Running Before the Wind:
Three Lyric Essays
Beneath Tofua’s Bubbling Caldera
Offensive, hectoring, sure, but you can’t question Bligh’s nerve, duty, seamanship. Remembering Cook’s death, that eerie clacking of stones, he knows this time the end could be nigh after overhearing the locals talking of what he believed was his likely murder. Another day, another beach stoning. Updating his log, flapping at mosquitoes, engaging his agenda—further trading—breadfruit still all the go so long as only this intended cheap starchy slave food went in the pot, he had seemed relaxed earlier in the cool cave.
Entrusted with the log, and the message of their imminent flight, Gunner Peckover walks the stony beach. Mr Fryer, who had shared with Bligh the irksome cramped cabin situation amid the Bounty’s prolific breadfruit nursery, must keep the launch Bligh has loaded surreptitiously in close for a quick getaway. Peckover takes a deep breath, pretends he strolls by the Oxford Canal of childhood instead of resolutely pushing through this massed counter-culture demo. Emboldened by the Bounty’s no-show, some snatch at the log sensing its importance.
Clacking begun, the shore party makes its move. Bligh flourishes one of their four cutlasses at warriors trying to heave the launch ashore, hissing the kind of invective that humiliated Mr Christian to tears, not to mention a career change to stun the world. As these mutiny survivors wade through small surf rocks smack them. Overweight John Norton turns hero, faces the mob, sacrificing his chance of home to defend their grapnel line.
With Purcell, a man much maligned by him, steadfastly at his side, Bligh is last into the launch after hauling their way along the line they cut. Peckover pulls at the oars, Norton’s blood in the water annulling all previous jibes at his blubbery expense. But their grapnel has fouled. Stones splashing and cracking all around, death shrieks at them through rushing foam. Then one of many zigzags in this epic: a flute breaks under the strain.
The vital gap widening between them as the launch draws towards the sun dying on the horizon, the thankless offended, their home gatecrashed, used, leap to their canoes. Peckover, his face a gargoyle of wounds from the hail of heavy stones he shall tell tales about in Wapping until he is seventy, rows stoutly, but the swift outriggers close. Knowing they must die horribly, cheating him of his day in court, Bligh orders their old gear jettisoned. The pursuers abandon the chase, dive overboard for shirts floating like saltwater lily-pads.
Seventeen mariners and the master of their fate with a little more supplies than what they possessed on arrival, but without all that fresh food swimming beneath them they never catch, head into the dusk and history ever tightening their belts over what clothes they have left, only 12,000 miles of days and nights under wind-ripped sail squashed in a twenty-three foot boat before them. For those who make it.
The Bounty mutineers call her ‘Jenny’. She initially links up with Adams, Reckless Jack, his bogus initials, AS, tattooed on her arm, one of a dozen Tahitian women aboard when the fugitives sail off in search of a refuge that emerges one bright horizon day as Pitcairn where she becomes Isaac Martin’s concubine. The only woman on that rock jutting from the ocean to remain childless for the next decade, surely a factor in her eventual flight from those blood-soaked adventures, a leader of her sisterhood, her independence and strength drives her to fashion a raft, an émigré’s heartsick bid for home.
Capsizing in the hazardous surf seething around Pitcairn’s craggy cliffs she shepherds her all-women crew back to stranded short-lived safety, to all those unmarked graves, untold tales. Her attempt mirrors that of James Morrison, a mutineer who chose to stay in Tahiti. His boat built with the help of plentiful labour, tools, and materials, proves most seaworthy, but he is captured. She finally leaves Pitcairn’s gruesome reminders after persuading the captain of a whaler, American like her murdered Philadelphian, Martin, into taking her as a cook’s assistant, wondering which, if any, of her people might still be alive in Tahiti, but travel plans can go awry.
Compelled to return to her 2,300 kilometre-distant homeland she procures berths on several voyages, communicating in pidgin Tahitian English, travelling 24,000 kilometres, or 60% of Earth’s circumference including that piracy stronghold, the Spanish Main, her longest link, 7,400 kilometres between Chile and the Marquesas Islands aboard The Sultan. After almost thirty years isled on the same two square miles, much of it mountainous, this free spirit produces a tour de force through dwindling time. Her face unknown to us, her hands were described in The Sydney Gazette as much worn with work. Our hands, like our faces, testify to our lives.
Peter Heywood leaving a tavern in Fore Street at Plymouth Dock, bored, rum warming his blood, tincture of seaweed flaring his nostrils, sees a ghost from twenty years past. Mr Christian! he cries. Fletcher! There had long been rumours Fletcher Christian found his way home in mufti, even conjecture he was hidden on an island in Lake Windermere. The swart figure sways with Fletcher’s bow-legged gait, turns hesitantly. Heywood, who recorded Tahitian grammar, survived extensive naval service of historical weight as an officer after that mutiny, no fool, cries out again but the hailed figure rushes away, shouldering through the throng.
Heywood, whose family’s house on The Isle of Man Bligh rented when he tracked smugglers before Bounty’s ill-fated breadfruit run, also survived shipwreck off Australia’s north-east coast’s wicked coral reefs as a manacled seventeen year-old accused mutineer. Family connections had his death sentence, arranged for appearances, commuted. Their lawyers rehearsed him in word usage, tones of voice, facial expressions, and his carriage, with strict emphases on whatever they forbade, avoiding incrimination. They costumed and coaxed as if directing a tragedy, which this was, with him playing a crucial, albeit muted, role. After acquittal he was free to praise Fletcher’s character and caustically condemn Bligh for his swinish hatred of both Fletcher, Heywood’s kind instructor on Bounty’s outward voyage, and himself.
Market day, heavy with humanity under lowering cloud, Heywood a hound sniffing a spoor, heart hammering. A cartwheel’s mud spatters, sticks, the way mud does. He stumbles on a cobblestone as his quarry hurries into a side street. Onlookers stare, invent cause and effect as he continues to search, steamy with urgency. He first saw this doppelganger from the back, then his face, obliquely. Futility finally halting him, he enters another tavern, blown, muttering, sweat-soaked the way he remembers Fletcher when he said Bligh had put him in Hell.
Both Heywood and his sister, Nessie, wrote poetry. She, like Byron and Coleridge later, alluded to the Bounty business, but the comparison ends there. In Tahiti he shaped a poem that uncannily coincided with their father’s death in England around the same time, unknown to him so far from home. Nessie defended her brother loyally in heart-rending verse and letters only to be silenced by consumption a year after her brother’s release.
He scans faces of seafaring types drinking who shift uncomfortably from his intense scrutiny, breathes slower, orders a double tot weighing ridicule against belief if he should write about this. Feeling like the tattooed midshipman lad he once was he falls to day-dreaming: heat on his back, buttocks, legs, deliriously joyful days, becoming a boy father, and back further to sweat shining in brilliant sunlight, a stricken expression, that hugely regretted, suicidal day when reason slipped its ropes. The past washes over him, wave upon wave, as if from a vast ocean.