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Literature / The Bounty Trilogy

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Bon voyage!

The Bounty Trilogy is the collective name given to three novels by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, recounting The Mutiny aboard HMS Bounty in 1789 and its aftermath. The crew of HMS Bounty, led by master's mate (third in command) Fletcher Christian, mutinied on the return leg of a voyage to Tahiti (called "Otaheite", its previous name, in the novels). Captain William Bligh and his loyal crewmen, set adrift in a dinghy, are left with no alternative than to try and make it through three thousand miles of open ocean to the Dutch colony of Timor. The mutineers, for their part, make a home on uninhabited Pitcairn Island—but things go badly.

The series consists of three novels:

  • Mutiny on the Bounty (1932) — events up to and including the mutiny, and later the trial of the Bounty sailors arrested on Tahiti. Narrated by Roger Byam (an Expy of real-life Peter Haywood), a midshipman and loyalist to Bligh who still finds himself stuck with the mutineers.
  • Men Against the Sea (1933) — the voyage of William Bligh and his loyalists over 3600 miles of ocean in an open boat, after the mutiny. Narrated by Thomas Ledward, the acting ship's surgeon.
  • Pitcairn's Island (1934) — the arrival of the mutineers at Pitcairn Island, and their violent aftermath

The three books were published together in 1936 as The Bounty Trilogy.

The first novel was twice adapted to film. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton as Christian and Bligh, won an Academy Award for Best Picture. The 1962 remake, a looser adaptation starring Marlon Brando as Christian, bombed at the box office.


  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Byam says of Coleman that "Of all the married members of the Bounty's company, he was, I suspect, the only man who had remained faithful to his wife during our sojourn to Tahiti."
  • The Apocalypse Brings Out the Best in People: Ledward marvels at the courage Bligh shows in the launch, and not just that but the character, compassion, and leadership ability he displays. Bligh shows himself to be a far better man than the vicious martinet who egged the crew of the Bounty on to mutiny. Ledward concludes that Bligh was born to lead men in peril and that the dire necessity of the open boat voyage brought out a far better side of him. This is further backed up by Byam's encounter with Bligh at the end of Mutiny on the Bounty, after Bligh was overthrown again in the Rum Rebellion (really!), and at a time when Bligh was not under stress and not forced to lead men in mortal danger. Byam observes Bligh as still being an abrasive Jerkass.
  • Big Ol' Unibrow:
    • Parkin, the excessively cruel officer aboard the Pandora who persecuted Byam and his fellow sailors arrested on Tahiti. He has "eyebrows that met in an irregular line over his nose."
    • Isaac Martin, one of the mutineers who sailed to Pitcairn's Island, is described as "brutish" with "black brows that met over his nose."
  • Boring Return Journey: From Mutiny on the Bounty: "I shall give only a brief account of our experiences from the morning of our arrival at Coupang until the day when we sighted the cliffs of Old England."
  • Burning the Ships: As happened in real life, Fletcher Christian sets fire to the Bounty after they make landfall on Pitcairn's Island. Although part of the reason was the "there's no going back" nature of this trope, the story also points out that there was no true anchorage on Pitcairn and the Bounty would eventually be wrecked anyway when storms came.
  • Cassandra Truth: By a 5-4 vote the mutineers on Pitcairn elect to divide the island among themselves and enslave the Tahitians. Christian begs them to reconsider, telling them that this decision will lead to disaster and the destruction of their community. They don't listen.
  • Chased by Angry Natives: The first attempt at landfall by Bligh and his party, on the island of Tofoa, ends with them making a frantic retreat to their boat while the natives try hard to murder them, and do murder Nelson. After that Bligh and the loyalists resolve to stay at sea as much as possible while sailing to Timor.
  • The Chief's Daughter: Maimiti is "of high lineage on Tahiti" (Pitcairn's Island) but casts that aside to sail into the unknown with Fletcher Christian.
  • Courtroom Episode: The court-martial of the sailors captured on Tahiti is virtually always Adapted Out of films either taken from these books or adapted straight from history, but it forms a huge chunk of the Mutiny on the Bounty novel, as Byam tries to avoid being hanged.
  • Crapsaccharine World: In the first novel, Sir Joseph Banks explains to Byam at the end of the first chapter that, even though life in Tahiti might appear idyllic and egalitarian, it is actually an extremely classist society, where no one may escape his or her original social condition.
  • Cunning Linguist: Roger's main job on the voyage. He, having a gift for languages, is charged with compiling a Tahitian dictionary.
  • "Day of the Week" Name: Fletcher Christian's first child is born on a Thursday in October, so he and Maimiti name the baby Thursday October Christian.
  • Death by Despair: On his return to England Byam finds out his mother has died. He's told that her health began to fail right after she received the letter from Bligh naming her son as a mutineer.
  • Determinator: Bligh, who will not fail in getting his men to Timor and safety.
  • Direct Line to the Author:
    • Mutiny on the Bounty is framed as Roger Byam's memoir.
    • Men Against the Sea is the journal that Thomas Ledward writes while recuperating in Timor.
    • Pitcairn's Island drops this conceit and goes with straight third-person narration—until the last couple of chapters, that is, which are John Adams aka Alexander Smith recounting in first person the later history of the colony to Webber the visitor.
  • Distant Finale:
    • Mutiny on the Bounty with a 15-year Time Skip before Roger Byam sails to Tahiti for one last melancholy visit.
    • Pitcairn's Island also skips 15 years, from the eruption of violence that killed five of nine mutineers and all four Tahitian men in 1793, to the arrival of the American ship Topaz in 1808. John Adams aka "Alexander Smith" then tells his American visitors how the rest of the settlement's history played out and how Young, McCoy, and Quintal met their fates.
  • Driven to Suicide: Pitcairn's Island—Fasto the Tahitian woman flings herself off the cliffs after finding out that Williams the mutineer is cheating on her with younger, prettier Hutia.
  • The Drunken Sailor: The surgeon aboard the Bounty is a rather extreme example of this; in his first scene he waves around a liquor bottle and proclaims that alcohol is the best medicine. He dies from eating a spoiled fish, before the mutiny.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Inverted. Parkin the sadistic officer has "a high, soft voice, almost feminine."
  • Expy: The first novel features as narrator one Roger Byam, who is a fictional character. The preface to the revised edition states plainly that Byam is based on Peter Haywood, a young midshipman aboard HMS Bounty. The Real Life Haywood was convicted of mutiny and sentenced to death, only to be pardoned and go on to have a long and successful career in the Royal Navy.
  • A Father to His Men: Christian suggests to Bligh in Chapter IV of Mutiny on the Bounty that "Burkitt's nature is one to tame with kindness, rather than blows." Bligh scornfully rejects this idea.
  • Fight to Survive: Men Against the Sea is the story of the six-week voyage of Bligh and the men in his open boat.
  • Flashback: Pretty much the whole of the first book, as Mutiny on the Bounty is framed as an elderly Roger Byam putting pen to paper and telling the story of the mutiny.
  • Going Native: The sailors of the Bounty take Tahitian mistresses, start speaking the Tahitian language, and get Tahitian tattoos. The ones who go native the most are the ones who mutiny.
  • Greedy Jew:
    • " Jews, in their wherries, hovered alongside, eager to lend money at interest against pay day, or to sell on credit the worthless trinkets on their trays."
    • Samuel, Bligh's obnoxious clerk who conspires with him to embezzle from the ship's stores, is described as "a London Jew".
  • Grievous Bottley Harm: One of the refugees from the wreck of the Pandora is whacked over the head with a bottle when he tries to grab another sailor's fresh water ration. He suffers no lasting ill effects.
  • Happily Ever Before: For Thomas Ledward, narrator of Men Against the Sea, although nothing in the three books tells the reader that. In Real Life Ledward never made it back to England, being lost at sea a couple of months later when the boat taking him home sank.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Isaac Martin, mutineer, says of Christian on Pitcairn that Christian is "queer by nature." Martin is grousing about the decision to flee to Pitcairn where they are marooned forever.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Testimony is contradictory but it seems probable that the real Peter Haywood was a participant in the mutiny—he was seen wielding a cutlass. The fictional Roger Byam, on the other hand, is definitely innocent.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: These books, and the 1935 movie that was made from them, did a lot to establish the idea of William Bligh as an ogreish tyrant, when in Real Life he was no different from most other Royal Navy captains. In Mutiny on the Bounty he is depicted as embezzling from ship's provisions, something that did not happen in real life.
  • Info Dump: A long slab of dialogue from William Bligh's mouth in the opening chapter explains the whole point of the voyage, namely, harvesting breadfruit trees from Hawaii to use as a food source for Britain's Caribbean slaves.
  • Innocent Fanservice Girl: The maidens of Tahiti think nothing of going around topless. See National Geographic Nudity below.
    "Phidias himself could have produced in cold marble nothing one half so lovely as her young breasts, bared in all innocence."
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Nine mutineers sailed to Tahiti and seven of them died unnatural deaths. Five were killed by the Tahitian men, McCoy later fell to his death while drunk, and Quintal was killed by Adams and Young after he'd gone savage. Adams, the only survivor after Young died of natural causes, admits to Webber that they had it coming, that the white men of the Bounty brought it on themselves for treating the Tahitians like slaves instead of living in harmony with them.
  • Machiavelli Was Wrong: One of the themes is that Bligh's philosophy of ruling his men through terror is what led to his undoing.
  • Manly Tears: Ledward breaks down sobbing when the crew is piloting the launch into the harbor at Coupang, at the end of a 3600 mile journey, with Bligh at the tiller.
    "They were not tears of relief, or joy at our deliverance. No. I could have controlled those. But when I looked at Mr. Bligh, sitting at his old position with his hand on the tiller, there welled up within me a feeling toward him that destroyed the barriers we Englishman are so proud of erecting against one another. I saw him then as he deserved to be seen, in a light that transfigured him."
  • The Mutiny: Hard to tell this story without one.
  • Na´ve Newcomer: Roger Byam, a teenaged boy who knows nothing about sailing before being recruited to serve as a midshipman (junior officer) aboard the Bounty.
  • National Geographic Nudity: "No women in the world are more modest than the ladies of Tahiti, but they bare their breasts as innocently as an Englishwoman shows her face." Christian and Byam are bowled over when their girlfriends take their tops off to go fishing.
  • The Navigator: William Bligh excels at this, and it saves the asses of the men in the launch.
  • The Neidermeyer: Both played straight and averted in the person of William Bligh. In Mutiny on the Bounty he is a cruel and vicious martinet, flogging the men at the drop of a hat, embezzling from ship's stores, mentally and physically abusing his crew, virtually daring them to rebel. But in Men Against the Sea he shows himself to be a brave and inspiring leader in the face of mortal danger. Ledward concludes that said mortal danger was necessary to bring about the better side of Bligh; see The Apocalypse Brings Out the Best in People above.
  • Never Found the Body: Byam's defense in court is greatly impaired by the fact that Tinker, who was witness to the innocuous nature of Byam's last talk with Christian, was lost in a shipwreck. Byam is convicted by court-martial and is awaiting execution when Tinker turns up alive in London. Byam is pardoned.
  • Old Retainer: Thacker, the old maid (literally and figuratively) who has served the Byam family for decades. She's Roger's only companion in his old age, but as he ruefully notes on the first page, she won't countenance any familiarity in the master-servant relationship.
  • A Party, Also Known as an Orgy: Using somewhat delicate language, Young/Smith tells Webber the visitor of McCoy's still, and how the liquor he was brewing led to drunken orgies.
    "The rest of us drank as much as we'd a mind to, and the five girls with us....the grog made 'em as wild and hot-blooded as ourselves....We took no thought of wives or anything else."
  • The Place: Pitcairn's Island, where the mutineers come to a bad end.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Minarii is outraged when he hears that the mutineers have elected to enslave them. He angrily goes to Christian's house to find out if it's true, but does not wait to let Christian explain that he (Christian) opposed the vote and is working to change the mutineers' minds. Later, Christian decides to disregard the vote and that he will stand for the Tahitian men. He doesn't get the chance to tell Minarii this before Minarii kills him.
  • Seadog Peg Leg: Huggan, the ship's surgeon, has a peg leg. He lost his leg when his ship engaged in combat with John Paul Jones during The American Revolution.
  • Sea Stories: Do you really need context here?
  • Sex Slave: Some of the Tahitian women on Pitcairn's Island.
    "Though dark and by no means pretty, Susannah had once been a pleasant, light-hearted girl. Three years of Martin had broken her spirit. She went about her household duties mechanically, and rarely smiled."
  • Stealing from the Till: The first incident to start turning the men against Bligh comes when they find out he is stealing from the ship's provisions.
  • A Taste of the Lash: In Chapter II of Mutiny on the Bounty, a sailor dies while being flogged for striking an officer, and then his corpse takes two dozen more lashes to fulfill the sentence. This scene establishes the savagery of 18th century Royal Navy discipline.
  • Tempting Fate: On May 12, after suffering through several storms, Bligh says "I think we've seen the worst of it." The launch is then hammered for days by the worst storms they've seen yet.
  • Too Important to Walk: Tehani's uncle, Vehiatua, is carried piggyback everywhere he goes, as are a few other great chiefs. The reason is that if they set foot on a commoner's land, that land instantly belongs to them.
  • Translation by Volume: How Alexander Smith communicated with the Tahitians.
    "Smith, nevertheless, was of the opinion that if English were spoken slowly and in a loud voice, it must be a stupid foreigner indeed who could fail to understand."
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men: Sails, rigging, sextants, all that good stuff.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Byam finally makes it back to Tahiti after an absence of 20 years to find his wife long dead, most everyone he knew there dead, and the island's population as a whole greatly reduced by war and smallpox. His daughter is still alive, but Byam can't bring himself to tell her who he is.
  • You No Take Candle: Hitihiti, a Tahitian chief, says stuff like "Fourteen year now, me sail Captain Cook!" Roger is bowled over at meeting a Tahitian that speaks any English at all.

Alternative Title(s): Mutiny On The Bounty