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Geoffrey Sill is an emeritus professor of English at Rutgers University, Camden NJ.

 

Many journalists, including Bob Woodward in his new book, Fear, find echoes of “Nixonianism” in the chaotic environment of the Trump White House. Richard Nixon’s paranoia, his denials of illegal activities, and his attempted persecution of his enemies are all found to have their counterparts in Donald J. Trump’s managerial style. The two presidencies may be superficially similar, but the men are rather different. Trump’s adept manipulation of the news media, his displacement of facts by self-serving fantasy, and his government by humiliation and intimidation are best understood through a deeper historical perspective. The original of Trump is not Nixon, but William Bligh, Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Captain of HMS Bounty.

As recounted in Caroline Alexander’s recent history, The Bounty, Captain Bligh sailed the Bounty to Tahiti in 1788 to transport more than a thousand breadfruit trees to the British West Indies, where their fruit was to be used to provide a cheap source of food for slaves. At Tahiti, a dozen men were flogged on Bligh’s orders for neglect of duty and acts of desertion, which Bligh took increasingly as insults to himself. To his officers, who could not be flogged, Bligh became verbally abusive, to the extent that Fletcher Christian, one of the mates, was heard to say repeatedly that he was “in Hell!”

On the morning of April 28, 1789, a small party of men led by Christian seized control of the ship. Bligh and 18 loyal members of his crew were forced into the ship’s 23-foot launch and set adrift, while Christian and 24 other men returned to Tahiti in the Bounty. Bligh was incredulous that his men could rise up in revolt against him. In his personal log, he wrote that he had “taken the greatest pains and bore a most anxious care” to ensure the “most perfect order” on his ship and the “most perfect health” of all on board. He protests that “no cause could justify such an effect”—that is, since the mutiny was without cause, it must be diabolical. But since he must name a cause, he conjectures that the men had made “connections” with the women of Tahiti to whom they wanted to return. “The Women are handsome—mild in their Manners and conversation—possessed of great sensibility, and have sufficient delicacy to make them admired and beloved”—in short, Tahiti was “the finest Island in the World where [the men] need not labour, and where the allurements of dissipation are more than equal to anything that can be conceived.” According to Bligh, it must have been the sexual lasciviousness of the women of Tahiti, not his deficiencies of leadership, that led his men astray. 

For two months, Bligh drove his small boat 3600 miles through the stormy waters of the South Pacific, limiting his men to rations of a mouthful of bread and a swallow of water per day. He can only have survived this epic journey by denying the peril of his situation and believing unequivocally in his ultimate triumph over what he called his “calamity.” Upon reaching the Dutch island of Timor, Bligh copied out his personal log of the mutiny, which he intended to present to the King on his return to England. Excerpts from this log he sent on ahead to correspondents in London, who passed them on to the newspapers, not unlike a modern Twitter feed.

Bligh himself reached London on the Ides of March, 1790, where he received a hero’s welcome. He laid his personal journal at the feet of the King and was invited to a private audience. He gave another copy to the Admiralty (though he had sent one before). With his loyal ship-mates, he attended a play at the Royalty Theatre, titled “The Pirates; or, the Calamities of Capt. Bligh.” The newspapers called on him to publish a detailed account of “his miraculous voyage, that mankind may be impressed with the mercy of Providence, in endowing those devoted to a good cause, with virtue, proportionate to their difficulties!” This 88-page account was duly published ten weeks later as “A Narrative of the Mutiny, on Board His Majesty’s ShipBounty,” authorized by the Admiralty and printed by the King’s bookseller. Thanks to his management of the media, Bligh’s triumph was complete.

As other accounts of the mutiny were published, however, the full story of Bligh’s verbal abuse of his officers and men, his corporal punishments for small matters, and his rages over perceived offenses became clear. He had kept a list of his officers’ transgressions for a court-martial at the end of the voyage. He accused his men, especially the petty officers, of stealing from a pile of cocoanuts he kept on deck. “God dam you you Scoundrels you are all thieves alike, and combine with the men to rob me,” Bligh raved; “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 the Straits!” To the officers, he must have seemed like a madman who could no longer be entrusted with the command of the ship. Their duty to themselves, and to the ship, required them to take control. On the morning of the 28th, none of the officers or sailors attempted to prevent the mutiny, including those thought to be loyal to Bligh.

In the years 1790-97, when fervor over the French Revolution was high, some sailors were inspired to think of themselves as men with natural rights. In a sort of “Me Too” moment, British seamen recalled the threats and punishments they had suffered, leading to mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1797. Though suppressed, these mutinies resulted in some permanent and far-reaching reforms that improved the lives of seamen aboard Royal Navy ships. It is not a reach to say that the reforms of 1797 had their roots in the mutiny on the Bounty and the courts-martial that followed it. Bligh himself was court-martialed, at his request, for the loss of the Bounty, and acquitted. 

A court-martial, in the Navy, is the equivalent of an impeachment in civilian service. It is extremely unlikely that Trump will seek his own impeachment as a means of proving his fitness for office. But however initiated, the trauma of his removal, if it comes, may lead to reforms as deep and lasting as those that followed the mutiny on the Bounty

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