American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

MUTINIES. Mutiny at sea describes an act of collective insubordination by a crew against their vessel’s captain or officers. The term mutiny dates back to the sixteenth century, when it was commonly applied to military insubordination; more recent usage generally implies maritime applications. Though U.S. law differentiates between mutiny on a naval vessel and mutiny on a merchant vessel, the implied intent of the word and the illegality of the act remain the same.

Given its dramatic and confrontational nature, mutiny has played a pivotal role in numerous works of American literature. Perhaps the most famous mutiny of all, that aboard the H.M.S. Bounty in April 1789, has also inspired the most fiction. A small selection of Bountyana historical fiction includes Charles Nordhoff* and James Norman Hall’s Bounty trilogy (Mutiny on the Bounty [1932], Men against the Sea [1934], Pitcairn Island [1934]), Louis Becke and Walter Jeffery’s The Mutineer (1898), Eric Wilson’s Adams of the Bounty (1959), and William Kinsolving’s Mister Christian (1996). Nordhoff and Hall focus on the historical events surrounding the mutiny, the mutineers’ eventual arrival on Pitcairn Island,* and Captain Bligh’s remarkable 3,618-mile voyage through the South Pacific in an open boat. Kinsolving writes about Fletcher Christian’s return to England from Pitcairn and his eventual involvement with the English mass mutinies at The Nore and at Spithead (1797), while Becke and Jeffery suggest an alternative end to Christian’s life. The Last Mutiny by Bill Collett (1993) describes Captain Bligh’s life after returning home.

Events on board the U.S. brig Somers,* in which Commadore Alexander Slidell Mackenzie* hanged three men suspected of conspiring to incite mutiny, influenced and inspired considerable analysis in Herman Melville’s* Billy Budd* (1924), which questions what is and is not mutinous action. Herman Wouk’s* The Caine Mutiny (1951) is another classic story of naval insurrection, this time set in World War II. Captain Queeg’s* infatuation with trivial regulations and his inability to handle important issues of discipline and command force his crew to relieve him of duty during a raging typhoon.

Edgar Allan Poe’s* The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket* (1838) draws its story from the 1824 mutiny on board the Nantucket* whaler Globe.* The Globe mutiny inspired several books, and Poe probably read A Narrative of the Mutiny on Board the Whaleship Globe of Nantucket (1828), by William Lay and Cyrus Hussey, two survivors of the mutiny who were marooned* in the Mulgrave Islands. The fictional and factual versions of this story influenced Melville’s Moby-Dick* (1851); Melville includes excerpts from Lay and Hussey’s story and another Globe story in Moby-Dick’s “Extracts."

Jack London’s* The Mutiny of the Elsinore (1914) highlights the divisions of class; despite knowing nothing of the sea, the upper-class narrator successfully controls a mutiny among the lower-class crew long enough to guide the ship toward Valparaiso and safety. In London’s classic novel The Sea-Wolf* (1904), the brutal Wolf Larsen* attempts, but eventually fails, to maintain total domination of his vessel in the face of physical threats from the crew and intellectual threats from Humphrey Van Weyden, the rich aesthete whom the Ghost picks up on its way to the Bering sealing grounds.

Eugene O’Neill’s* short play Ile (1917) explores the causes of mutiny in the story of an icebound whaling ship in search of oil (“ile,” in the captain’s vernacular). Like Larsen in The Sea-Wolf, Captain Keeney crushes physical threats from the crew, but he cannot halt the intellectual effects of his actions. His wife’s descent toward madness causes him to turn toward home, until the ice clears and whales are spotted; O’Neill explores how the two mutinies affect Captain Keeney in different ways.

Middle Passage* (1990), by Charles Johnson, describes mutiny on another hell-ship, this one returning from Africa in 1830 with a cargo of slaves* and the slaves’ god in an enormous crate. The intersection of two mutinies and a countermutiny creates conflicts that reflect America’s longstanding struggles regarding slavery. Johnson’s main characters recall those in Moby-Dick. [See also BLAKE: OR THE HUTS OF AMERICA] FURTHER READING: Guttridge, Leonard F. Mutiny: A History of Naval Insurrection. Annapolis: Naval Institute P. 1992; Kopley, Richard, ed. Poe’s Pym: Critical Explorations. Durham: Duke UP, 1992; Rose, Elihu. “The Anatomy of Mutiny,” Armed Forces and Society 8 (1982): 561-74.

Peter H. McCracken