Books

Harrison Christian
Men without Country

Hear “mutiny”, think “Bounty”. The shipboard rebellion of 1789 has enjoyed a long and fertile afterlife. It has inspired three films and more than a dozen books, fiction and nonfiction alike, including several titles promising the “true story”. The latest of these is Harrison Christian’s Men without Country. Yet, as Christian readily acknowledges, pinning down that truth isn’t easy. Many of the original sources – from notes scribbled in Tahitian in a prayer book by one of the mutineers, to Captain Bligh’s self-exculpating account, which was a bestseller in his day – are contradictory and incomplete.

The author’s approach involves coolly weighing up disparate narratives and allowing for ambiguity and the unknowable. The final chapter, devoted to the fate of the leader of the mutiny, Fletcher Christian, is a thrilling Rashomon of possibilities and circumstantial evidence: depending on who was asked, the mutineer was murdered on Pitcairn Island (several suspects), died a natural death, died by suicide, escaped to parts unknown or secretly returned to England, where his family hid him from those who would have him hanged.

That family is the author’s own. Fletcher Christian was journalist Harrison Christian’s sixth great-grandfather. Harrison grew up watching the likes of Marlon Brando play his famous ancestor. Understanding that the history of the mutiny was still “unfinished”, he set out to see what he could add. Good journalists ask good questions. In this case, these include: Why didn’t anyone ever think to ask Mauatua, Fletcher Christian’s Tahitian partner and the mother of his children, what she knew about his fate? What impact did European contact have on Polynesian cultures and Tahiti in particular, and what role did the men of the Bounty play in this ongoing story? How did the differing social backgrounds of the crew inform their actions and choices?

Men without Country weaves in the history of Polynesian navigation and settlement and peels off the lens of romanticism through which traditional Tahitian society has typically been portrayed – often by the same men who helped destroy it, including with the muskets that transformed ceremonial warfare into “bloody carnage”. It shines a spotlight, too, on the extraordinary women, Polynesian and English, whose own roles in the story were far more interesting than often credited. Full of quirky detail, hair-raising descriptions of ocean voyages and memorable characterisations, Men without Country is an absolute ripper of a tale, an old story that new questions make relevant and fresh.

Linda Jaivin

Ultimo Press, 320pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 24, 2021 as "Men without Country, Harrison Christian".

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Reviewer: Linda Jaivin