Companion site at http://www.stuartfernie.com .

 

 

The Enlightenment

and the mutiny on the Bounty

 

 

Welcome to my page of thoughts on connections between the Enlightenment Movement and the mutiny on the Bounty.

 

 

I must start by saying that I am no historian! However, the story of the mutiny on the Bounty (1789) has fascinated me for many years - primarily from the point of view of the drama and conflict, but also as a reflection of philosophical ideas in vogue at that time.

Under the influence of the Enlightenment Movement the position and authority of those who governed or ruled were called into question. Their authority was no longer to be accepted on faith, but had to be justified, and this willingness to question or doubt authority, I would suggest, must have made a significant contribution to the atmosphere on board the Bounty.

The upshot of the Enlightenment influence was a desire, or demand, for fairness and equality - essential elements in the run up to the French Revolution, which also started in 1789. Although communication was not what it is today, word of the unrest and demands of the people of France must nonetheless have spread across Europe and certainly across the Channel, especially to those fortunate enough to receive higher education, or whose positions offered them access to news from abroad.

1935 version with Gable and Laughton

Fletcher Christian came from a hitherto well to do family which had been able to send Fletcher's two older brothers to university to study law. Had it not been for bankruptcy, Fletcher and another brother (Charles) might have followed them, but instead they were obliged to seek careers in the navy (military and merchant). Clearly this was an educated and informed family, well aware of what was going on in Europe and the ideas that were influencing the very structure of society.

William Bligh was the son of a customs officer and had relatives who had risen high in the ranks of the navy. Using their connections and influence, Bligh may have gone to sea at as early an age as seven. Bligh also had great (and perhaps overwhelming?) ambition to make his mark and live up to the reputations of his relatives. He was clearly a man who believed in the authority of his position, and felt he had the right to impose that authority without question.

And so the scene was set for an historic voyage, but sadly for all concerned, not for the reasons they would have liked.

It should be noted that Fletcher Christian was a relatively young man at the time of the mutiny (24), and largely inexperienced, while William Bligh had over twenty years experience at sea, and had served with numerous captains, including Captain Cook.

It has been suggested that the mutiny was the result of a clash of personalities - between the insensitive and authoritarian Bligh, and the sensitive and immature Christian. However, I think that is to vastly oversimplify the matter.

It is also interesting to note that Fletcher had a lengthy conversation with his brother Charles in 1787, shortly after which Charles was involved in an attempted mutiny on a merchant vessel. It might be concluded that this was a "difficult" family of potential trouble makers, but it might also be concluded that these two young, intelligent men had been influenced by the times in which they lived, and the philosophical arguments which were raging around them at that time. The argument ran that men should be treated as equals and that judgement should be based on reason. Common sailors had every reason to take this theory to their hearts. Discipline was (and is) necessary, but now the suggestion was that discipline should be based on mutual respect rather than simply on position, and Bligh did little to endear himself to his men as he imposed apparently unfair judgements.

The conflict on board the Bounty might even be seen as a clash between the old order and the new more humane and socially aware order struggling to get off the ground. Indeed it can be interpreted as the embodiment in microcosm of the changes taking place across Europe in this revolutionary period.

Another contributory factor was undoubtedly the nature of their mission itself. These men travelled immense distances, witnessed great beauty and experienced freedom (both social and sexual) such as they had never known before. This was truly a life-changing experience, and it must have caused them to see life differently, questioning their place in society, and indeed the very structure of that society. All of these elements must surely have led to a questioning of justice and the authority of one man over others. On top of that, the value of breadfruit plants was certainly less tangible than gold, land, or fighting for one's country, and many of the men must have wondered if they were worth their hardship and suffering.

1962 version with Brando

Film producers have seen the dramatic potential of these events, and have produced a number of cinematic versions, each one a worthy and inspiring (if not entirely accurate) tale of tolerance and humanity versus aggression and dictatorship.

My personal favourite is the 1962 version with Marlon Brando as Christian, and Trevor Howard as Bligh, which I find the most engaging and thought provoking, though it takes the events on the Bounty and twists and amends them to create a somewhat one-sided tale of principle and humanity in the face of dogma and inhumanity. It may not be entirely accurate, but it is a great piece of cinema which develops its themes - themes which are entirely in keeping with the ideals of the Enlightenment Movement.

 

 

My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I would, of course, be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss the content of this page further. I can be reached at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

Stuart Fernie

 

 

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