Alan Frost, Mutiny, Mayhem, Mythology: Bounty’s Enigmatic Voyage

Sydney University Press, 2018,  336pp.,  ISBN: 9781743325872, p/bk, AUS $40.00

With more than 3,000 published books and articles about the Bounty’s voyages and its various aftermaths, do we need another one? Professor Frost believes we do because many earlier accounts have been seriously flawed. Their authors have often failed to read documentary sources with sufficient care and have taken statements at face value, and they have often simply repeated the flawed accounts and conclusions of others. Few have understood the context of the conditions and expectations of British naval service in the late 18th century. Many previous writers have been storytellers not historians and have been led into errors or even the creation of new myths by misinterpretation, misunderstanding or over-simplification.

Frost has re-examined the primary sources, not accepting them at face value but questioning and comparing them to find a new consensus about what happened and why. In particular Bligh’s various accounts of the mutiny were carefully constructed with distortions and omissions designed to minimise his culpability and project an image of a naval hero triumphing over treachery. Frost believes that there has been “a far too easy acceptance of the accuracy of what Bligh wrote”. Also, the reminiscences of surviving mutineers on Pitcairn Island have over time been similarly sanitised and confused.

The two protagonists, Bligh and his mutinous deputy Christian, are cast as villain and hero, but which is which? Frost contrasts two opposing pairs of binary images: the competent commander and his treacherous deputy, and the tyrannical commander and the good-hearted deputy who broke under intolerable pressure. Bligh carefully promoted the former image, and modern re-tellings of the story tend to take this line, but he believes that the latter is more accurate.

The book goes beyond a revisionist analysis of the Bounty mutiny narratives. Frost also looks at the rise of British scientific exploration in the 17th and 18th centuries; the development of the exploration narrative as a literary genre based on explorers’ official logs and reports; and how history has been transmuted into mythic story in the cases of Cook, Bligh and Fletcher Christian.

By returning to the original sources and subjecting them to detailed and careful forensic analysis Frost sets a standard in research which future writers in this field should follow. It is unfortunate that the index to this otherwise exemplary book is quite inadequate to lead the reader to particular aspects of the voyage and its aftermaths, and through the many complex arguments the author makes about them.

Neil Radford

September 2018

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