Humiliation and fear of a catastrophic decline in status foment mutiny and rebellion.
I recently finished The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, a painstakingly researched history of the mutiny, but with a focus on how the story was shaped by influential families after the fact to save the life of one mutineer, Peter Haywood, and salvage the reputation of the leader, Fletcher Christian, via a carefully orchestrated character assassination of Captain Bligh.
The author, Caroline Alexander, summarized the ambiguous incitement of mutiny by Christian thusly:
"What caused the mutiny on the Bounty? The seductions of Tahiti, Bligh’s harsh tongue – perhaps. But more compellingly, a night of drinking and a proud man’s pride, a low moment on one grey dawn, a momentary and fatal slip in a gentleman’s code of discipline – and then the rush of consequences to be lived out for a lifetime." (p. 407).
The full tale is a fascinating reflection of the dynamics of class, authority and respect, and thus to some degree humiliation and fear of loss of status. Though the mutiny illustrates the particulars of British society and naval culture in the 18th century (the mutiny occurred in 1789), it also offers lessons to us in the 21st century.
Until recent scholarship suggested otherwise, William Bligh has been remembered as a cruel tyrant whose excesses triggered a righteous mutiny. The truth is Bligh went to great pains to minimize punishment on board his ship, and was hoping to avoid any severe punishments over the 3 year year voyage. He also went the extra mile in keeping the ship clean and well-provisioned, foregoing the profit most captains made by procuring the lowest quality provisions for the crew and pocketing the difference.
Bligh had served as a junior officer (sailing master) on Captain Cook's fatal voyage to Hawaii, and made every effort to apply what he'd learned on his own long voyage from England to Tahiti and back. He was if anything a perfectionist about navigation, shipboard preparation and the care of his crew.
His one flaw was an explosive temper, of the sort that arose quickly and receded just as quickly, leaving no ill-will on his part. (Captain Cook was also given to explosive fits of rage, a trait that appeared to strengthen on his 3rd and last voyage to the point that his junior officers felt he was "no longer himself." This may explain his rash action in Hawaii that cost him his life.)
Bligh was neither high-born nor low-born, but solidly in the middle; his father was a customs official, and he entered the Navy as a "young gentleman," soon becoming a midshipman, the entry rank of all future officers (as opposed to enlisted men, i.e. commoners, who could only rise to the rank of mate).
There were and are many gradients of class in Britain that may be unfamiliar to Americans, who tend to view social class as a permeable reflection of wealth (those who get rich also acquire "class"), under-estimating the lifelong impact of upper-class values and inherited wealth.
Bligh's family was respectable but not wealthy, and he had to be careful with his meager income to support his family. He was well-educated and took copious notes on the cultures and ecosystems he visited.
The British Navy had a strict hierarchy, of course; the captain's orders could not be questioned. The book does an excellent job revealing the difficulty of maintaining this authority and order on a small, crowded ship thousands of miles from home. There were limits on Bligh's powers, even as captain; the ship's doctor was a hopeless alcoholic who died mid-voyage, and Bligh, who avoided harsh punishment of his crew, was forced by a junior officer to order a flogging he himself would have avoided.
As befits a professional Navy officer, Bligh took a keen interest in mentoring two promising junior officers: Fletcher Christian and Peter Heywood, both from old, semi-aristocratic families that had fallen on hard financial times due to the profligacy and incompetence of their fathers/grandfathers.
Bligh's interest was both professional--a worthy desire to aid the careers of promising young gentlemen--and political: as a powerful branch of government, the Navy attracted the "interest" of the wealthy and well-connected. Indeed, the entire voyage of the Bounty was the result of lobbying by West Indies planters and the wealthy naturalist Joseph Banks.
The wealthy/well-connected were critically important to Bligh's career, and the "interest" expressed by powerful patrons in Fletcher Christian and Peter Heywood, coming as they did from prominent if impecunious families, explicitly motivated Bligh to mentor them and treat them more favorably than the other junior officers who were not high-born.
Serving in the Navy was a respectable profession for impoverished high-born males, as was the clergy, and so it was not unusual that the families of Christian and Heywood would use their influence to lobby for their sons being posted on what promised to be a career-boosting cruise.
Bligh befriended Christian, as they'd served together on merchant-marine vessels, and this personal bond complicates the mutiny. The other complication was the lack of Royal Marines on board the Bounty to enforce the captain's will. Every capital ship in the Navy had a small contingent of Marines who acted as the ultimate source of authority on board. The Bounty's small size and the minimal budget allotted by the Admiralty meant there were no Marines on board to protect the captain from insubordination. There is no doubt the mutiny would have failed had there been a half-dozen Marines on board.
If we boil all this down, we find a by-the-book, tactless perfectionist with an acid temper --Bligh--who made great efforts to be an ideal captain but who had a tin ear for his own impaired empathy and political skills.
It's clear from first-hand accounts that Bligh would lash out at Christian despite their friendship, and then expect Christian to forget the abuse in the same way Bligh forgot his own temper tantrums.
Unfortunately for Bligh, Christian, being a gentleman of a higher class than Bligh, took his abuse personally, and felt it disrespectful of his person and class. This is of course implied rather than stated, but if read between the lines of the testimony of observes, this becomes clear.
One of the most interesting and largely unexplored dynamics of the mutiny revolves around the extremely significant class differences between the sailors (commoners), the middle-class junior officers, middle-class Bligh and the two high-born junior officers, Christian and Heywood.
In the initial confused moments of the mutiny, Bligh implored Christian to give up the mutiny and promised that he would forget the whole affair, on his sacred word as a gentleman. Christian replied that it had gone too far to turn back, but one can't help wonder if he was more conflicted than he let on.
During the court-martial, the Admirals who acted as judges expressed astonishment that no loyal members of the crew resisted what was obviously a ragtag, impromptu mutiny of a handful of the small crew. It is clear that the slightest resistance, however poorly organized, might well have countered the mutiny, as many of the officers and men were hesitant and undecided about which side to join.
The key that seems to be missing in the conventional narrative is that the commoner sailors were fully cognizant of the high social status of Heywood and Christian, and the inferior social status of Bligh. In terms of social authority, it was natural for them to look up to Christian and follow his leadership over the leadership of the lower-status Bligh--even though by the strict authority of the Navy, they should have followed Bligh without any hesitation.
No doubt some sailors longed to return to their girlfriends (and in some cases, wives) on Tahiti, and this desire overrode the always-tenuous authority of the captain of a small ship thousands of miles from home. But if we seek an answer to why there was no active resistance to the mutiny, the answer lies not in the supposed cruelty of Bligh or the appeal of returning to Tahiti, but to the conflicting authority of class, which put Christian as the natural leader, and the naval hierarchy, which put Bligh as the leader.
There is little doubt that had Bligh been able to hold his tongue, or been sensitive to the damage he was wreaking on Christian's sense of self-respect, and just as importantly, on what he viewed as his birthright in terms of deferential, respectful treatment by another officer of a lower class, even an officer who was his ranking superior, then the mutinous spark would never have ignited.
Humiliation and fear of a catastrophic decline in status foment mutiny and rebellion.
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This essay was drawn from Musings Report 38. The Musings Reports are emailed weekly to subscribers and major contributors.
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