Sable-haired Fletcher Christian stands arms akimbo above the ravelin of Fort George amidst earthworks of umber loam and fellow Bounty mutineers, his unshaven whiskers charcoal on bronze. His tunic, pearl shell buttons complementing blue richer than the South Pacific sky that darkens to indigo as it meets the horizon, lies crumpled where he flung it, a gesture to demonstrate they are all equals, a dubious point, dangerous Churchill often undermining Fletcher’s status. Tubuai, cooler, drier, rat-infested, lacking Tahiti’s rampant greenery rainbow-slashed by chattering parakeets, is less accommodating to European gate-crashers.

They prepare to defend against Royal Naval vengeance or resentful warring islanders whose women they now want but can’t get, dragging their ships’ cannon, four-pounders, up the forbidding ramparts. When he was a boy, Fletcher’s widowed eccentric mother had something similar built in Cumberland with a watchtower guarding the entrance to warn her of irate creditors.

Some of these men are incidental castaways, not mutineers. There was no room left in Bligh’s launch. Others believe they might also claim this was their case, too, which it wasn’t. Yet others know releasing Bligh with arms and provisions ensured their own death sentences. Among such a crew with their farrago of accents, their backs scarred, the harsh idea of exile’s lingering death, factions bubble, but one belief the ordinary seamen share is the importance of their imitation officers’ uniforms they stitched from sailcloth because the natives, like Europeans, rate symbolic status systems.

On Bounty’s first tricky passage through the gap in Tubuai’s encircling coral reef to safe anchorage navigated by Fletcher and George Stewart, the young Orcadian officer from a privileged family who had left behind his Tahitian sweetheart, they were confronted by the threatening Tubuaians sounding their conches eerily as Cook had forewarned after skedaddling in haste years earlier. When Burkitt was speared the mutineers blasted the canoes with musket fire. The Tubuaians, factional, too, are unpredictable, as are the worst of Fletcher’s mixed bag. The native women beckoned lewdly but the mutineers, perhaps sated by their Tahitian idyll, or troubled by recent chaotic events, rebuffed them.

Before fort construction began Bounty returned for livestock, Tahitian men, some selected women, and an invaluable translator. They also brought red feathers useful as trade for sexual services but the Tubuains filch these. Despite their own land grab and assumed independence, these Europeans are incensed by the trespassed upon’s thievery.

Fort George is to sprawl one hundred yards square with a surrounding eighteen-foot ditch, a swivel gun mounted on a massive earthen wall, with those cannon in its corners menacing the inscrutable ocean. It shall even boast a drawbridge. But all this defense hauled in place by muscle and defiance overlaid by grief will not be enough to save them. Aboard Bounty lurks a festering imbalance of sexual satisfaction, liquor, and murderous scission. Retribution haunts, the heaving sea, and history, ever calling.

— Ian C Smith’s work has been published in BBC Radio 4 Sounds,The Dalhousie Review, Gargoyle, Ginosko Literary Journal, Griffith Review, Southword, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two Thirds North. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.

Posted in