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Sunday, October 28, 2012


It is four in the morning on April 28, 1789, and Fletcher Christian, smarting and bitter, takes over the deck. Now, as he paces back and forth through the calm, serene hours, he plans an escape from the degrading tongue-lashings.
He plans to float away on a raft. But Midshipman George Stewart has a better idea. He comes close to Christian's ear, and whispers, "Take the ship!"
"Shall I?" says Christian to one of the seamen, Matthew Quintal.
"Too dangerous," says the seaman.
"What? Are you afraid? If we succeed, we return to that happy island." Christian turns to another sailor, Isaac Martin. "Shall we take the ship?"
"By God, I'm for it!" Martin swears ...
This is my retelling of the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty, when a desperate crew, led by senior officer Fletcher Christian, seized the ship. It is Monday, 15th October 2012, and I am on the top deck of the P&O cruise ship Pacific Jewel, which is lying in the exact spot of the Pacific where the mutiny took place.  Inspired by an hour-long lecture about the characters and events of the Bounty voyage that was given in the packed lecture theatre that same morning, nearly 2000 passengers, mostly Australian, are crowded at the rail, watching and listening as my tale unfolds.
  ... Captain Bligh is asleep, his door open and unlocked. At five in the morning his room is invaded. Startled awake, he recognizes Christian, the master at arms, Charles Churchill, the guner's mate, John Mills, and Thomas Burket, seaman. Roughly seizing him, they tie his hands behind his back. "Say a word, and death will be instant," they threaten. Nevertheless, Bligh cries, "Murder! Murder!" Too late. All the loyal officers have been restrained already.
Up on deck he is shoved, half-naked, wearing only his nightshirt. There, in the light of the rising sun, he sees chaos on his ship. Christian orders a boat to be lowered, but confusion reigns. It takes two and a half hours to get the launch into the water. Bligh is hoarse with shouting, while Christian holds the rope that binds him, and points a beyonet at his chest.
Twenty-two men remain loyal to the captain. Bligh sees that Christian is taken aback by the number, and asks him to think again. "Is this treatment a proper return for my friendship? Consider, Mr. Christian, I have a wife and four children in England, and you have danced my children on my knee."
"That, Captain Bligh, is the thing," Christian replies. "I am in hell, I am in hell."
The launch, just 23 feet long and 7 feet wide, is by now a fearful sight, packed with 18 loyal men and a few provisions, and with only seven inches of freeboard. Their chances of survival are very slim, but it is too late for Fletcher Christian to relent. Captain Bligh is shoved down to join the rest in the launch, while the four loyal men who are forced to remain on the ship cry out to him.
"Never fear, my lads, I'll do you justice if I ever get to England," he shouts as the boat is pushed away. And so the epic voyage of the Bounty launch begins.
Silence. One can almost hear the sighs from all about the ship. Then the spell breaks, as Captain Graham Goodway takes over the microphone to announce that the story will be continued two hours later, as the Pacific Jewel lies off Bligh's first landfall, Tofua.
So far, the day has been a stunning success, testified by wide smiles from Cruise Director, Gemma, her deputy, Alun, and Production Manager, Ros.  Everyone relaxes, while the ship glides on in the wake of the Bounty launch. And then we are lying off the island of Tofua, and it is time for my story to continue.

Night falls. The Bounty launch is bobbing in the surf of the island of Tofua, at the end of the first day of her voyage. The Bounty has long since vanished into the mists of the horizon. The 19 men crammed into the 23-foot launch try to snatch what sleep they can. At daybreak, they sail slowly along the coast, landing where they can, scavenging for coconuts and fresh water, trying to trade buttons from their jackets for breadfruit from the natives.

It becomes a routine over the next few days. But the natives are gathering in greater and greater numbers, friendly at first, but increasingly more menacing. Then the day comes when warriors are pressing in from all sides. Each warlike native holds two stones, and taps them together as he slowly advances. No words are spoken. There is just the ominous clack, clack, clack of the stones.

Bligh orders a quiet, orderly retreat to the boat, while he remains on the beach, casually writing up his log. Two chiefs approach, and ask him why he doesn't sleep on shore. "I never sleep out of my boat," he replies. "Then we will kill you," they boast.

Still, Bligh remains calm. Taking one of the chiefs by the hand, he leads him to the launch, through the press of warriors. There is no noise, apart from the clack of stones. The Bounty men watch numbly, with silent horror.

Bligh reaches the launch. The chief breaks away. "Pile into the boat!" shouts Bligh. All the men obey except the big quartermaster, John Norton. Dutiful to the end, he wades out to where the boat's painter is tied, ready to release it.

Frantically, the others shout at Norton to leave it, and jump into the boat. He begins to respond -- too late. A shower of stones fells him to the ground. The warriors take the line from his slack grip. They start to haul the launch up the beach. Through the surf and across the shingle they drag it, while other warriors rain stones on the men in the boat. Fumbling with his knife, Bligh somehow manages to cut the line. Pushing with their oars, raising the sail, the Bounty men flee.

The natives leap into canoes and make chase. Bligh and his companions take off jackets and hats and thrown them into the water. The warriors in the canoes stop for the plunder, and so the men in the Bounty launch escape. Their last sight of the beach is of John Norton's head being beaten in, while other natives pull off the murdered man's clothes.

Bruised and bleeding from the hail of stones, shaking with the aftermath of fear, the men in the launch make a historic decision. They will stop at no more islands. Instead, they will make the 3,618-mile voyage to Timor, in the East Indies, skirting Fiji, Vanuatu, and the Great Barrier Reef, and then negotiating the scarcely charted Torres Strait. Living on one ounce of bread and a quarter pint of water each day, somehow they will do it -- and without the loss of even one more man.

It is the start of the most remarkable small boat voyage in history.

1 comment:

Shayne Parkinson said...

What a great experience for those listening to you, Joan! Shivers went down my spine just reading your account. And to be in the very spot!