Paradise in Chains: The Bounty Mutiny and the Founding of Australia

  • By Diana Preston
  • Bloomsbury USA
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by R.W. Clark
  • November 19, 2017

The story of Bali Ha’i, Captain Bligh, and Botany Bay.

Fans of the 1950s musical “South Pacific” will remember Bali Ha’i, which was the name of a mystical tropical island that called to sailors from across the sea. “In your heart, you’ll hear it call you,” went the song, “come away, come away.”

In the 18th century, Bali Ha’i called to England.

Sailing in the vast and uncharted South Seas in 1767, the English ship Dolphin stumbled upon “a floating island” which filled the mariners with “wonder and fear.” When they went ashore, the English were amazed to discover a garden paradise where there was “no other god but love” and where beautiful women freely offered themselves to the sailors. The island was called Otaheite (Tahiti).

News of Tahiti caused a sensation among the English press and public. Could this be “the true utopia” where men and women lived free from the artificial constraints of modern society? The legend peaked in 1789, when the crew of the HMS Bounty mutinied and refused to return home after seeing Tahiti.

More than two centuries later, the story of the mutiny on the Bounty continues to attract talented writers and new readers, particularly now that the ship’s archives have been posted online. And old myths and stereotypes keep falling under the weight of modern scholarship.

Diana Preston is the author of several popular histories, including Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy and A Pirate of Exquisite Mind. Now, in Paradise in Chains, she provides a fresh perspective by comparing the Bounty mutiny with the nearly simultaneous founding of Australia.

Both events grew out of the celebrated voyages of explorer James Cook in the 1770s, and both were prompted, oddly enough, by England’s loss of its American colonies. In Tahiti, the sailors of the Bounty found paradise, but in Australia, convicts starved in chains. In both places, the English lived in a virtual state of nature that pitted men (and women) against each other, the sea, and, ultimately, English law.

The founding of Britain’s penal colony in Australia in 1788 is a tale of hardship and woe. Preston profiles individual convicts, their crimes, and their punishing eight-month voyage to Botany Bay in darkness and chains. When male and female convicts met for the first time in Port Jackson (modern Sydney), the result was a night-long orgy of rape. To prevent anarchy and starvation in the hot, dry climate, Governor Arthur Phillip ruled the colony with “rigid discipline.”

The Bounty’s voyage to gather breadfruit in Tahiti seemed like a pleasure cruise in comparison. Readers who recall the 1935 movie “Mutiny on the Bounty,” with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, may be surprised to learn that Lieutenant Bligh was no tyrant and Fletcher Christian was no hero.

Rather than flog and starve his men, Bligh hovered over them like a modern helicopter mom, nagging and bullying them to eat their vegetables and exercise properly; he even made them dance in the evenings to keep fit! Floggings were few, and there were no marines on board to keep order. Christian was a popular but somewhat spoiled friend of Bligh’s.

The Bounty lingered for five months in Tahiti, where Bali Ha’i worked its magic on the crew. “Left too much to their own devices,” discipline flagged and several men, including Christian, went native. Three deserted but were captured, flogged, and forgiven. Leaving Tahiti was painful for many, especially men with pregnant Tahitian “wives.”

Three weeks later, Christian snapped and instigated a chaotic mutiny, leaving Bligh and 18 others abandoned at sea in the ship’s launch. Why?

We know that Bligh became angry with his lax crew and that his wrath fell on Christian. Did Christian buckle under the harsh criticism? Or did Bligh cross a line by using personal insults such as “thief” and “liar”? Perhaps the two men fell out for personal reasons. Each theory has its advocates, and Preston borrows from all three.

Behind it all lay Tahiti. Tahiti eroded discipline, prompted Bligh’s tirades, and triggered Christian’s revolt. Most of the mutineers returned to Tahiti, and the others took Tahitians to Pitcairn Island (by effectively kidnapping them). But Preston strangely discounts the influence of Tahiti because it “remove[s] all blame from Bligh.”

Those who joined Bligh in the overcrowded launch struggled to survive a legendary 3,600-mile voyage to Timor in the Dutch East Indies. They fought the sea as well as the Great Barrier Reef which, like a fierce dragon, guarded the road from paradise.

Two years later, the frigate Pandora, carrying the mutineers captured on Tahiti, sank on the reef. And William and Mary Bryant battled the reef when they escaped from Port Jackson in a small boat. But the Bryants miraculously reached Timor, where they met survivors from the Pandora. Together they were shipped back to England; some were hanged, but others became celebrities. This exciting story lacks only a detailed map.

Later, Bligh returned to Tahiti (this time backed by marines), but failed as governor of Australia. Christian’s defenders portrayed Bligh as a tyrant, while Christian became a folk hero to the Romantic-era poets. Only years later was it discovered that the community Christian created on Pitcairn Island was a frightening dystopia where white men cast lots for Tahitian women until the Polynesian men and women revolted and killed their tormentors. Meanwhile, the era of paradise and chains gradually ended in the Pacific as Tahiti adopted Christianity and Australia grew toward nationhood.

Paradise in Chains is a lively introduction to England’s early adventures in the South Pacific. Comparing the English experiences in Tahiti and Australia is instructive, but the focus is on Tahiti. Diana Preston is a fine writer, and her trademark use of the participants’ own words brings the era to life.

Featuring exotic lands, struggles against the sea, and the abuses of 18th-century English justice, this book skillfully combines elements of Margaret Meade, Patrick O’Brian, and Charles Dickens.

Bob Clark is a retired lawyer and teacher in Washington, DC.

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