Classic Review: Men Against the Sea by Nordhoff and Hall

Was Captain Bligh a villain – or a hero? If you've read the Bounty Trilogy, you know Bligh cuts a controversial figure in the pages of fiction and nonfiction alike. Read Bernie's review of the second book, Men Against the Sea, and decide for yourself.

Captain Bligh is my hero. I know: you’re likely reading that statement and assuming that I’ve gone off the deep end.  Captain Bligh, a hero?! But I’m not alone in saying that. 

So says Thomas Ledward, Acting Surgeon of HMS Bounty and the other loyal seamen put off the Bounty by the mutineers, when they took control of the ship on 28 April 1789.  While the mutineers had enough scruples not to execute Bligh and those who remained loyal to him, the only alternative they had was to set them adrift in the ship’s launch, designed to hold about a half dozen men for short trips. 

Cast away in the middle of the sea, Bligh and those who went with him (18 altogether) in the launch, had little in the way of food or equipment.  It was quite unlikely any would survive for long. 

For those of you who have read Charles Nordhoff and James Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty, you already know that Bligh and company did make it to Timor in the Dutch East Indies. Bligh then made it back to England to be part of the trial of those mutineers (and some who did not mutiny) who remained in Tahiti and were picked up there.  What Mutiny does not tell is the pretty amazing story of Bligh’s bringing that launch to a place over 3,000 miles from where he and the loyal crewmen were set adrift. 

The second novel in Nordhoff and Hall’s Bounty Trilogy, Men Against the Sea, tells that story. With so many factors against him, Bligh shows tremendous seamanship, leadership and sangfroid and gets the launch and its crew to safety. It’s a task judged near impossible, and which earns him the undying respect of his mates on the launch, even those, like the surly carpenter, Purcell, who felt Bligh deserved to lose the Bounty

Purcell is an interesting character – loyal to his captain, he doesn’t like Bligh much, and only begins to respect him after Bligh challenges him to a fight.  Dr. Ledward concludes that it was Bligh alone that made the impossible possible.

Each of the novels in the Bounty Trilogy is told from a particular viewpoint.  Mutiny on the Bounty is told from the perspective of young Roger Byam, a midshipman befriended by Fletcher Christian, the mutinous first mate.  Byam is not part of the mutiny, but is assumed to be so, and so is put on trial.

Using him as the point of observation, the authors can give us a view of the mutiny from a sympathetic character who did not actually commit treason. 

The third book, Pitcairn’s Island, tells the story of those mutineers who traveled to the titular island to hide out (successfully) from the English Navy.  The story, told years later by the able seaman Alexander Smith, is not a happy tale. Smith is the only surviving mutineer, and the only one who can tell the whole story of how things went terribly wrong on Pitcairn’s Island.

The second book, Men Against the Sea – in which William Bligh plays such an heroic part – is told by the acting surgeon of the Bounty, Thomas Ledward.  By having Ledward tell the story, we are able to view Bligh in a way that would prove impossible had Bligh been the narrator. 

Bligh’s log was available to Nordhoff and Hall, who used it in writing the first two novels. But Nordhoff and Hall wisely choose Ledward as the narrator.  As the medical officer, he can comment most knowledgably on the physical and mental strains put on the crew.  As a sympathetic observer, he can also note Bligh’s calm in the midst of bad weather, and reassuring regularity of habits, as well as notice Bligh’s temper – a characteristic that may have led to the mutiny. Even to the observant doctor, though, Bligh remains somewhat Sphinxlike, a quality fitting in a commander, something that could not be maintained if Bligh were the narrator. 

Men Against the Sea illustration by N.C. Wyeth
From the Wyeth edition of Men

It is the second book that I find the most compelling and interesting.  Having read Mutiny (and seen 2 film versions), I was quite prepared to believe Bligh a monstrous martinet who provoked most of his crew to mutiny.

Years ago, a friend of mine suggested I read Men Against the Sea, and I found it eye-opening.  It managed to take a figure who was hated with some justification in the first book, and whom I was quite willing to believe a monster, and made him quite the heroic figure.

In a crisis (and the two months aboard the launch were one crisis after another), Bligh was exactly the kind of commander you wanted – able to remain calm, take decisive action and command respect from friend and foe alike.  When they make landfall at Tofoa only a few days after the mutiny, they encounter hostile natives, but manage to escape with only one casualty, Norton, one of the quartermasters. 

For much of the remaining voyage – about 3,000 mi. in an open boat – they avoid landing, for they cannot count on friendly natives.  Using the knowledge he gained as assistant to Captain Cook, and from various charts that he studied while aboard the Bounty, with only a sextant, a magnifying glass and a piece of wood to mark ship speed, Bligh manages to get the remaining men safely to Timor in the Dutch East Indies. 

The scant food and water supply have to be parceled out carefully, something that requires a man used to making tough decisions. Where he had often seemed rather aloof and abrupt with the men upon the Bounty, he is careful to treat his fellow castaways with more consideration, consulting with them when appropriate before taking actions.

And any tough decisions he takes affect him as much as the men.  When we think about the fact that Bligh was in his mid-thirties, and that the Bounty was his first command, his achievement is all the more remarkable (and the troubles he had on the Bounty more understandable – check out Caroline Alexander’s The Bounty: the True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty for a more sympathetic treatment of Bligh aboard the Bounty).

And so, I raise my cup of grog high to Bligh and say, “O Captain, my captain!”

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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