Byron’s The Island – Fictionalization or Historical Poem?
Byron’s work The Island is based on the actual mutiny that took place upon the HMS Bounty on 28 April 1789. The result being Captain Bligh and the crew loyal to him being thrown into life boats with a small amount of food and other items to survive on their own. Under the command of William Bligh, the Bounty was to transport breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies as a cheap source of food for the plantation slaves located there. Slaves on the sugar plantations in the West Indies were often “short of food when hurricanes wiped out banana crops or yam crops failed”. (Gall, page 9) The West Indies also imported expensive corn from America. However, with the loss of the American colonies, the search for more viable and less expensive food sources that could be grown in the West Indies was more prevalent.
Lord Byron’s poem The Island is a fictionalization of some of the events that occurred on the HMS Bounty itself and other events surrounding the mutiny. Fletcher Christian’s act seems heroic in the book—taking down the tyrannical Bligh and restoring order through revolution and living on Pitcairn Island with Polynesian women. However, the act was seen as much less heroic by the real world. According to James C. McKusick, “The Mutiny on the Bounty was a deeply political, and politicized, event. The mutiny of 28 April 1789 came to be widely regarded as a British equivalent of the Fall of the Bastille, endowed with all the attendant hopes and anxieties of those who witnessed that dramatic event and its turbulent aftermath.” McKusick goes on to say that “Just as the people of Paris rose up against tyranny, so too the [crew] of the Bounty rose up against the arbitrary and erratic rule of Captain Bligh.” The case for Bligh as a tyrannical leader is debatable, but Gall offers some insight on the matter. Gall cites historian Greg Dening who says that “through statistical analysis that, in this era, Bligh used the lash least of any naval commander in the Pacific.” (Gall, page 22) Some individuals believe, however, that this lack of lash usage resulted in Bligh being too soft which lead to the undermining of the “institutional codes which gave meaning to the daily grind on the shipboard duties.” (Gall, page 23)
What Bligh was, however, was “obsessed with order” and that “he was determined to run a clean and civilized ship, where harsh punishment was the last resort in maintaining discipline.” (Gall, page 22) The mutiny itself was described as “a microcosm of the unrest in the emerging British Empire at the time, an allegory for the turmoil within power structures as the American War of Independence challenged the supremacy of British military and naval authority.” (Gall, page 7)
A more viable and logical reason that Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers decided to rebel against their captain is because the crew waited for “three months in Tahiti for the weather to improve” and they were “caught between the life of the Tahitians and the uncertain destiny of the Bounty expedition, the resulting unease created confusion that Christian shaped into a mutiny by removing Bligh and his ambitions from the scenario.” (Gall, page 23) In addition, according to Gall, who cites John Fryer (who was forced into the life boat with Bligh) and boatswain’s mate James Morrison (who remained loyal to Bligh and the HMS Bounty) account, Bligh failed to appear on deck until noon on the day of the mutiny. The crew thought that he might have undertaken a physical ailment. When he did appear on deck, he had a temper and accused individuals of stealing his coconuts. Bligh believed that the officers should have seen who stole the coconuts and requests that they tell him who did. When requesting information from Fletcher Christian, Christian said that “I do not know, Sir, but I hope you don’t think me so mean as to be Guilty of Stealing yours.” Bligh responds with:
Yes you dam’d Hound I do—You must have stolen them from me or you could give a better account of them—God dam you, you Scoundrels, you are all thieves alike, and combine with the men to rob me—I suppose you’ll Steal my Yams next, but I’ll sweat you for it, you rascals. I’ll make half of you Jump overboard before you get through Endeavour Streights. (Gall, page 26)
The crew and the officers like Fletcher Christian could have felt threatened by Bligh and this could have resulted in a mutiny in order to restore a more peaceful environment for everyone. Fletcher Christian was a well-educated man and was definitely smart enough to see the opportunity for a mutiny.
In The Island, the ship Pandora comes to capture and put on trial the mutineers or kill them for their crimes. Fletcher Christian’s death is much different in The Island than it is in real life. In the poem, Byron gives Christian a more heroic death. In the fourth canto of The Island, Christian and two of his fellow mutineers are attacking their pursuers. Trapped, the individuals climb up a tower and continue to shoot at their attackers. Moments before his death, Fletcher Christian takes a button off of his British uniform and puts it in his musket and shoots it at his pursuers. This not only shows disrespect to his country, but also shows that he felt what he did was right and that he would die for the revolution that he caused. He also allows for Torquil and Neuha (two fictionalized characters) to escape persecution from the British. Fletcher Christian dies by falling off the tower and landing on the ground below. Byron describes that:
His body crushed into one gory mass.
With scarce a shred to tell a human form.
Or fragment for the sea-bird or the worm (4:144)
This shows that Fletcher hit the ground with so much force that nothing was salvageable by even a sea-bird or the worm.
Fletcher receives a much different death in real life. After the mutiny, Christian and his comrades entered battle with the Tubaians—the goal being to colonize Tubai and begin a new life there; however, the battle was a loss and the mutineers later found Raraotonga, and eventually settled on Pitcairn Island in 1790. In the mutineers first year there, they managed to put down a revolt of the native men. Fletcher Christian took a Tahitian wife, Maimiti, whom he called Isabella. The couple had two sons—Thursday October and Charles. Fletcher also had a daughter—Mary Ann Christian—who was born on the day Fletcher died. In 1793, Fletcher was “killed in an uprising triggered by the outrage of four Polynesian men—Teimua, Niau, Minarii and Tetahiti—at the treatment they had received from the English settlers, whereby the men were denied women companions because the settlers took the local woman as wives”. (Gall, page 39) Fletcher received the much less interesting death of being shot and clubbed to death while working in his garden.
Morever, the people of these isles were seen as much less savory than Fletcher and Byron make them out to be with the idea of the noble savage—the idea that outsiders who have not been corrupted by other civilizations are seen as representing humanity’s goodness. However, according to McKusick, who cites William Mariner’s account of living with the people of the Tonga Islands, saying that the people are not very loving at all. McKusick says that “Mariner’s account is by no means an idyllic portrayal of these islanders as harmless children of nature; he depicts them as prone to rage, murder, thievery, cannibalism, and sporadic internecine warfare.” (McKusick, page 844) Neuha, a fictionalized character, is seen as fitting the noble savage identity. She is described as “the infant of an infant world”. (2:127) This shows that she is new, innocent, and shows Eden-like qualities that she not only shows herself, but her land does too. Torquil, another fictionalized character created by Byron, falls in love with Neuha. Both are seen as innocent—as Torquil isn’t given a specific role in the mutiny. Even though they are innocent, they are both unable to communicate with one another. Neuha is described as communicating “with eyes that were a language and a spell.” (McKusick, page 849) This shows that her eyes are not only used as a language, but are enticing and beautiful as well. Though verbal communication is never explicit between the two, actions are. The act of escaping the pursuers at the poems end is a prime example of this. The two escape by hiding in an underwater cave. Neuha dives first toward the cave. No words are spoken and Torquil simply follows her when she dives underneath—following “a streak of light behind her heel, / Which struck and flashed like an amphibious steel.” (4:109-10) While the couple are in the cave, masculine roles switch as well. Neuha borrows a knife from Torquil in order to build a fire inside the cave (Of Torquil’s knife struck fire, and thus arrayed). Neuha is seen as the hero here because she knew a spot to escape persecution. Torquil is seen as more feminine because he follows Neuha, who made the escape plan to hide from the British. Moreover, the shiny piece of metal on her ankle (a fire making device) is used to make the fire along with the knife he borrowed to Torquil.
The actual account of the HMS Bounty mutiny and Byron’s The Island are different. Byron’s depiction of Bligh as a tyrannical captain is a fabrication—as events such as the coconut incident and statistical information showing that he used violence far less than other captains in the Pacific depict. This resulted in Blight coming off as weak and causing fear in the crew. Fletcher Christian as a hero is false as well—as the event was the British equivalent to the Fall of the Bastille—and individuals of Britain were not fond of the event. The idea of the noble savage is false as well—as Mariner’s account of the people of Tonga depicts. Fletcher was given a heroic death while in real life his death was less exciting. Overall, Byron’s fictionalization allows for creativity and also allows for a more interesting event than the actual HMS Bounty account.
Mckusick, James C. “The Politics of Language in Byron’s the Island.” ELH 59.4 (1992): 839-56. JSTOR. Web. 9 May 2015.
Gall, Jennifer. In Bligh’s Hand: Surviving the Mutiny on the Bounty. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2010: 7-39. Web. 10 May 2015.
Byron, Lord. The Island, Or Christian and His Comrades. Ed. Peter Cochran. London: John Hunt, 1823. Print.