CAPTAIN BLIGH’S PACIFIC PARADISES by John Borthwick

“Shoot the bugger!” screamed someone as Captain William Bligh was bundled overboard at musket-point and into a longboat. Dawn was breaking off the tiny Pacific island of Tofua when HMAV Bounty’s first mate Fletcher Christian ordered his captain and 18 loyalists into the six-metre boat. Shooting them might have been a kinder fate. Instead, they were set adrift in mid-ocean, some 6000 km from the nearest European outpost at Kupang, Timor.

April 28, 2019 marked the 230th anniversary of the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty. Overlooked amid the ensuing blue water opera of passion, heroics and revenge is that the Bounty might be seen, whimsically perhaps, as the pioneer of South Pacific cruising. If so, was the tempestuous, brilliant William Bligh — who is officially credited with discovering 13 Pacific islands — the South Pacific’s first European tourist, even if its most reluctant one? As visitors to the Pacific today, we sail in the wake of Bligh and the Bounty.

Bruny Island, Tasmania. In August 1788, His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty, on a mission from England to Tahiti, made its first Pacific stop in Tasmania. As well as ‘discovering’ Hobart’s Mt Wellington, William Bligh planted at Adventure Bay seven apple trees — the very first the for future ‘Apple Isle’. On the shores of the bay, today’s Bligh Museum of Pacific Exploration commemorates the Bounty visit as well as those of other great navigators such as Cook, Flinders and D’Entrecasteaux.

Bounty Islands. On a roundabout route to its place in history, Bounty passed a desolate cluster of 13 granite islands in the Subantarctic. Now New Zealand territory, this uninhabited group is home to the world’s largest breeding colony of New Zealand fur seals and vast populations of seabirds. Bligh named the islands in honour of his ship, no doubt having in mind more glorious landmarks to append his own name to than these guano-bombed outcrops. The islands are now World Heritage-protected. Landing is prohibited and they are seen these days only by occasional expedition cruises. Bounty then headed north to warmer Pacific latitudes, but life at sea on any 18th century ship was always harsh and often more so under Bligh’s rigid discipline.

Tahiti, French Polynesia. The Society Islands, aka The Isles of Love, are renowned today for their lagoon resorts, vivid reefs and postcard lushness. To Bligh and the British Admiralty they simply meant breadfruit. Bounty’s mission was to collect a thousand saplings for transportation to the West Indies, hopefully to be used there as cheap food for sugar plantation slaves.

You can stand today on the black volcanic sands of Point Venus, 10 km from Papeete, and look across Matavai Bay to where Bounty rode at anchor for over five months during 1788 and 1789. While gathering the breadfruit plants, its crew were seduced by ‘paradise’ in the form of ample food and generous, amorous Polynesian consorts.

When Bounty up-anchored on 4 April, 1789 and sailed from ‘Otaheite’, its lowly sailors knew their days of near-aristocratic indulgence were reverting to the norm of being little more that seagoing slaves. (As the writer Dr Johnson noted after visiting a British man-of-war of that era, ‘Serving in a ship is like being in a prison — with a chance of drowning.’)Many of the crew, Fletcher Christian among them, were lovesick for their Tahitian sweethearts, while the caustic manner of Bligh, their master, commander and tormentor was salt to their wounds.

Cook Islands. All Polynesia had been populated by 1000 AD but Bligh is credited with ‘discovering’ Aitutaki — ‘Wytootackee’ — in the Cook Islands. He recorded, ‘I saw no Smoke or any Sign of Inhabitants, it is scarcely to be imagined however, that So charming a little Spot is without them.’ Bligh wasn’t the only ‘first white man to see’ part of the Cook Islands. Following the mutiny, Fletcher Christian aboard the fleeing Bounty sighted Rarotonga, which today is the most populous of the Cook Islands and its capital. But Fletch, being a no-good, shipjacker, would never be credited by the Admiralty with anything but heinous mutiny and thus candidature for hanging from the highest yard-arm. His sighting goes pointedly un-commemorated.

Tofua Island, Tonga. The Tongan Islands are known today as the Friendly Isles, a magnet for yachts, game fishing and whale watching, but as the Bounty wended its way through the archipelago in late April 1789, there were few friendly notions brewing on its foredeck. The rot set in terminally at Nomuka Island when Christian led an armed party ashore to find water but retreated under threat from hostile locals. Bligh publicly damned him as a ‘cowardly rascal’ afraid of ‘a set of Naked Savages’.

“Vintage engraving showing mutineers seizing Captain Bligh on board the Bounty. The Mutiny on the Bounty was a mutiny aboard the British Royal Navy ship HMS Bounty on 28 April 1789. The mutiny was led by Fletcher Christian against commanding officer Lieutenant William Bligh. According to most accounts, the sailors were attracted to the idyllic life on the Pacific island of Tahiti and were further motivated by harsh treatment from their captain.”

Picture this: 28 April 1789, beneath the brooding volcanic crown of Tofua Island in the Ha’apai Group, William Bligh is roused from his bunk at bayonet-point and thrown into the longboat, along with his 18 loyalists. Scant food and water, plus a sextant and compass, but no charts, are flung after them.

In this frail craft it was as far to the moon as to a safe shore. No blue lagoons or happy hour sundowners for these doomed men. But, as the mutineers set Bounty’s sail for Tahiti and its promises of languid paradise, the iron-willed Bligh set his own mind to the near-impossible, to navigate the tiny boat to Timor and revenge.

Fiji. Thus began the survivors’ 41-day, open-boat voyage, regarded as one of the most outstanding feats of seamanship in maritime history. As the first Europeans to sail through Fiji, Bligh marked their route so well that his chart of the ‘Bligh Islands’ (as he modestly named them and as Fiji was first known) is still useable today. The strait between the main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu remains named after him.

Fiji’s beautiful Yasawa Islands today are famed for resorts like Turtle Island and the 1980 Brooks Shields’ movie The Blue Lagoon. Inevitably, there is a Bounty Island Resort. For the castaways, however, if there were to be any picnic in the Yasawas, they feared that they would be the main delicacy. Bligh recorded his men as having to frantically out-row a pursuing canoe of supposedly salivating cannibals.

Restoration Island, Cape York Peninsula. Constantly rowing, and aided by only two small sails, they inched their way towards ‘New Holland’ and through the Great Barrier Reef. Many of the men could barely walk when on 28 May they beached on a sandy islet that Bligh called Restoration Island, where they found water, oysters and berries aplenty. They ate ravenously. The island (“Resto” to today’s locals) sits a few hundred meters offshore from the Lockhart River mainland and 800 kilometers north of Cairns.

In 1932 the young Errol Flynn, sailing to New Guinea in his schooner Sirocco, visited the island and was fascinated by its Bounty connection. He soon went on to play Fletcher Christian in his first film, the 1933 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. Some 70 years later, Russell Crowe, star of another maritime epic, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, lingered at Resto in 2003 while on a seafaring honeymoon with wife Danielle.

Kupang, Timor. Reaching the northernmost point of the Australian continent, aka New Holland, the wretched survivors found a passage, now known as Bligh Entrance, through the Torres Strait and rowed on, ever westwards. More dead than alive following their six-week voyage of ‘extreme hardship, brilliant navigation and mutual hatred’, they sailed into Kupang harbour, Dutch Timor, on 14 June 1789. Bligh, always a stickler for protocol, insisted on doing so under a makeshift Union Jack.

Today’s travellers might head to Indonesia’s West Timor for surfing on Roti Island or next door to independent Timor-Leste for birding, diving and mountain biking but, for Bligh, Timor was just the beginning of his furious return to England in order to restore his reputation and to call down the Admiralty’s implacable wrath on Fletcher Christian and company.

Pitcairn Island. Meanwhile, back on the Bounty, the mutineers hightailed it to Tahiti and the longed-for good life but, understanding too well the grisly penalty for mutiny, most of them knew better than to linger where the Admiralty would surely track them. Collecting their female consorts and six Tahitian men, Christian and eight mutineers sailed the Bounty off the map.

After desperately searching the ocean for a haven they came across uninhabited, uncharted Pitcairn Island in January 1790. They burned the Bounty to avoid discovery and thus became the first permanent European settlers in the Pacific Islands. Within months, however, they were at each other’s throats. Within a decade all but one of the mutineers were dead.

The fate of the vanished Bounty remained a mystery for almost 20 years until an American whaling ship stumbled upon the island in 1808 and was greeted by a gaggle of polite, robust, English-speaking, mixed-race youngsters and a white-bearded, Bible-quoting elder, the last surviving mutineer, John Adams. Visitors today can reach this truly remote corner of the Pacific, with MV Bravo Supporter calling there several times a year. Some Bounty remains, mostly ballast stones, remain visible in the clear waters of Pitcairn’s Bounty Bay.

Norfolk Island. The mutineers’ English-Tahitian descendants thrived and multiplied on tiny Pitcairn to the point of overcrowding. When Queen Victoria granted them lush Norfolk Island in 1856 the entire Pitcairn community of 194 people was relocated there. Today, there are resorts, good dining, reef diving and convict ruins on Norfolk. And, of course, Bounty lore and proud ‘Mutiny’ descendants galore.

Footnote: The author sailed in April 1989 on the 200th anniversary re-enactment of the mutiny aboard the replica vessel built for the 1984 movie, The Bounty.

© John Borthwick 2019

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CHASING GAUGUIN’S GHOST by John Borthwick

Gauguin's Grave

Paul Gauguin’s great granddaughter, Rosalie Tipaehaehae isn’t sitting half-naked, framed by a violet sea or sky, as though in one of her infamous ancestor’s paintings. Down by Atuona Harbour on Hiva Oa Island, she is sitting, in jeans and t-shirt, chatting with her friends on a hot Sunday afternoon.

Rosalie, in her mid-twenties, laughs when I ask if she paints? No way, she says – Grandpa Gauguin’s an impossible act to follow. And around here, the Marquesas Islands, not one that you’d really want to. In 1901, Rosalie’s great-grandmother, Marie-Rose Vaeoho, was just 14 when, to the horror of the colonial missionaries, she took up with the recently-arrived 53-year old French painter and later gave birth to his daughter.

Eleven decades after his death, in 1903, we still picture Polynesia through Gauguin’s eyes. He had travelled here to feed Europe’s hunger for “primitive” subject matter in art and to find paradise on earth. Volcanic, cloud-crowned Hiva Oa was as close as he would get.

Gauguin museum

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848. His life was to become the template – or trope – of the Romantic artist: chasing love and inspiration in all the wrong places, and instead finding exile and dissipation. Throw in what used to be known as social diseases, plus more than social drinking, and you might have a portrait of the artist as a loser.

After a childhood spent partly in Peru, Gauguin became a Paris stockbroker in 1872, but success in the city and complacency in the suburbs were not to be his fate. A self-taught painter, he quit the stock market in 1882 and, obsessed with art, left his wife and five children in 1885.

In Brittany, he worked briefly with Vincent van Gogh. The end of their volatile friendship was the precursor to Van Gogh’s infamous “ear incident.” By 1890, Gauguin’s work was out of favour with Paris. “Gauguin was like a cornered dog,” notes Nancy Mowll Mathews, author of a critical biography, Paul Gauguin, An Erotic Life. “He was harrying friends for cash and desperately proposing one new money-making scheme after another.”

Gauguin Tahiti dancer 5

Inspiration came from an unexpected quarter. “Her eyes were of a tawny black, full of exotic languor and coaxing softness,” novelist Pierre Loti had written of Rarahu, a Tahitian beauty who had entranced him in 1872. His hugely popular tale about their love affair, Le Mariage de Loti, was lush with exotic romance and fanned Europe’s passion for “the primitive”. Among its readers was Gauguin. He decided to travel to Tahiti, proclaiming, “It is necessary for me to steep myself in virgin nature, to see no one but savages.” Thus began his self-mythologising as an aesthetic castaway, a Robinson Crusoe of the libido.

On the inauspicious date of April Fools Day, 1891, Gauguin – of dark, bohemian appearance, sporting long hair and a cape – embarked from Marseille. Arriving in Papeete just after his 43rd birthday, he prepared to meet King Pomare V, hoping for royal patronage. Instead, the king, a terminal alcoholic, dropped dead. With his funds soon running out, Gauguin agreed to accept portrait commissions. His first subject was a sturdy, middle-aged matron whom he rendered with striking fidelity, including her scarlet nose, ensuring that his first commission was also his last.

Anyhow, Papeete, he declared, was already too bourgeois. He decamped to the coastal village of Mataiea, eventually setting up house with Teha’amana, a 14-year old vahine (by Polynesian standards of the time, a mature woman). Her face, he said, “shone like gold, tinging everything with its lustre”. They lived in relative contentment from 1891 to 1893, during which Gauguin produced 66 major works. In them, he celebrated Tahiti as an untrammelled realm of handsome, brooding figures, most notably women, amid vivid landscapes.

The subtext, however, of his “painter in paradise” existence was poor health and exhausted finances. After two years, he returned to Paris. What was to be a triumphant exhibition of his paintings ended as a debacle. His use of broad areas of bold colour, his Tahitian subjects – almost hypnotically strong figures – and his idiosyncratic, flat compositions outran critics and buyers alike. The proceeds of the exhibition barely covered expenses. In 1895 he embarked again for Tahiti in what one writer called “a spirit of doomed renunciation”.

Gauguin Tahiti dance 1

“It’s not such a bad life at present. Every night frenzied young girls invade my bed.” Gauguin persisted in mythologising himself and Polynesia. In fact, as Tahitian writer Loana Sanford notes, “it is unlikely that, with one leg infected and purulent, he would have had that much success with [women], particularly as Tahitians attach great importance to personal hygiene.”

His life on Tahiti resumed its cycle of financial insecurity, intense painting, a new teenage wife, illness and diatribes against French colonial ways. “Gauguin seems to have fallen for the myth of Tahiti he created,” says author Mathews. “He returned expecting the erotic idyll that was only ever a figment of his imagination. Of course, he didn’t find it and the disappointment was profound”.

In 1898, he painted a huge, fresco-like masterpiece (now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) intended to be his terminal philosophical summation, D’où venons nous? Que sommes nous? Où allons nous? (Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?). Suicide by arsenic was to follow but, even this, he botched by ingesting so much poison that he vomited it all back up.

In 1901, art dealer Ambroise Vollard made Gauguin the unexpected offer of a guaranteed monthly income. “Life is merely a fraction of a second. An infinitely small amount of time to fulfil our desires, our dreams, our passions,” Gauguin had written. Perhaps sensing that not much time remained to him if he wished to fulfil his dream of finding a Polynesian Elysium, he abandoned yet another wife and child on Tahiti, and sailed for the distant, verdant Marquesas Islands.

To ingratiate himself with the all-important missionary authorities on Hiva Oa, Gauguin attended mass for 11 days in a row. Having thus convinced the local bishop of his piety, he was permitted to purchase land in the little village of Atuona. He then constructed a large studio-home, gave it the scandalous title “Masion du Jouir” (House of Pleasure), took a new teenage mistress, invited the locals in to roister – and never darkened the church doorway again. As he further refined and simplified his Post-Impressionist imagery over his last 19 months of life, the rest of his affairs, in contrast, descended into chaos.

Gauguin Tahiti male dancer

Some versions of him in the Marquesas have him too ill to paint; others have him too ill to do anything but paint. Either way, Gauguin could barely walk due to his ulcerated legs and so he travelled by horse-drawn buggy. Having provoked the ire of Atuona’s gendarmes whom he had libellously accused of bribery, he was summoned for driving at night without lights — supposedly endangering other traffic. His buggy, as the gendarmes failed to point out, was the only wheeled vehicle in the Marquesas.

Morphine, laudanum, absinth, syphilis, ulcers. The contributors to Gauguin’s final decline are numerous. He retreated to his House of Pleasure and, on 8 May 1903, expired miserably. Officially, he died of a heart attack but quite possibly he ended his life with morphine. The bureaucrat who finalised his estate wrote that, “The few pictures left by the late painter who belonged to the decadent school have little prospect of finding purchasers”.

The Marquesas archipelago today is still a place of primal beauty, where the mountains plunge almost vertically to the sea, with their buttressed flanks like the folds of an emerald curtain. At the foot of their cathedral peaks are tiny villages tucked into a narrow coastal plain. Other than a few French bureaucrats and gendarmes, the faces here seem to have stepped from a Gauguin canvas.

Not far from where I meet his great granddaughter, the artist who almost single-handedly invented our idea of Tahiti, lies buried in a boulder tomb. Marked simply, “Paul Gauguin 1903”, the grave is the main visitor attraction in little Atuona, if not the entire Marquesas. With frangipani and rosewood trees shading him, it is as tranquil a place as any on earth to spend a century or an eternity.

Gauguin's girls 2

©2014 John Borthwick. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.