June 10, 2013

Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Bernard Nordhoff and James Norman Hall

Title: Mutiny on the Bounty
Authors: Charles Bernard Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
First published: 1932
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I guess most of you have heard about mutiny on H.M.S. Bounty, a tragic and probably the most renowned (after Cook's voyages, maybe) event in the history of South Seas exploration. Of course, I have heard of it, too, but without any particulars. This book provides a lot of them. Particulars, I mean. The novel, although fictitious, is based on the recollections of the sailors, ship logs and court records. Sometimes it imparts a somewhat dry style to the book, but also makes the account of the events very believable.

The story is told from the point of view of a young gentleman Byam, a novice at sea, invited to the voyage for the purpose of compiling a dictionary of Tahitian language. A protagonist which is a linguist! I love the idea :) He has some off-center ways of learning the language, like marrying a Tahitian woman, but still. The main purpose of the expedition, however, is not making of the dictionary, but collecting breadfruit trees with the view of their further cultivation in British India. Captain Bligh, a former companion of captain Cook, is a harsh and rude man, who believes that strict discipline is everything and never hesitates to severely punish somebody, often not going into if he is guilty or not. He is also suspected of food speculation, resulting in undernourishment of the crew, which is the least tolerable unfairness at sea. All this results in a mutiny, and as the mutineers take the ship, the loyal crew must leave it in a launch with the captain at the head of it.

Byam takes no part in the mutiny, but he is left behind on the ship with the mutineers due to restricted place in the launch, and is believed to be one of them by the captain, who overheard his dialogue with the mutiny leader the night before and misinterpreted it. Nobody expects the captain and his men to reach England safe, but they do. So a case is started against the mutineers at the Admiralty and a ship is sent to recover them from the South Seas and bring them home for trial and execution.

The novel is very good at showing different sides of life at sea, the causes and consequences of the mutiny and the severe marine law system at the time. The characters, however, are quite shallow, most of them are either good or bad, although it it justly shown how effective a harsh captain can be in case of emergency. I was also not quite satisfied with the description of Tahitians, they are shown as an idyllic race without any troubles and flaws, which was not really true. But the end of the golden age of Tahiti due to the destruction brought by the Europeans is really heartbreaking.

It is a very enjoyable book overall, but I'm sure I'd enjoy it better if I was an 11-year-old boy dreaming of sea adventures, without high expectations for complex characters and unpredictable endings. But still, it's definitely worth the time.


  1. (Oh crap I just lost my comment! Will try to retype it...)

    I see what you mean: these authors created a very different Captain Bligh from John Boyne's version, where he's depicted as flawed but essentially good and honourable. Boyne's Bligh wanted to set a naval record for 0 disciplinary punishments on a voyage (and was upset when he had to have a man whipped several months in), and was often rewarding the men with extra rations when they'd been through hard times. I find the different interpretations fascinating, but I found that Boyne's version created for a more complex, less obvious mutiny. For so long I kept wondering, what makes them mutiny? WHO is going to mutiny, or lead it? Because it just wasn't obvious. Made it quite the juicy surprise in a way!

    I see they both used that rather cliched but very useful device of having the narrator a novice-at-sea, bridging the gap between reader and experienced sailor. I do recommend Boyne's Mutiny on the Bounty, but having read it I find myself rather Mutiny-ed out: I don't think I could read another version, myself! How about you?

    1. Well, reading both versions might be interesting, but I'm also quite unwilling to do it :) When you already know what happens I don't think it's exciting at all. I'd prefer the course of events to be a little less obvious in Nordhoff and Hall version, so I thing Boyne might be a better choice overall.


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