Contents | December 2003
More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
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Flashbacks: "Pirates of The Atlantic" (September 3, 2003)
A collection of writings from 1860s to the present, chronicling the exploits of the pirate world.
The Atlantic Monthly | December 2003
Scrutiny On the Bounty
Captain Bligh's Secret Logbook
by Christopher Buckley
"No monster on the high seas has equaled the infamous ship captain William Bligh. And no movie fan can forget the scene in which Charles Laughton, the definitive Bligh in the 1935 film, instructs his crew to keep flogging a man. That he's dead makes no difference to Bligh, lips curled with unfettered malignancy.
February 2, 1789. Position 18º52'3" S, 129º27'45" W. Winds light, W by WSW. Seas 2-4 feet. Am much vexed on account of Mr. Christian. His mood-compass vacillates sharply between Hysterical Agitation and Sullen Lethargy. I had so wanted this Voyage to be special for him.
"Everything you think you know about Bligh is utterly wrong, says best-selling writer Caroline Alexander ..." —USA Today
Last night upon seeing him brooding, I told him I would stand his Watch and to go below and curl up in his bunke with a saucy book and a tot of grog. Whereupon he expostulated at me with such Violence that all I could do was mutter, "I keenly regret that you should feel so, dear man," and retreat to my own cabin.
Calmed myself by re-drawing the Admiralty charts of the North and South Atlantick, which I found to be rife with Errors.
Febr. 10. Upon examining the Log, I found that Fletcher, who of late hath taken to addressing me as "Captain Bilge," had put us on a course not for Otaheite but for the Greate Barrier Reefe—named by myself on my Voyage with the late Captain Cook, God rest his fine soul.
Not wanting to embarrass him in front of the other Officers, I quietly ordered the helm up 2 1/2 points. Whereupon he appeared on the quarterdeck, wearing no Breeches but only a nightshirt and a most fierce look in his eyes, and proceeded to accost me in a manner alarming and disrespectful, calling me Names which Decency prevents me from here enumerating.
I could only reply abashedly, "But your course, good man, though indubitably well intentioned, would have set us upon Sharke Rocke!"
But he would hear none of it, and called me the sharke.
"Fletcher, Fletcher, Fletcher," I said to him with a soothing aspect, "pray lie down, and I shall send Surgeon to bleed you of this unbecoming Humour."
Thereat he threw his grog cup at my feet and stormed off, beating an angry quadrille with his boot-heels upon the deck.
To the men looking on this unfortunate incident I said, "Mr. Christian is not himself, but he is a fine officer and will be well soon. Now look lively, lads, and spruce the t'uppergallants! Lively, now! Strike the foresnocker and slack the trice-halyards! Look sharp, my chickens! We shall have a tasty surprise at supper—I have ordered a well-drenched rumcake, and after, we shall dance a jig or two!"
March 3. Otaheite. At anchor. The putting aboard of the Bread-fruit proceeds. It is good to see the men so happy. The Native girls are exceeding generous with their charms.
March 15. Otaheite. Cross with myself over incident last night. Returned to the ship after surveying the island for the Admiralty, to find Fletcher in mine own berth making exceeding merry with three Native Dollies, one of whom, a girl not twelve years of age, is the daughter of the High Priest Mahoota-ete, upon whose Good Will the success of our mission very much depends.
This rude surprise, coupled with an fierce Migraine, the result of a Malaria contracted whilst ashore harvesting Bread-fruit, the men being too occupied with fornicating to assist me, put me in no good temper, which I thereupon proceeded to lose.
I abused Fletcher most severely, calling him a "randy ram" and "disgraceful" and "unprofessional." It is with Mortification that I recall my speech. Fortunately, my expostulations went unheard, as he had passed out, either from Surfeit of Eros or my (rather good) '78 Madeira.
At anchor. This morning's muster attended only by the cabin boy, Tom, three men of the larboard watch, two of the starboard, the carpenter, and the ship's Parrot, Algernon, the rest of the crew being still ashore in pursuit of Venery.
Have resolved to sail upon the morning tide and commence our historick voyage to His Majesty's slave plantations in Guyana with our cargoe of nutritious high-fiber Bread-fruit. (Reminder to self upon return to England to mount a Campaign for the Abolition of Slavery, a most unnatural and abhorrent practice.)
The sooner we are under the discipline of the sea, the better.
April 21. At sea—finally! Men very sullen at having left their Toffee-darlings behind and glower at me if I so much as suggest—for I no longer bother ordering them—that they might attend to the sails.
At 7 bells espied a dark Squall approaching from SW. "Up, lads!" I called out. "Up my darlings, briskly, and douse the midforemizzen and furl the afterwanker, or we shall lose them!"
But Fletcher and the other Officers and both Watches said they could not be bothered, inasmuch as they were occupied tattooeing the names of their Otaheite Dianas on each other's chestes. Had to attend to the sails myself, with only Tom to assist me, who, being dim, is not much use aloft.
If this impertinence persists, I shall have no recourse but to write a Letter of Rebuke in their Fitnesse reports upon our return to England.
Apr. 24. Found another Native wench stowed away. Most tiresome—the fourth so far. This one they were keeping in the larboard line locker, which no doubt accounteth for the great amount of volunteering of late to fetch unneeded halyards, sheets, stays, ratlines, Etc. Gave the men a good lashing with my Tongue and threatened to cancel Friday Night Whist if I found any more Tartes in my line lockers.
Apr. 26. Awoke at 6 bells to a Commotion on deck. Found the men inebriated on taro-root beer and pelting each other with our precious Bread-fruits. To my dismay, the Officers—garishly tattooed with the most Appalling and Lewd sentiments—were taking part in this Botanicide.
I had no choice but to lash them all vigourously with my Tongue. Then ordered half grog rations until Supper. Set the Officers to conjugate Irregular Latin verbs in chalk upon their navigation slates, occasioning much grumbling.
Apr. 27. Feeling confident that Order and good Naval discipline has been restored. The men go about their business, playing Bezique and Ten-o-Whiskers, napping and smoking and fishing and holding Spitting contests.
Apr. 28. Wanting to reward this good Behaviour, at 7 bells I announced that we would heave to—which maneuver I of course offered to undertake myself—in order that we might have a nice refreshing swim before our noon-meal of Dolphin and Sharke ceviche in a lyme-cilantroe Reduction with julienned mangoes and mashed wasabi taro. (My own Recipe.)
But instead of leading the men in a chorus of "Huzzah for our Captain Bligh!" Mr. Christian became Ballistick, hopping up and down like a French who has just been denied a third helping of foie gras pâté. Whereat the amok Ajax unsheathed his boarding-sword and began screeching at me, "I am in hell! In hell, sir!"
I replied, with such composure as I was able to muster, "Well, I am most grieved to hear it, sir," putting an hundredweight of pig-iron into the terminal word. "But perhaps a nice swim would cool you off."
Whereatupon he renewed his Remonstrations, bellowing at me a litany of complaints:—my "insensitivity" in having rebuked the men for spreading the French Pox among the Otaheite Innocents;—making them eat Sour Kraute against the Scurvy; —making them dance at night to circulate the Blood;—sending them aloft in high winds to take in Sail;—making them attend prayer-service upon the Sabbath;—my "obsession" with keeping the decks clean, Etc, Etc. Moses at his Expostulations before Pharaoh was less strident.
"Enow!" I finally cried. "I have heard quite enow, Mister Christian! And now if you will be so kind as to order the boat lowered, and to provide me with a crust of bread and a cask of fresh water, a melon or two if you can spare them from your food-fighting, my quadrant and chartes, I shall no longer trouble you with my presence aboard this vessel, sir. For it is my plain, humble, and franke conclusion that you have Issues with Male Authority, and into the bargain are disposed to violent Humours, careening from Phlegm to Bile in the space of time it takes to furl the midspizzlejidget. So with no further Adieu, I wish you, sir, and your men—for so they now are, along with the Bread-fruit—a good day!"
A number of men expressed desire to accompany me in the Boat. Was most Touched.
June 12. Batavia. During our 48-day Voyage, amidst disagreeable conditions, I was able to Process my feelings toward Fletcher, assuaged by the diversion of charting the coast of New Holland (rather accurately), also with keeping my lads alive, by means of such loathsome victuals as we were able to procure—gull-feet, barnacles, jellyfish, booby eggs, sea-weedes, Etc. By the time we fetched Timor, I had exhausted my anger at him and was resolved to say nothing against him in the event of an Inquest, having no wish to put at risk his future in H. M. Navy. He is a decent fellow at heart and will make a fine Officer of the Line, if only he would purge himself of these Demons that afflicte him.
Do earnestly hope he delivered my Bread-fruit safely to West Indies.
Must go and make a Poultice for my men.
Christopher Buckley is the author of Washington Schlepped Here (2003) and nine other books. His short story "We have a Pope!" appeared in the April 2003 Atlantic.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 2003; Scrutiny On the Bounty: Captain Bligh's Secret Logbook; Volume 292, No. 5; 102-103.