HMS Bounty set sail from the South Pacific island of Tahiti on the 5th April 1789. The crew of 46 had enjoyed a 5-month layover during which their main employment had been to gather breadfruit plants to transport to the British Colonies in the West Indies to grow as cheap food for the slaves. Many men had lived ashore and led promiscuous and hedonistic lives among the native women. Captain William Bligh had remained chaste himself, but was tolerant of the wanton lives of his crew and wrote “the allurements of dissipation are beyond anything that can be conceived”.
I have been on Tahiti and several of the Society islands for just over a week and am amazed that any of the crew left at all. For hard-bitten sailors from Northern Europe coming to the South Pacific must have been as though entering a fantastical realm like nothing they would ever have experience in the cold, storm-tossed oceans of their homelands. Just take the water for example, at a balmy 28-degrees there is no sharp intake of breath when one enters, just a feeling of being wrapped in warmth: then there is the colour, from deep marine blues through to sparkling turquoise; and finally the clarity, from above or below you can see for 200-feet or more. And in that divinely clean and coloured water teem fish of extraordinary beauty and mouth-watering deliciousness: it is both playground and Fishmongers. Above the water, in the centre of often large coral atolls rise the remnants of ancient volcanoes. The young ones such as Tahiti are still high and cone-shaped, the older ones are shrunken, broken calderas that are sinking millimetre by millimetre into the lagoons that surround them. Covered in dense vegetation, much consisting of fruits and flowers, some of which was brought by the first wave of Polynesian settlers in the 9th-century, and a lot more which came with Europeans from the 16th-century onwards, they are a riot of colour and a super-abundance of free food.
So, with fish, fruit and fresh water a plenty, shelter easily made with bamboo and pandanus leaf roofs, there was only one other ingredient needed to make a humble sailor’s hierarchy of needs complete. This came in the uncompromising shape of Polynesia’s finest asset, her ‘Vuahine’ – women. In her purest form a Polynesian woman is a creature of almost sublime beauty and to men often hidebound with religious restrictions the unassuming and guilt-free promiscuity of the local women must have been a revelation. They were only flesh and blood after all and had also been at sea for months.
Serving on board the Bounty without pay in the capacity of a ‘young gentleman’ learning the art of navigation was Fletcher Christian. He also took a local woman, Mauatua, to his bed and this may have been one of the catalysts that led to the famous mutiny. Whether or not William Bligh had homo-erotic feelings for Fletcher are unclear. They did indeed have an amicable master-pupil relationship but this does seem to have soured considerably after their long sojourn on Tahiti. Did Christian rebuff Bligh’s advances? Was Bligh incensed by Christian consorting with Mauatua? Whatever the reasons for the mutiny, Bligh ended up with 18 loyalists in one of Bounty’s open launches (they made a 3,500-mile voyage and did return to England) and Christian ended up on isolated Pitcairn Island where he met his end at the hands of either other mutineers or Polynesian natives.
My interest in the story was rekindled by being in the same surroundings as these two men and my own sensibilities have been awakened to the possibilities that exist here even today. This part of the world is, to use a very over-used cliche and not to overcomplicate the issue with economic, social or political matters, an earthly paradise. It is possible to enjoy here a quality of life that is unavailable to the vast majority of the world’s population. I have asked myself what I would have done in their place, whether crew or officer, one’s life here in the South Pacific would have been immeasurably improved on almost every level. So, to mutiny or not to mutiny? Why not!
I’ll mutiny with you any day – sign me up! xxx
True, it’s rare that a sailor can resist falling for Tahiti. Better to be a good skipper, like Cook, for example, and be reasonable, because all crew are tempted to abandon ship when arriving in Polynesia. Some visitors are better than others though, so perhaps one should consider whether the harsh impact of modern society is a positive influence on traditional Tahitian life.