From the writer of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, made into a heart wrenching and immensely successful film, and The House of Special Purpose about the last Russian Royal Family came my first non science fiction read of 2012 – Mutiny on the Bounty, based on the true historical event.
For those who are not aware of the most famous act of piracy to befall a British navy ship, the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ was an incident in the late 18th century on the eve of the French Revolution, just a few short decades after the death of the quickly mythologised hero Captain James Cook (a local boy from Marton in present day Middlesbrough, England). A frigate, captained by Lieutenant William Bligh who had served with Captain Cook on his great voyages of discovery, was tasked with the most urgent mission in the Empire: the collection of a foodstuff known as the breadfruit which grew in great quantities on the remote island of Tahiti. No, the King wasn’t starving, nor did the Queen have pregnancy cravings. There had not been a poor harvest in England, and indeed the sole purpose of the entire venture was designed to make it unnecessary for the British Empire to have to supply the slave colonies in the Caribbean. The breadfruit was a hardy food stuff that the Kings Ministers intended to have planted in the Caribbean, thereby making it cheap to keep their fellow man in chains. A little ironic when some of those who sailed on the Bounty were not their by choice themselves (as is the case with the stories narrator). After reaching Tahiti and completing their harvest, the crew on the Bounty rebel against their captain seize his ship and promptly dump him and his few loyalists at sea in a little launch boat with a token gesture of food. The new pirates had absolutely no intention of swapping the heaven of Tahiti, for the hell of life in England’s Navy. Miraculously Lieutenant Bligh led his little band back to England to a hero’s welcome and what mutineers could be found in the forthcoming years were rounded up and tried in London to great public interest, soon superseded by the French Revolution.
That is the bare bones of the historical events, and relaying them to you here in no way undermines Mr Boyne’s novel which is not in fact about events but people, relationships between men – master thief and child prostitute, upper class officers born to their position and men who have risen on their merit, captain and servant boy, mutineer and loyalist. It retells in fascinating human detail the ego, the lusts, the needs of these men. It illustrates the conflicted nature of a ‘sea man’ like Bligh, having to deal with being stuck on Tahiti whilst the breadfruit is collected and almost literally crawling up the walls of his little hut to get back to sea – men like him, his hero Captain Cook and my ancestor Lord Admiral Collingwood were men who preferred to be at sea to being on land. Land was their sea, sea their land. They could not understand other men’s pangs for home port and land. Boyne paints a picture of gradually simmering tensions amongst the crew and still manages to spring the inevitable mutiny as a surprise, we are so immersed in the thoughts of our narrator – John Jacob Turnstile, captains servant – that his shock becomes our shock.
John Jacob (“Turnip”) Turnstile’s narration sees us travel from the streets of Portsmouth at the very bottom of the social ladder to a myriad of adventures. His constant occupation is a desire to escape. I was initially unhappy with how the author consistently brought the characters thoughts back to his days in Portsmouth ‘entertaining’ well-to-do gentlemen. Its a strange block for me, but I just cannot read about child abuse in any form and I find those people who buy novels solely about it quite bizarre. Yet here, eventually I realised that Boyle wasn’t using it as some cheap narrative gimmick but very appropriately as a foundation stone in the personality of our Turnip. It informs his interactions with everybody – fellow boys and men, authority figures, women. As a result I think the author has successfully managed a blending of social history – exposing the reader to life as it was for many in 19th century England – and riveting human drama.
We are, after all, made of the best and the worst of our experiences.
If you saw The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, or read it, I highly recommend you get Mutiny on the Bounty, which is available on Kindle. I am certainly considering getting more John Boyne novels after the next couple of books I read. He seems to take a scattergun approach to his writing – sampling all sorts of different topics and genres and I look forward to seeing what other stories I can read from him.
If the real events described in the book and this review interest you then I strongly encourage you to do a little searching online for there is a wealth of diaries, logs, and memoirs from crew and officers that survive to this day. You may also want to learn about those mutineers who were never caught by His Majesty’s Navy and the controversial descendant’s at Pitcairn Island.