Fletcher of the Bounty by Graeme Lay (HarperCollins, 2017), 304 pp., $36.99
Arr I like a good sea yarn. In my tender youth I took the bus on a weekly basis to the Hamilton Public Library (Young Adults Section) and took out a novel to read for the week. I coasted through Arthur Ransome, sailed through both Showell Styles and Ronald Symes, and was agreeably pressganged into C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series.
I was a frustrated landlubber with a passion for jolly tars with hearts of British oak from an early age. A Fairfield College pal of mine, a tall skinny lad called Brian, shared my sea-going passion, and he eventually signed up to the RNZ Navy. I met him once or twice in the years following, his gangly legs encased in shorts, HMS Philomel on his sailor cap, his pink ears protruding off his port and starboard beams. But he always seemed a little less than enthusiastic about his career choice, which saw him only rarely afloat. I suspect he was bored to salty tears.
Bored Graeme Lay’s Fletcher Christian is not. He is presented as a confident young man of the tall, dark and handsome variety, possessing, we are informed, most of the male attributes in pairs, such as balls and fists. He’s a Manxman who enjoys a worthy naval career, until the mutiny business that we have all heard about and seen the films of. Indeed, the popular version of Fletcher Christian has been forged by the silver screen, where he has been played by many macho actors, including Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson, of course. Endless strong dramatic possibilities are beautifully present in this historical true story, with two protagonists in conflict, and a supporting cast of disgruntled tars, heaving rollers, creaking sails, tropical islands and lovely vahine. You’d have to be an idiot to make a less than splendiferous flick from this melodramatic material; or a book, for that matter.
The plucky and commanding Great Brit, James Cook, though long dead, plays a kind of supporting role in Lay’s novel as William Bligh’s old shipmaster and an inspiration to the young Fletcher Christian. Lay’s books on that great explorer have got good reviews, though for me, Captain Cook rests immaculately pickled in the vat of Professor J.C. Beaglehole’s massive and scholarly biography. Lay, by contrast, is an assiduous popular writer rather than a scholar; he may be a library rat but he is also keen traveller, alert to the sights, flavours, colours and smells of the Pacific.
The text raises a few problems. One of them is the very accessibility and universality of the story. It needs a very able novelist to actually have the detachment and the concentration to turn a well-known story around and present it through the gimbals of a new perspective. Hilary Mantel, for example, raises Historical Novels to a higher sphere; in Wolf Hall we all expect Henry the Eighth to see off his half-dozen wives in various gruesome ways. Moreover, ever since Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons, we also expect Thomas Cromwell to be cast as the Machiavellian Renaissance villain. However, casting Thomas More as the Hero is an obvious Catholic writer’s ploy: the people he tortured and torched, Protestants or worse, were ignored in Bolt’s text. By contrast, Mantel presents us with a very plausible and somewhat troubled hero in Thomas Cromwell as the blacksmith’s son and knockabout mercenary, whose rise and fall makes for a compelling reading that nevertheless fits comfortably into Tudor history.
Fletcher Christian can only really be cast as a hero; any drastically different reading would need a revisionist approach, which would require a skillful and ideologically charged resifting of the rather thin evidence available of the lead-up to the mutiny and its immediate aftermath. I find the opening incident featuring a young William Wordsworth and the ‘known dimwit and bully’ (straight out of Boys’ Own) laughable. But apart from that (which Graeme Lay in his Afterword admits he made up), we see a pretty convincing character being built up in the context of a troubled and interesting age. He is essentially the normal and upright man against whom other characters can, and will, be measured. No Horatio Hornblower, he is not seasick off Spitehead, does not stammer, and doesn’t have the British equivalent of torrid affairs with the Duke of Wellington’s sister, contenting himself instead with the charms of more humble ladies. He does have his ‘dark cloud’ moments – what we would now call depression or frustration, I suppose. I count seven, including the last one when he is shot and killed by a man called Tararo on Pitcairn.
William Bligh, the antagonist, is indeed a ‘contradictory man’, whose outbursts of magnificently foul invective against his subalterns Mr Lay obviously relishes. Two other aspects of Bligh are of special interest. The first is that this tiny, brilliant man was likely fouled with venereal disease, probably syphilis, a thesis that was expanded on in John Toohey’s Captain Bligh’s Portable Nightmare in 2000. An inscription on William and Betsy Bligh’s tomb could be read as a coded reference to Betsy having contracted the disease as well. Certainly the very violent mood swings and irrational outbursts that obviously got worse during the Bounty voyage, symptoms of the common and at the time incurable condition, are described by Lay and amply documented in other accounts.
Second, Lay takes pains to make clear Bligh’s relationship with young Christian, whom Bligh almost worships because of his apparently higher social status, as developing into something rather more than friendship, and has him making homosexual overtures to the younger man, having, one supposes, uncovered his queer side in the company of the Tahitian chief, Tu. The way Lay describes this also makes Bligh’s aggressive and snappy behaviour when he comes back on board psychologically comprehensible, as he is himself guilty of slackness as a commander.
The dénouement, which revolves around imagined raids on Bligh’s personal stash of coconuts (this too is historically documented), teeters between farce and tragedy and is well presented; this is delicious material for a historical novelist and Lay lays it out in a balanced and beautiful way.
Lay takes the time and space to develop the story after Fletcher’s untimely death. Fletcher Christian is represented as a romantic idealist, uneasy at the slave trade and other blatant and brutal manifestations of Empire (plausible), who sees the Pitcairn colony quite explicitly in terms of a Utopia. Like all utopias, this one is condemned to collapse: it is almost a caricature of a closed society, with its schisms culminating in violence and death caused by the usual motives of sexual and material jealousy fueled by booze. Lay, in his Postscript, inevitably makes allusion to the disgraceful sexual assaults that occurred on the island in 2004.
He also follows Bligh’s miraculous voyage to Batavia in HMS Bounty’s longboat, and we are left with a frank admiration for the guy’s navigational skills. His later chequered career, including a rather unfortunate stint as governor of New South Wales – which ended in another rebellion caused by his attempts to reduce the privileges of the squatters – is barely touched upon, but one suspects and hopes it might end up as the subject of another of Lay’s novels.
A great read for those aged about 12 and up, this novel would fit well into the Young Adult section of the Hamilton Public Library. This is in no way a put-down.
My younger self would have loved that cussing!
MAX OETTLI is a photographer and a photography critic, lecturer, curator and archivist. He lives between Geneva and Wellington.