Creative Nonfiction: Selections from Ian C Smith

From Christian to Christianity

Now that John Adams, one of the four who dragged Bligh from his cabin, stands alone bereft of adult male company, the knowledgeable Polynesian widows remain rooted to their rituals, shouts and laughter of their communally raised children mingling with seabirds’ cries echoing over garden fields they till.  They carried the skulls and other bones of their slain lovers until forced by the remaining men to re-inter them.  They wear flowers, too, the glittering immensity of ocean sequestering this oddly balanced domestic existence.
Poor Adams’ memory plays tricks.  Did crazy Quintal who was dead drunk, then dead, when killed by Ned Young with an axe, mock Mr Christian from his afterlife?  Or did Williams grin from the widows’ waist belts at Young who started their trouble?  Had Young’s rotten teeth at last fallen out?  Hips sway, clank, clank, this remembered sound unnerving a stranded survivor who thought so many women to himself a godsend at first.
What a life, his old dad, a servant who drowned in the stinking Thames, would have chortled could he have foreseen the lurid action his beached cockney son witnessed, Reckless Jack on the Bounty, now this reluctant patriarch.  Balmy weather, time for a bit of skiving – all the time in the world – but worry disturbs barely literate Adams who originally signed on for this saga as Alexander Smith.
When drunk he dreams of a revelatory visitation, an avenging angel who pierces his heart, resurrecting the chest tattoo of Ned Young.  The widows share their secrets, but only amongst each other, eating together without him.  Hoping to wean them off their heathen rites, recalling Mr Christian had them recite the prayer of the Prodigal Son, like so many others have done he turns to the Bible, the late Mr Christian’s found at the bottom of his sea chest.  Clink, clink the memory of those hips echoes into a new century of discovery.

The Politics of Justice

Beyond this gunroom sea fog wreathes the hull when James Morrison arrives to read lay scripture.  John Millward, Plymouth-born, much lashed, literate, a suffering voyager come to port, softly sings while his mates cling to worn jokes: Three blind mice, see how they run, they all took off for the island life.  Morrison, who has faced down his share of troubles, knows this morning his humanity shall be tested.
A predictable end considering soaring wheat prices, increased taxation, and persistent rumours of Parisian grotesquerie, their macabre justice system run riot.  Quelle horreure! Indeed.  So, give’em a show, reinforce proof of wave-ruling.  Pageantry creates optimism.  After that courts martial codswallop the final scene – it should be famous but isn’t – begins at Spithead where this shambles began.
The doomed trio greet Morrison in Tahitian, their long night over too soon.  James’ eyes focus in the gloom, his gaze forcing the foul marshal’s sneer to waver, notes Tom Burkitt’searnest scrimshaw as memento mori.  Ogled by ghoulish spectators he smiles at runty Tom Ellison, a boy, but long since a tough little nut, recollection lingering on Ellison’s flawed charm, his perky cheek when stranded on a sand island off New South Wales’ coast.
The chief witness, progenitor of high drama that hovers today, has embarked elsewhere, perhaps seeking hiatus from troublemaking.  No lawyer questioned him, but then, he scorned language’s rituals.  Portsmouth’s taverns shall fill later, thousands of sightseers on the harbour, the Brunswickgirdled by wherries, although disgusted respectable folk vacate town in protest.  Fog clearing.  An eerie absence of seagulls.  Whispered conversations, stifled coughs.
Morrison, who is clever, was pardoned, patiently indulges Ellison’s account of a smart mongrel dog from early boyhood before the four kneel, forming a circle, backs, necks, exposed, hearts beating strongly.  Then the three barefoot sailor lads, memories of unspoiled Otaheiti their inheritance, jog to the catheads in sacrificial white, toeing the line, jaunty for scapegoats.
They accept their Janus-faced verdicts like ignorant schoolboys blamed for some jape.  Toes gripping for balance, Millward delivers a strong speech in defence of their prosecutors, rope caressing his feather tattoo.  Do the others think of Bounty now?  The great gun fires.  See their used bodies twirl.  Seagulls resume crying, sounding not righteous, but mournful on the wind that has picked up.

Slipping Away in Shadow

In one of Bligh’s books, perhaps Carteret’s Voyage Round the World, he reads of four Pacific islets, the main one with rugged crags, plant life, and a waterfall, sighted by The Swallow.  A waterfall!  Possibly unexplored?  They leave Tubuai, abandoning Fort George according to their vote.  Now, four days later, back in Otaheiti, Fletcher observes Morrison, Stewart, and wild Quintal hail their lovers who climb, flowers in their hair, deft, urgent, to Bounty’s loaded deck where they press, flesh to flesh, their returning mutineers.  Stewart’s baby daughter cries, excited, her daddy laughing and sobbing.  Friendlier than the unFriendly Isles, quips the wryly literate Morrison after Chapter Two of their troubles in Tubuai.
Energised, everybody strives, unloading gear and livestock ship to shore, buoyant with love, especially the natives’ for their Titreano who shall have reason to feel uneasy when these long days’ labour, then music and feasting, are done.  All agreed he should have The Bounty.  Those who don’t stand a chance of acquittal, eight of his men, will continue sailing with him in search of a haven, the rest electing to remain in Otaheiti.  The skeleton crew has its share of supplies, native men, and some women, including Fletcher’shigh-born love, Mauatua.
You can fly across the Pacific in a window seat for many hours without seeing land yet more than 25,000 islands speckle its swell.  Who has never enjoyed a reverie about a perfect uninhabited island, or is unfamiliar with Robinson Crusoe’s situation?  But before 1789 every island between Hawai’i and New Zealand that could sustain life had been settled at some time. Fugitive Fletcher can’t leave Otaheitisoon enough, reminders of human sacrifice displayed, skulls, bones, even still rotting flesh, locals inured to its stench that troubles Europeans.  Learning of a plot to wrest the ship from him, Fletcher, several stowaways aboard, slips the cable quietly overnight without alerting anybody.  Some visiting the ship jump overboard when they realise they are underway.  No farewells.
Their ensuing four-month long zigzagged odyssey, a constant wap-wap of wind on sail, includes Rarotonga and Mangaiastopovers where the heavily-laden Bounty appears on the horizon to local natives as a floating island.  Here, a mutineer shoots dead for no reason a native Fletcher befriends.  Outraged, master of the quarterdeck but holding power no longer, Fletcher can only deplore this insanity, shouldering an escalating burden of guilt. Cleaved from his prominent family forever, another book he shall read is his bible, today’s Pitcairn Bible, when he leads services for his volatile mixed-race clan at final landfall.  Three days before Fletcher turned twenty-five barely a soul witnessed Bounty’s faint tracery of sails leaving Tahiti for the last time carrying a yearning for freedom weighted with regret.

Ian C Smith's work has been widely published. He writes in the Gippsland Lakes region of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.