Bligh’s Pile

Fire at Sea, J.M.W. Turner

Lava like cannon shot bombards Tofua’s sky to the north, another volcanic display, Bligh retired to cabin now, his candle guttered. Since their arrival in the Friendly Isles, late for fair winds, he has traded poorly, been outfoxed. He named Fletcher a coward, took three native chiefs hostage before becalming, releasing them and inviting Fletcher to dinner, ending this binge of humiliation.

Harrowed, Fletcher spurns him, wandering the ship. Through tears, his foot on a heap of loggerheads, speaking their acquired pidgin, he asks the men what he should do, but his anguish is not their concern. Wishing to spare his family shame he destroys his papers, secretes provisions, fashioning a raft from yard, his fantasy to drift away in noble melancholy.

In one of historical drama’s crucial shadowy moments, Ned Young, a mulatto from St Kitts, a young officer later to sire seven island children, baneful nephew of a baronet, dark of skin, of jealous thought, even dark of teeth, eases from his usual place, the edge of things, where he stood hunched like an ironic sculpture, utters words of allegiance, his rotten teeth close to Fletcher’s ear.

Deck swaddled in light that morning, Bounty rocks to small waves, insistent. The tallest man aboard, the American, Isaac Martin, jokes sotto voce about coconuts and haemorrhoids. Sniggering in the assembled ranks. One of the boys, Tommy Ellison, farts on cue. Fletcher sighs. Bligh paces centre stage, brave with rage after lingering too long in these waters. Their return voyage had begun, sails puffed with purpose. Or the breath of a windy god? In this floating world, fiddle silenced, dancing’s stamp become shuffle, the captain has been counting coconuts.

A rogue wave ripples on the horizon’s fathomless dark, swelling their way. Although the natives pilfered anything not nailed down, especially nails, the men’s habit is to respect each other’s belongings, numerous souvenirs. Stepping forward like the gentleman he is, Fletcher accounts for one of Bligh’s missing coconuts. No thief, he was simply thirsty in such heat. Bligh knows this, saw him take it. He then flings names at Fletcher, insults never heard between officers.  All sniggering ceases. When the wave slams amidships the crew staggers, softened, now tanned, sea legs trembling. A coconut topples from Bligh’s pile, rolls across the loaded deck like a skull.