Good Books: The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall

In 1787, HMS Bounty left England on a voyage to the South Seas to gather breadfruit plants that were to provide food for the slaves on sugar plantations in the West Indies. On the return voyage, Fletcher Christian mutinied and set Captain Bligh and eighteen others adrift in the Bounty’s launch. The mutineers sailed back to Tahiti where some remained, the others going on to establish a colony on Pitcairn’s Island. The story is well-known and has been the subject of several movies. In popular imagination, Captain Bligh has become a symbol of tyranny and Fletcher Christian, one of romantic resistance. Christian’s role has been played by handsome leading male actors of the day — Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Mel Gibson — while Bligh has been portrayed by Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard, and a pre-Hannibal Lecter Anthony Hopkins. All of this derives from the trilogy by Nordhoff and Hall, published between 1932 and 1936. But the three Bounty books are more than just an adventure story, or a tale of resistance to tyranny; they are an exercise in political philosophy and a discussion of the nature of human society.

Each of the three books  has a different point of view. The first, Mutiny on the Bounty, is narrated by Roger Byam, who served as a midshipman on the Bounty‘s voyage. Now the Bounty‘s roster is a matter of record and the authors decided to create Byam, a fictional character, around the experiences of Peter Heywood who actually did serve on the Bounty. There are at least two reasons to fictionalize this narrator: first, Peter Heywood was only fifteen when the Bounty sailed, and, second, his role in the mutiny is rather ambiguous and there is no ambiguity about the character Roger Byam in Nordhoff and Hall’s novel. Byam is about eighteen. He has no part in the mutiny but is believed to be one of the mutineers. He suffers the injustice of the law and Injustice is what the first book describes.

The trilogy’s major theme is broached early on, when Bligh has dinner with Byam and his mother.

“Roger and I,” observed my mother, “have been studying the ideas of J.J.Rousseau. As you know, he believes that true happiness can only be enjoyed by man in a state of nature.”
Bligh nodded. “…if a rough seaman may express an opinion on a subject more suited to a philosopher, I believe that true happiness can only be enjoyed by a disciplined and enlightened people.”

And that is the question to be examined: discipline or state of nature?

Byam is introduced to discipline before he ever leaves England. A man is being flogged through the fleet; that is, he is taken from one to another of the vessels at anchor and flogged with a cat, a vicious whip designed to tear flesh from men’s backs. So Byam and Bligh are guests aboard another ship when the man is rowed around for punishment: “From neck to waist the cat-o’-nine-tails had laid the bones bare, and the flesh hung in blackened, tattered strips.” A doctor examines the man and declares that he is dead. “Lucky devil!” exclaims the captain whose ship Byam and Bligh are visiting, then he orders his boatswain’s mate to lay two dozen lashes on the corpse. As the Articles of War are read the captain doffs his hat and “…every man on the ship uncovered in respect to the King’s commandments”. This uncovering at the reading of “the King’s commandments” will be seen several more times in this book. The boatswain’s mate is reluctant to perform the whipping but follows orders. Byam, “giddy and sick”, counts the strokes as they fall, each cracking like a pistol shot, on the dead man’s back.

Back at their interrupted dinner, the captain complains that his soup has grown cold during the punishment, then he and Bligh fall to talking about old times together. Then they come back around to the scene they have witnessed and Bligh asks about the man’s crime. He struck a superior officer, says the captain. “By God!” says Bligh, “He deserved all he got, and more! No laws are more just than those governing the conduct of men at sea.” Byam cannot contain himself: “Is there any need of such cruelty? …Why not just hang the poor fellow and have done with it?” The two older men laugh at the callow youth: “Discipline must be preserved.”

William Bligh from his book A Voyage to the South Seas available from

Back on the Bounty, Byam becomes familiar with his shipmates. He is one of six midshipmen — essentially young men training to be officers. There are two divisions amongst the crew: one is that between officers and seamen and the other is between gentlemen and commoners. The midshipmen are gentlemen and, even though they have an inferior rank, might sometimes order about a seaman or warrant officer with a higher rating. (see Wikipedia for a very good breakdown of this system on the Bounty) This class division is accepted by Byam (and others) as the natural order of things, as Nordhoff and Hall subtly but surely make you recognize. In fact, Byam is a middle class prig, which doesn’t mean he is unlikeable. Still, contemporary readers may get a shock when Byam refers to all the “sharp-faced Jews” swarming about the ship trying to peddle articles to the seamen. Later, when he says that Samuel, Bligh’s clerk, has a Jewish look, suspicions are confirmed. Only in Byam’s narration occur these anti-semitic remarks, which may or may not be typical of the day.

It is interesting to compare Byam’s characterizations of the men around him with those given in the following books. Byam dislikes Hallet, a fellow midshipman, fifteen years old, and remarks on his “weak, peevish mouth”. At one point he accuses him (retrospectively, in the narrative) of being a sneak and an informer. When the mutiny occurs he claims that Hallet begged and pleaded not to be put on the launch with Bligh, but in Men Against the Sea, the narrator Ledward says that Hallet did his duty like a man. Most interesting is Byam’s description of Ned Young, who is one of the pivotal characters in Pitcairn’s Island. According to Byam, Young, another midshipman and assistant to the botanist, is seen as “a stout salty-looking fellow, with a handsome face marred by the loss of nearly all his front teeth”. Later, in Tahiti, Young gets tattoos of coconut palms, one each on the back of his calves, and a tattooed breadfruit tree all across his back. This contrasts with the thoughtful, troubled man we see on Pitcairn’s Island, not stout but physically weak, who is Fletcher Christian’s close friend.

Nordhoff and Hall began their writing by putting together biographies of all the characters. That amounts to about fifty (I haven’t done a precise count) people. Some of these folks occupy only a line or two out of the three novels but each of these peripheral characters is given weight that goes beyond a certain oddity of appearance or personal idiosyncrasy that is usually the mechanism authors utilize to make a bit player memorable.

The Bounty arrives in Tahiti.

The Bounty finally arrives in Tahiti. There have been a few problems along the way but nothing too terrible — a flogging or two, what’s that? Byam goes to his work, which is to make a thorough dictionary of the Polynesian language. The Bounty is in Tahiti more than five months and here is where her troubles truly begin. The men of the Bounty are all volunteers (the 1935 Clark Gable film wrongly has them being impressed) and some were already familiar with the South Seas and wanted to return. Tahiti is still a new, glorious, place; no one has to work very hard, at least by 18th Century British standards, and there are many beautiful women willing to spend some time with a sailor. This is indeed Rousseau’s natural paradise. Several times characters remark that the common English seaman would find Tahiti much more preferable than England as a place to live. Still, when the breadfruit are finally loaded, the Bounty sails with all hands.

Bligh has become troublesome to his immediate inferiors. He berates them and insults them in front of common seamen. And he is accused of avarice. Bligh is acting purser (something the real life Bligh had tried to avoid) and responsible for the Bounty‘s economy. Samuel is his clerk. So Bligh and Samuel take from the men items they had purchased or been given on shore — food such as pigs, for instance. The crucial dispute is over coconuts — Bligh says some were stolen and publicly accuses Christian of taking them. Christian is wounded by the accusation. Ironically, it is young Tinkler who confesses to Byam that he had stolen a coconut — this shortly before Tinkler joins Bligh in the launch after the mutiny.

Fletcher Christian and Maimiti. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth for The Bounty Trilogy

Roger Byam sees Christian as a romantic revolutionary, but an aristocrat, therefore admirable:

Fletcher Christian was at that time in his twenty-fourth year, — a fine figure of a seaman in his plain blue, gold-buttoned frock — handsomely and strongly built, with thick dark brown hair and a complexion naturally dark… His mouth and chin expressed great resolution of character , and his eyes, black, deep-set, and brilliant, had something of hypnotic power in their far-away gaze…. Christian was what women call a romantic-looking man ; his moods of gaiety alternated with fits of black depression, and he possessed a fiery temper which he controlled by efforts that brought a sweat to his brow. Though only a master’s mate, a step above a midshipman, he was of gentle birth — better born than Bligh and a gentleman in manner and speech.

You can try to lay it off on the women, Byam, but I think you are terribly attracted to this guy. But there is more to be said about Christian later. For now it is enough to say that Christian had fallen in love with Maimiti, a Tahitian woman whose light skin, Byam informs us, means that she is, like Christian, of a higher class. Others also made liasons on Tahiti. When the Bounty sailed, a cutter was almost cut free, only a small bit of line holding her. Nordhoff and Hall say that this was part of of a plot to allow some seamen to jump ship; Captain Bligh also came to think so, though at first he believed otherwise. Barrow (see below) says that the line scraped on the rocks. This is an example of the kind of evidence Nordhoff and Hall try to juice for the facts that underlie their fiction.

One character well-depicted by Nordhoff and Hall is the alcoholic ship’s doctor, Thomas Huggan, aka Old Bacchus. The old scoundrel has gallons and and gallons of booze aboard and usually has a snootfull — not that it makes him a worse doctor, understand. In fact, Bacchus is one of the best-loved of the Bounty‘s crew. He often has Byam, other midshipmen, and various seamen up to his cabin where he passes his bottle around. So, when he accidentally dies on Tahiti, it is a blow to Byam. Another man remarks that it is people like Bacchus who form the invisible glue that holds together a ship’s crew and that, without him, the crew will feel a great loss. The authors have had a great deal to say about the doctor over quite a few pages and then, suddenly, he is gone. The reader is made to feel the same loss that the Bounty‘s crew does. That is a pretty piece of writing.

Christian decides to jump ship. He lashes together some planks but is stopped from paddling back to Tahiti by chance events — seamen on deck rather than below, for instance. His desertion disintegrates and becomes, in the course of a couple of hours, a mutinous conspiracy that includes a number of other men. Bligh always believed that men had plotted against him for a long time before mutinying, but Nordhoff and Hall follow all the testimony that says that the mutiny was spontaneous — that dissatisfaction with Captain Bligh combined with a desire for a better life in tropical paradise caused men to grab a musket and revolt.

In the confusion, as Bligh is tied up and trading curses with the mutineers, Byam runs below to grab some clothing since he means to get into the launch with Bligh, but by the time he gets back on deck, there is no room for him in the overloaded open boat. There are others that Christian will not allow to leave: the armorer, who is a smith, and the carpenter’s assistants, though the carpenter, Purcell, is thought troublesome and allowed to leave the Bounty. Bligh yells out to the men gathered at the rail that he won’t forget them when he gets back to England and Byam thinks Bligh’s grace will extend to him. On the other hand, no one thinks it likely that Bligh and the crew of the launch will live for very long.

Ned Young, who was not one of the original mutineers, throws in his lot with them. Chance has decided, he says, and he has no wish to see England again.

“We may as well make the best of it… It’s far from a bad best, if you look at the matter sensibly. I’ve always wanted a life of ease. Ever since reading Captain Wallis’s and Captain Cook’s accounts of their discoveries in the Pacific, I’ve dreamed of nothing but tropical islands. When the chance came to ship with the Bounty I was the happiest man in England. I’m willing to confess now that, had it been possible, I would have deserted the ship at Tahiti.”

Christian is chosen captain of the mutinous crew and he names Young as his second-in-command. Christian gives a little speech:

“It should be needless to tell British seamen that no ship, whether manned by mutineers or not, can be handled without discipline. …I mean to be obeyed. There shall be no injustice here. I shall punish no man without good cause, but I will have no man question my authority.”

The mutineers know that, in a year or perhaps two, when no word of the Bounty is received in England, a warship will be sent out to look for her. If any of the mutineers (who are also pirates now) are caught, they will be hanged. So Christian means to find a place where they can live in the vast uncharted South Pacific. There will be no return to England for them, ever.

Christian takes on a solitary life: “All the gaiety had gone out of him; there was never the hint of a smile on his face — only an expression of sombre melancholy.” At first Byam feels bitter about Christian but soon comes to pity him. Nine of the mutineers sail off to find an uncharted island where they can start over. Byam and some others, non-mutineers and some who don’t wish to stay with Christian’s crew, are dropped off at Tahiti.

Roger Byam and Tehani. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth for The Bounty Trilogy

Months pass. Byam falls in love with Tehani, a chief’s daughter, who is delivered of a baby girl in 1790. Several of the non-mutineers begin building a schooner that they mean to sail to Batavia, a Dutch colony, where they hope to get passage on a ship back to Europe. There is some trouble when a mutineer murders a native — an Indian or a Maori, as the English called these Polynesians– and he and a companion are killed in return. Then a British warship, the Pandora, arrives. Byam paddles out to her and is immediately clapped in irons. Soon, he shares a prison space with others of the Bounty‘s crew. The Pandora leaves Tahiti.

From this point on, Mutiny on the Bounty is concerned with the injustices suffered by Byam and his fellow prisoners. They are mistreated in captivity and some die, no one will listen to Byam when he proclaims his innocence, a young man named Ellison, who Byam thinks a foolish and harmless boy, may hang, but all these are secondary to Byam’s main grievance: the letter his mother received from Captain Bligh. When Bligh finally reached England after the voyage described in the next volume in the trilogy, Byam’s mother wrote to him enquiring about her son. Bligh replied that Byam was a contemptible villain and second only to Christian in culpability for the mutiny. Mrs. Byam dies before Roger gets home and he blames Bligh for her death.

Bligh overheard Christian and Byam talking together the evening before the mutiny and believes that they were plotting. Only one person can save Byam: Tinkler, the coconut thief, who survived the voyage of the Bounty‘s launch, but when word arrives that Tinkler’s ship has been wrecked in the West Indies, all hope seems lost. Byam, along with young Ellison and two others, is condemned to hang. Serious testimony against him is given by a fellow midshipman on the Bounty, a man Byam disliked. Several men who tried to get into the launch are freed and one man is convicted and pardoned. During this period, as the court attempts to parse the guilt or innocence of each man, so we are invited to assess the evidence for and against. Nordhoff and Hall have loaded the testimony to favor Byam, but his real life counterpart, Peter Heywood, played a more amibiguous role in the proceedings and shifted his story once or twice. The authors are determined to present us with an innocent man facing the gallows.

Well, you know Byam will escape hanging or else he wouldn’t be narrating this book. Poor Ellison will hang. And there is the nub of the problem: how can good men and women accept life under injustice? Byam is, as he tells us at the book’s beginning, conservative, but Nordhoff and Hall are Americans, descendants of revolution, and you can sense a certain dissonance in their account of Byam’s pliant accomodation to a system that elevates cruelty and calls it discipline.

Three mutineers hanged. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth for The Bounty Trilogy

After his release, Byam wants to return to his Tahitian family but others talk him out of it, saying that he needs to uphold his family’s name and so on. So Byam returns to the Royal Navy just in time for the Napoleonic Wars. After twenty years of service he finally makes it back to the South Seas only to discover that the place has been terribly damaged by intercourse with Europe. The population has diminished, disease has struck the natives, the tribes have warred, and the old social structures are in disarray. Tahiti is “a graveyard of memories” to Byam. Nordhoff and Hall lived in Tahiti and had native wives. There is a melancholy about the last pages of Mutiny on the Bounty that arises from their own feelings (I think). At any rate, Byam discovers that Tehani died only a few months after the Pandora carried him away. He sees his daughter, a grown woman now with a child of her own, but Byam does not make himself known to her. To him the island has become “full of ghosts, — shadows of men alive and dead, — my own among them.”

Bligh being cast adrift in the lauch by the mutineers. A man is throwing down cutlasses to the boat, which will be their only armament. Engraving by Robert Dodd, 1790. [via Wikipedia]

Mutiny on the Bounty is twice as long as either of the two books that follow. Men Against the Sea can be quickly summarized: this is the story of Bligh’s triumph. He successfully navigates 3600 miles of ocean to bring those who followed him — all except one man killed by hostile natives — to safety at the Dutch settlement in Timor. In this book, Bligh is a hero, a man who accomplishes a great and perilous task. And he does this through his iron will and application of discipline:

We reached the Dutch East Indies, not by a miracle, but owing to the leadership of an officer of indomitable will, skilled in seamanship, stern to preserve discipline, cool and cheerful in the face of danger. His name will be revered by those who accompanied him for as long as they live.

The narrator of Men Against the Sea is Thomas Ledward, who succeeded Old Bacchus as acting surgeon on the Bounty. Ledward is a very different kind of man than Byam. First, Ledward did exist and did sail with Bligh on the Bounty and on the launch. But there is no great story around Ledward as there was about Byam’s model, Peter Heyward, who may or may not have been part of the mutiny. And, Ledward is a grown man, one who has a certain quality of assessing people without judging them — possibly he is Nordhoff and Hall’s version of a good general practitioner, the doctor who sees the flaws and wounds in a patient, but who does not diminish that person with his knowledge.

Ledward’s assessment of Samuel, Bligh’s clerk who Byam accused of Jewishness, is that “He was a man wholly lacking in imagination, and his belief in Captain Bligh was like that of a dog in its master.” Now, willing lieutenants to tyrants are a subject of interest to anyone who has examined the last century’s political history, but there is more to Samuel than simple devotion. After the famished exhausted crew find a place that they name Restoration Island where they can rest and feed on shellfish, some of the crew complain. Then:

“You know your Bible, Mr. Ledward,” remarked Samuel…”Do you recall the passage concerning Jeshurun who waxed fat and kicked?” [Deut. 32:15]
“Aye, and it falls pat on Restoration Island!”
Samuel smiled. “Where would they be, where would they all be, without Captain Bligh? Yet they must murmur the moment their bellies are full! I’ve no patience with such men.”
“Nor I.” Glancing at the clerk’s formerly plump body, now reduced to little more than skin and bones, and clad in rags, I could not suppress a smile. “Though we kick,” I said, “none of us could be accused of waxing fat!”

Before reaching this bit of land, the crew had been reduced to eating raw seagulls, when they can catch them, first cutting their throats so that the blood could be given to the weakest. The birds are cut up into eighteen pieces, one for each man. When Bligh is offered a portion of breast, he refuses and says that he will take the same chances as any other man. So the crew plays the seaman’s game of Who-Shall-Have-This. One man holds a portion behind his back and the others call out a name at random. The order of names is to be changed at every capture of a bird. So a name is called, that man gets a piece of raw seagull. Another name… And so on. Bligh winds up with a bird’s foot, but he gnaws it to the bone.

Ledward speaks of the men’s charity toward one another, their attention to each other’s weaknesses, and there is a cooperative spirit amongst the crew that Fletcher Christian wanted among the mutineers who land on Pitcairn’s Island. There is one exception, Lamb, who has stolen food on the launch and who ruins a bird-catching expedition by catching and devouring as many as he can, thereby alarming the huge flock that fly away. “I must do him the credit to say that he had done a good job of them; scarcely anything remained but feathers, bones, and entrails.” Cole had earlier given Lamb his own portion because he thought the man needed it more than himself, now he shakes his head looking down at the blood-smeared wretch. Cole, Ledward, Samuel, and Tinkler agree not to tell Bligh about Lamb’s gorging, because it would do no good. They do, however, tell the captain that Lamb frightened the birds away — this to protect themselves.

Along the voyage only one man challenges Bligh and that is Purcell, the carpenter, who had been rejected by the mutineers because of his troublesome nature. Several times Purcell challenges Bligh who finally takes up a cutlass and throws another to the carpenter and invites him to duel it out. This bit of political action is very ancient and there are records of Viking raiders in 9th Century France who battle it out for leadership. In this instance Purcell backs down and Bligh has no more trouble with him.

One more person needs mention: Tinkler, who stole the coconut that precipitated the mutiny, who is necessary to Byam’s defense, the young midshipman who is respected by Purcell as a gentleman, though the carpenter disrespects Captain Bligh. On one of the islands where the crew lands and tries to find sustenance, a forage team loses Tinkler. Bligh is furious with the team leader and berates him. The team sets out to find Tinkler when he suddenly reappears, leading some natives carrying food and water:

This good fortune came at a time when it was needed, and I was glad that Bligh, who had been cursing the lad during his absence, forgot his anger and commended him warmly. Tinkler was pleased as only a boy can be who has succeeded in a matter in which his elders have failed.

That is a warm and human assessment of a young man. But the troublesome note, about Bligh forgetting his anger, suggests something about the man’s difficult personality. And Tinkler, it must be said, is one lucky fellow throughout all three books.

Difficult or not, Bligh completes his mission. He sails his open boat to Timor, 3600 miles from where he was dropped into the sea. He returns to England and is hailed as a hero. The Pandora sets out to find the mutineers. Ledward has a few words to say about the fate of his fellow voyagers — some are worn out and do not live long after reaching Timor. The launch is sold at a Dutch auction. It disturbs Bligh that the boat the crew has come to love is knocked down for peanuts. Ledward is still unable to travel; he shakes Bligh’s hand — “…the finest seaman under whom I have ever had the privilege to sail. From the bottom of my heart I wish him God Speed.”

Now we have seen the injustice of English society, the unspoiled paradise of Tahiti, the necessity of discipline and the cruelty of its use — now it is time to see what Fletcher Christian can offer as a substitute. Pitcairn’s Island is very different in structure from the other two books. It is related in the third person, except for a long bit at the end, but Nordhoff and Hall faced a problem here. When, in 1808, the American sealer Topaz discovered that there were people on Pitcairn’s Island, there was only one of the mutineers still alive. This man called himself Alexander Smith on the Bounty, but his real name was John Adams. He had been raised in a foundling home before he went to sea. He had been virtually illiterate until fellow mutineer Ned Young taught him to read and write. Young had kept a journal and Adams added to it — some parts have been reconstructed from quotes given by those who read the book, but the original has long since disappeared. Still, Adams told the story of the mutiny and the Pitcairn settlement to anyone who asked. The trouble is, he never told the same story twice. Some of the other Pitcairners, like Jenny, possibly wife to Isaac Martin (Jenny is Brown’s wife in the novel), also told their stories, but there are many discrepancies and lapses of memory among them. Nordhoff and Hall, experienced novelists, have put together a story that is internally coherent but may not be completely factual. But, for the moment, let’s stick with their version, Pitcairn’s Island.

The nine mutineers still commanding the Bounty picked up six Polynesian men and twelve women at Tahiti and other places. They stocked the ship with animals, plant and seeds, anything they could find that might aid them in creating a new community. Some of the men and women have formed bonds before taking ship, but several women have essentially been abducted from their home island. These twenty-seven will form a new society.

Bounty Bay. Only boats can cross the reef and pull into shore.[via Wikipedia]

Christian knows that there is a place called Pitcairn’s Island at a certain location but when he cannot find it, calculates that the discoverer was off in longitude. He then criss-crosses the latitude he has until he finds the island, some hundred and fifty or so miles off its supposed location. Pitcairn has fertile land, is uninhabited, and no safe landing for ships to use. It is perfect. The mutineers send a boat in past the reef to reconnoiter, then strip everything from the Bounty that they can use. Then the Bounty‘s husk is set afire so that no one may ever find it.

There are three groups on Pitcairn’s Island: the Bounty mutineers, the Polynesian men– some of them chiefs and some quasi-slaves, and there are the women. Although a few female characters have been introduced previously, Nordhoff and Hall take care in delineating the different personalities of the women taken to Pitcairn. Maimiti, wife to Christian, is generally deferred to, since her husband is obviously the most important chief. Taurua is married to Young and Balhadi to Alexander Smith (Adams). Moetua, Nanai, and Hutia are married to the three Polynesian chiefs. The chief’s servants are without wives, something that both men and women sense may cause a problem.

The women gather to bathe in the afternoon, There they talk amongst themselves. The whites have strange ways. Among the Polynesians it is the custom for men and women to eat separately and their meals are prepared by someone of the same sex. But the whites insist that their native wives, who they have given odd English names, cook for them and share their meals. Some — like Maimiti and Balhadi — say they are content with their white husbands but others are unhappy. They were abducted and now some are abused.

“What of the men who have no wives?” asked Moetua [wife to the chief Minarii]…
“How miserable they are!” said Hutia [wife to Tararu, Minarii’s nephew], laughing. “Who is to comfort them?”
“Not I,” remarked Balhadi, “I am content with my man, and will do nothing to cause him pain or anger.”
“Why should he be angry for so small a thing?” asked Nanai [wife to Tetahiti, close friend of Brown and Christian].
“You know nothing of white men,” said Prudence [abducted by Mills]. “They consider it a shameful thing for the wife of one man to give herself to another. Nevertheless, I will be one of those to be kind to the wifeless men.”
“And I!” exclaimed Susannah. “I fear Martin as much as I hate him, but I shall find courage to deceive him. To make a fool of him will comfort me.”

The Rope. [copyright Mike Warren via]

But the first one to be unfaithful is Hutia who has an affair with John Williams. Williams’ own wife, Fasto, “a short, dark, sturdy woman”, is determined to be a good wife. When she learns of the affair, she kills herself by throwing herself off a cliff called The Rope. Williams falls into depression. He stays away from Hutia for a time but finally goes to the other white men and tells them that he wants to take Hutia into his house. Everyone knows that this will mean conflict and bloodshed and they refuse to go along with Williams. After a time, Williams takes the Bounty‘s cutter and tries to leave the island. Christian and some others catch up with him:

“Leave be, Mr. Christian… I’ll not go on as I have…
Christian seated himself beside him. “Think, Williams,” he said kindly. “This boat is common property. And how would we fare without a blacksmith? Tahiti lies three hundred leagues from here. You would be going to certain death. … Come, take yourself in hand!”
Williams sat gazing at his bare feet for a long time before he spoke, “Aye, sir, I’ll go back… I’ve done my best. If trouble comes o’ this, let no man hold me to account.”

Williams and Hutia resume their clandestine affair.

Meanwhile, babies begin arriving and the young women settle in. There are other difficulties between the white and native factions that do not involve lust. Some of the whites consider the Polynesians their slaves. They cannot force their will on the chiefs, but begin mistreating the other three native men. Christian, Young, and Smith try to put a stop to this but problems are brewing.

Hutia moves in with Williams and Tauru is unable to get her back. His uncle, Minarii, a man of great strength, beats Williams and fetches Hutia back. Christian holds a council. Hutia must choose who she will live with. Hutia chooses Williams and the matter is closed. But the humiliated Tauru means to kill Williams. When Hutia learns of this, she goes to where Tauru is working and poisons his lunch. Tauru and his servant both die.

The colony is teetering on the edge of destruction and Christian knows it. There are several wistful statements from him and the others about how they should cherish this paradise where they live but finally some of the mutineers come to him with a demand that the land on the island be parcelled out into private plots, but only for the whites, the natives must labor as slaves. Christian tries to dissuade them but they call for a vote and win, five to four. Earlier, Young had tried to convince Christian that allowing every man a vote was a bad idea, that Christian should remain captain and rule. Christian refused, saying that he had brought the men here against their will and now they deserved a voice in how things are run. There was never any question, apparently, of giving the Polynesians a vote. Later, Christian decides that he must intervene and stop the injustice of the whites, but by then it is too late.

Death of Mills from the Classics Illustrated version of Pitcairn’s Island, artist: Rudolph Palais.

Word of the vote reaches the natives and they decide to attack the white men and kill them all. They argue as to whether the “good” men, Christian, Young, and Brown should die, but the logic is: kill one, then all must follow. The natives quietly remove the weapons from the places where they are stored, then begin their mission. Williams, Martin, Mills, and Brown are killed. Christian and Smith  are seriously wounded. Ned Young is hidden by the women including those married to the chiefs. The women determine to protect him and the two wounded men and agree amongst themselves that they will try to block any attempt at vengeance when the killing subsides.

The Polynesian men split up to search for Quintal, Young, and McCoy. Tetahiti finds Moetua, Minarii’s wife. She tells him that she has not seen Quintal or McCoy and, if she knew where Young was, would not tell him. Tetahiti shrugs, he feels the same way about Young, yet he thinks Minarii is right, all the whites must die. Moetua turns away, “Blood! Blood!… Men are wild beasts. To-day I hate them all!”

Meanwhile, Minarii finds Quintal near the cliff that the islanders call The Rope. Minarii hates Quintal so much that he wants to kill him his bare hands. He throws aside his musket and slaps his left bicep with his hand, loud as a pistol shot, the Polynesian challenge to fight. The two men rush together. Minarii is incredibly strong but Quintal is the most powerful of the mutineers. The two grapple with one another and Quintal manages to break Minarii’s arm. Then he throws him down the Rope.

Three of the mutineers’ widows gather and decide to kill the three last native men. Jenny, Brown’s wife, has discovered where they are sleeping:

“We have an axe and two cutlasses. Are your hearts strong? Will your arms not falter?”
“Not mine,” said Hutia grimly.
“I claim Nihau,” remarked Prudence in her soft voice.
“Aye,” said Jenny, “and Tetahiti is mine!”

The women then go off quietly and kill the three sleeping men. Later, they get Quintal to claim that he committed the killings so that they will escape the vengeance of the bereft women.

Maimiti, Christian’s wife, had given birth to their third child while all this was going on. No one tells her of the deaths. Finally, though, she is brought to the dying Christian. Smith picks up the narration now and the remainder of the book is in his voice:

God meant this little island to be a little Garden of Eden, and we’d made a hell of it. Mr. Christian had done all a man could. Now he lay dying for his pains. Knowing him as I did, I reckoned he’d be glad to go. We’d had our chance and we’d failed. Why? …it was no fault of the Indians. All the men asked was to be treated like men; they’d have been our best friends had we met ’em halfway. As for the girls, ye’d travel far to find a better lot. Real helpmates, they was, ready to take their share in all that was going. And none o’ your sour scolding kind. We was to blame and no one else.

Smith attends the dying Christian who now has heard what has taken place:

When he spoke again it took me by surprise and I’m not certain of the words to this day. He said, “There’s a chance, now,” or “There’s still a chance” — one or the other.
He seemed to expect no reply, so I made none, but lay there trying to make out just what he meant. If he’d said, “There’s a chance, now,” the words was the bitterest ever spoke, for he must have meant that with him dead and out of the way there might be hope for us. I can scarce believe he spoke so, but it may have been.

Christian’s last words: “Never let the children know!” This was September, 1793, six years after the mutiny and four years after the landing on Pitcairn.

Now there is peace, but a new problem arises. McCoy, who has worked in a Scottish distillery, has figured out how to distill alcohol from a native plant. The four remaining men descend into a perpetual state of drunkeness. Some of the women, especially those who have much they want to forget, like Hutia and Prudence, also learn to drink but most stay away. McCoy’s hut becomes the scene of a perpetual drunken orgy. Finally, the women can no longer stand it and abandon the men. They actually try to leave the island, taking the children with them, but their boat capsizes and the four men rescue them. For a while they are shaken enough to resolve to give up drinking, but that doesn’t last. Although the men’s wives still bring them food, they leave them otherwise alone. The women have taken all the arms and they build a stockade. Maimiti (called Mrs. Christian by Smith) is their leader.

Young has come to a stage of deep self-hatred and when Smith tells him of the stockade, Young says that he means to leave the women alone and McCoy agrees. But Quintal intends to take Moetua, the widow of the strong chief Quintal killed. She is almost as strong as her husband was, and she despises Quintal who considers the widows of the dead Polynesians his own property. He advances on the stockade. Instead of retreating into the fort, the women spread out in a line. Moetua gets on her knees and Prudence rests a musket on her shoulder. Maimiti sets up behind a rock. Quintal advances “like the thick-skulled simpleton he was” and the women open fire. Quintal is wounded and runs away.

It takes a few months for Quintal to heal. Young, from the moment Smith told him of the women’s fort, ceases drinking completely and the other three men seldom see him. Quintal is determined to take one of the women back. He and McCoy decide to steal one from the fort. Smith refuses to help them. Quintal and McCoy seize Nanai, Tetahiti’s widow, and Jenny, Brown’s widow. They take them back to McCoy’s hut and, when they cannot force the women to drink, batter them into submission. Later, when the men have passed out, the women escape.

Smith comes around the next day. Young arrives. He is having a bout of what Smith/Adams says is asthma but what sounds more like tuberculosis. Young brings a message from the women: the men must clear out. They can take the cutter and supplies, but they have three days to leave. Young says that he will go with them. Young is clearly in no shape for any kind of exertion but he is the only man left who can use a sextant. Without him, the others don’t have a chance. “…he was thinkin’ of the women and children more than us. He wanted them to have a chance to live quiet decent lives.”

Quintal and McCoy refuse. Young goes away. Smith: “…low-spirited I was, thinkin’ of the lonesome unnatural life we had, when there was no need for it. …I missed the children and craved to see ’em. What fools we was to think more of our grog than we did of them!” After three days, the women attack. They set fire to the hut and shoot at the men as they try to escape. Smith gets away and runs to Young’s house only to find it deserted. The women have come and carried Young off so that they can care for him. McCoy also escapes and manages to get to Young’s house, though he is terribly wounded. There is no sign of Quintal.

McCoy heals and, one day his wife, Mary, meets him in the woods. Quintal was wounded, she says, and Smith and McCoy have been watched since the women suspected that they were nursing Quintal. Neither Mary, nor Balhadi, Smith’s wife, nor even the battered Sarah Quintal had participated in the assault on McCoy’s hut. “Bad as we’d used ’em.” says McCoy, “they had no wish to see us dead.” The women will leave the men alone, so long as they stay away.

Smith and McCoy talk of giving up alcohol, but they cannot manage it. Over the next months, McCoy comes to guilt himself for all that has happened. He drinks and blames himself for instigating the quarrel with the native men. One night, he throws himself off a cliff. After that, Smith smashes the kegs and bottles of homemade booze and throws the still into the sea. Then he struggles with exorcising alcohol. He moves into Young’s house and works hard during the day to repair all the houses abandoned when the women built their stockade. At night he is lonely and fights for sleep. One day Balhadi comes to see him. At first he tries to rescue his pride, “Where’s your musket, Balhadi?” but she embraces him, weeping on his shoulder. He tells her that he has destroyed the still and she tells him that Young is alive but very sickly among the women. Soon, the colony reunites, occupying the houses that Smith has repaired. Quintal, now quite mad and sunken into a beast-like state, takes one of the women. Smith tracks him down and kills him. Young teaches Smith to read and write, the Bible being the only text available. Young dies and Smith turns the islanders to Christianity.

The colony is discovered by the Topaz in 1808. The captain decides not to arrest the mutinous pirate Smith and sails away, leaving the old man to determine how, in spite of Christian’s directive, to tell the children of their history.

Two descendants of Fletcher Christian pose beside the Bounty anchor, raised in 1957.

There is no easy path through this lengthy metaphoric narrative about human governance. Discipline — rules — may be necessary, but it is noble to oppose tyranny. The natural state of man may be Utopia or it may be a Hobbesian nightmare. When democracy results in bad decisions by the majority, should a higher authority intercede? If so, where does this stop? And so on. One area of interest is the women’s part in this story. I think there is a fair amount of material here for a feminist analysis, but I lack the parts for that. One item of interest is that, in 1838, when Pitcairn created its first constitution, all native Pitcairners are able to vote. Thus, Pitcairn’s Island becomes the third nation in history, after Sweden and Corsica, and the first with a British-based constitution, to allow women’s suffrage.

Over the last fifty years or so, there have been a number of books and articles that attempt to shift the blame for the mutiny from Bligh to Christian. John Barrow’s 1831 account,The Eventful History of the Mutiny and Piratical Seizure of H.M.S. Bounty: Its Cause and Consequences was a main source for Nordhoff and Hall and, to me, rings true in its assessment of the situation: Bligh was an asshole who did not understand the nature of command, at least on a peaceful situation such as the voyage to Tahiti, but Christian was an oversensitive jerk who needed to wait it out and charge Bligh once he got back to England. In other words, blame shared but the lion’s part goes to Christian whose personal grievances drew a good many others to catastrophe.

There is a cave on Pitcairn that Fletcher Christian discovered but kept secret. There he hid weapons and ammunition. Nordhoff and Hall say that was because he was determined never to be taken and was prepared for a fight to the death should a ship appear. One of the contradictory statements of John Adams/Smith says that Christian had become dictatorial and disliked —  “by many acts of cruelty and inhumanity, brought on himself the hatred and detestation of his companions, he was shot by a black man whilst digging in his field” (from the report by Captains Staines and Pipon) . He implies that Christian fortified the cave to stand off the other colonists.

And here it must be said that the voyage on the Bounty’s launch wasn’t all that cooperative. Most historians now see a division between the pro- and anti-Bligh factions. This might explain some of Bligh’s comments later. And it may or may not raise him in your estimation as a commander. After all, it is one thing to sail a ship with regulations in force and another to steer an open boat full of starving, disgruntled men, half of whom hate you, 3600 miles through uncharted ocean. So, it is not easy to shape the messy affairs of humanity into a coherent narrative or political tract.

After Pitcairn’s discovery, the place became a stopover for whaling ships who provisioned there, then a regular stop for ships on the passage to New Zealand. The islanders supplied food to the whalers and knick-knacks to the tourists. John Adams reigned as patriarch until his death in 1829. His grave is still maintained, though the original stone has been removed. There was a major effort, at one point, to remove the Pitcairners to Norfolk Island, though some returned. A crazed but charismatic outsider brought the island under his control for a while before the people discovered that he was a fraud. Seventh Day Adventists converted the Pitcairners and most still follow that faith. There was a flurry of interest in Pitcairn genetics in the 1960s when it was claimed that one of the mutineers’ recessive gene for blindness was rampant. That seems of  little importance now, with Pitcairners not seen in terrible genetic danger, although Pitcairn is an archetypal exemplar of “founder effect”, that occurs in populations with little genetic diversity. In the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, reports of incest and abuse were investigated by outside authorities and several men — patriarchs — were convicted. The current population, once more than two hundred and thirty is now less than fifty. The island remains what the UN calls a Non Self-Governing Territory (under British authority but administered through New Zealand).

Hall and Nordhoff [via]

Nordhoff and Hall both served in World War I in the Lafayette Escadrille, a French Foreign Legion unit of mostly American flyers. They did not meet during the war — Hall was shot down over German lines and spent the last part of the war in a German prison camp. Both were writers, both had published in The Atlantic Monthly. In 1919, they were approached to do a history of the Lafayette Escadrille, which they found themselves well able to do. They collaborated on a number of books after that, notably 1929’s Falcons of France about World War I aviation. Harper’s sent them to the South Pacific in 1920 to do a series of articles. Hall spent the rest of his life in Tahiti, Nordhoff lived there for twenty years, then divorced his wife and moved to California. He was suffering from depression and alcoholism which had begun to show up during the writing of the Bounty trilogy. He died, possibly a suicide, in 1947. Hall died in Tahiti in 1951 where he is well remembered. None of the pair’s other books ever approached the success of Mutiny on the Bounty but that book, and the two that followed, are very much worth reading.


 The Bounty Trilogy is the primary work. Used editions with N.C. Wyeth illustrations are readilly available.
Caroline Alexander’s The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty is currently the best book on the mutiny.
For more on James Norman Hall.
For the story of Europe meeting the South Seas, Alan Moorehead’s The Fatal Impact is good and available in many different editions.

There is a lot of historic data on the mutiny on the internet:

Captain Bligh’s account via Project Gutenberg.
John Barrow’s 1831 history, mentioned above. 
The Pitcairn Islands Study Center has a great deal of info including a rundown of each of the mutineers that includes Captain Bligh’s descriptions of the wanted men.
Fateful Voyage makes available a number of documents pertaining to the case.
More on Pitcairn and the history of its inhabitants.
And this from

6 comments on “Good Books: The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall

  1. Herbert Ford says:

    You may be interested to know that the Pitcairn Islands Philatelic Bureau will be issuing three stamps honoring the work of Nordhoff and Hall. First Day Covers with the stamps on them may be ordered at “” The three stamps will show the covers of the trilogy- “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Men Against the Sea,” and “Pitcairn’s Island.” The date of issue will be on or about February 27, 2013. – Herbert Ford, Pitcairn Islands Study Center, – “”

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  4. Hsia Lin says:

    Great narrative!
    I have been researching on this subject (mutiny on the Bounty) for a leadership training course. This helps greatly.
    Hsia Lin

  5. Jerry Freilich says:

    Enjoyed your summary here very much. Wonder if you know anything about Nordhoff and Hall’s use of language in the trilogy. I have read all three books numerous times and feel that this story and its telling is perhaps the most enthralling read I’ve ever experienced. I’m particularly moved by the turns of phrase, technical terms, and use of language in the book. I have no way of knowing whether the language is actually appropriate to the time of the events… but to these 21st century ears, it seems that way. Any comment you can provide on this would be interesting. Thanks!

    • mikulpepper says:

      Jerry, I think it is pretty close to total accuracy. The authors spent quite a while studying the transcripts of the various hearings into this case, and they had some knowledge of sailing.

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