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    Social theorists have tried many definitions of human nature: human beings are the animals that
    make tools, that laugh, that play. I have another: Human-beings are history-makers. We eternally
    make our present by looking backwards. We present ourselves by expressing a significant past.
    To know us in our history is to know who we are.
                    -Greg Dening (Performances)

At 4:30 A.M. on April 28, 1789 a series of events began which has ever since held a grip on Western imagination.  Fletcher Christian lead a mutiny against Captain William Bligh aboard HMS Bounty.  The aftermath of this rebellion included: Bligh's remarkable 4,000 mile journey with 18 loyal crewmen in an open launch; the sinking of HMS Pandora, which had been sent out to arrest the mutineers, with a loss of 34 men, including 4 of the Bounty crew; and the establishment of a weird sort of tropical commune on Pitcairn's Island by Christian and eight other men along with the Tahitian women (and a few friends and progeny) who may or may not have been the precipitating cause of the whole fiasco.  Eventually Bligh would return to sea, three of the mutineers would be returned to England and hanged and all but one of the men on Pitcairn's Island would be murdered or die of disease.

Now there's obviously enough material there to justify the boatload of Bounty books, plays and movies that have poured forth in a steady stream over the past two centuries, but what Professor Dening has uniquely done is to consider the uses to which the story has been put over those years.  He makes the convincing argument that Captain Bligh, contrary to popular imagery, was not particularly abusive of his men.  Indeed, the title of the book is reflective of Dening's position that Bligh was mostly despised for the harsh language he used in upbraiding men, not for any physical measures nor for the quality of his command in general.  Having made his case, Dening moves on to a consideration of why our historical understanding of Bligh requires that he be seen as an ogre.  If the "reality" is that he was a fairly mild captain for his time, why do we, looking backward, see him as the very embodiment of tyrannical authority?   Why are Christian and his cohorts seen as heroes, virtual freedom fighters?

The book is wide ranging, learned, entertaining and thought provoking, but its best feature is the balance that Dening strikes between the effort to present the story of the Bounty as ethnographic history ("an attempt to represent the past  as it was actually experienced") and the realization that:

    a historical fact is not what happened but that small part of what has happened that has been used
    by historians to talk about,  History is not the past: it is a consciousness of the past used for present

Everyone who has ever been subjected to a history course in the modern university is familiar with the obsession with primary sources, the Left dictatorship which controls academia insists that the "truth" is to be found in the pamphlets and diaries and letters of the unimportant and the obscure, rather than in the texts and speeches of the great who shaped our understanding of events.  Dening, on the other hand, understands that there is a fundamental dichotomy between the way participants experienced historical events and their importance to the society as a whole.  In a very real sense, it is simply not important whether Christ was the son of God, whether England ruled the colonies harshly, whether Southerners fought for slavery, whether FDR ended the Depression, whether Nixon subverted the Constitution and Clinton merely lied about sex--what matters is that this is how we perceive these events.  In Denings' felicitous phrase: Illusions make things true; truth does not dispel illusion.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Sea Stories
Book-related and General Links:
    -Emiretus Professor Greg Dening, Adjunct Professor, Centre for Cross-Cultural Research (Email: )
    -DIALOGUE: Rethinking Australia: Historians and the Public Culture
    -Banjo Awards: The National Book Council Awards are one of the major Australian literary awards
    -REVIEW: of THE MUTINY OF THE BOUNTY By Sir John Barrow. Edited and Introduced by Gavin Kennedy (Walter Goodman, NY Times Book Review)
    -Tall Ship Bounty
    -Mutiny On The Bounty: History & Hollywood
    -Lareau Web Parlour: Mutiny on HMS Bounty
    -Log of HMS Bounty - William Bligh  Mitchell Library - State Library of New South Wales
    -Pitcairn Island Web Site
    -The Tattooed Hand

If you liked this book try:
-The Bounty Trilogy (Charles Nordhoff, James Norman Hall)

-FILM: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)