their infrequent stops).

The novels read quickly, and the prose--while not particularly creative--is both effecient and lucid (no small accomplishment that). The narration of the first two books, Mutiny on the Bounty and Men Against the Sea, focalizes on a single, minor, semi-fictional character and who presumably write their tales years after their experience. There was a great deal of historical material to draw on for the first two, as there was a public courtmartial for Bligh when he arrived in England without his ship.
Pitcairn's Island, however is largely fictional, and based off of contridicting eye-witness testimony from the mutineers descendants.

UPDATE: On an interesting note, the Bounty has been in the news lately.

UPDATE II: I meant to reivew Post Captain and Master and Commander. I'll do that tomorrow.


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