31 March 2007

The vagaries of history

Will Durant said "most history is guessing, the rest is prejudice." Caroline Alexander's exhaustive (and exhausting) The Bounty: the true story of the mutiny on the Bounty tackles this notion with diligent scholarship. Then-Lieutenant-later-Admiral William Bligh is a polarizing figure, as is his antagonist, Master's Mate Fletcher Christian. Bligh, by all accounts, was a serious and dutiful officer having served with distinction under the two greatest Captains in British Naval history--James Cook and Horatio Nelson. His epic journey in an open boat after the mutiny is one of the great feats of seamanship by anyone anywhere. For all that, a reputation as a cruel and tyrranical martinet has dogged him for 200 years, while Christian elicits sympathy as a Romantic adventurer, cutting loose the bonds of oppression to find freedom and a new life in the blue Pacific. Never mind he marooned his erstwhile shipmates and former patron to what everyone at the time thought was certain death. Funny how things play out. The Age of Discovery, embodied by men like Cook, gave way to War with Napoleon and Nelson's heroics, soon followed by the Romantics, amongst that was industrialization, abolition, the decline of monarchial power, in short, cataclysmic changes in the social order of the Empire. Bligh and Christian were alternately hero and villain depending on who was writing history at the time. Ms. Alexander gives an unflattering portrait of Christian as a bit of a spoiled brat, but well-connected, and his mutinous actions as indicative of an immature, unstable personality. Bligh, the quintessential mariner and scrupulously loyal public servant, has the bulk of her sympathy. At the time, a Royal Navy sea captain was the closest thing to God among men, and sailors were expected to endure unbelievable hardships. What was normal at sea was unimaginable to most landsmen. Safe in our armchairs, we can ruminate on history and pass our judgments. Alexander's book, for me, was a journey back to the 7th grade when I discovered the Charles Nordhoff & James Norman Hall Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy. Older and wiser 35 years later, it was nice to sail again with these timeless characters, although they were closer to flesh-and-blood men this time.

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