Bethia by Tom Liberman

What really happened aboard HMS Bounty?

Even before Tahiti some degeneracy among the crew, a superstitious lot to begin with, could only be expected. You learn about it somewhere, blockading the French, escorting Indiamen traders on their way to London, or some other lonely place on the high seas. It doesn't take long to realize that every ship must tolerate some occult practices and superstitions amongst the crew. When a journey, like ours, takes a ship to the heathen's own country for a protracted stay only the worst can be expected. I accepted it in the same way I overlooked the rats and roaches that shared my ship and usually my berth as well.

The Bethia, as the sailors led by Christian now insisted upon calling our ship, after months in the idyllic paradise of Tahiti, now took us back to our civilized homes in England. Some of the changes acquired during the long stay in Tahiti did not cause alarm, the brown skin of the sailors, the variety of tattoos sported on various body parts and the changed language of the crew who now used Tahitian phrases as a part of everyday life. Other changes signified more dangerous things. The true horror of this barbarian world would soon make itself overbearingly apparent to me.

The first inkling of the deeper and frightening change among the sailors came to my attention during mess after the coconut incident. Earlier in the day Captain Bligh, a stern and generally unfair master, found some of his coconuts missing. Bligh's exacting nature allowed him, at least in his own mind, to be quite certain of every last item of the ship's inventory. He threw the predictable fit. This time poor Fletcher Christian, our first mate and my good friend, suffered the captain's attack and bore a great deal of resentment. Fletcher was, I should say is for I do not know what truly happened to him, a proud man and being dressed down by Bligh in front of the whole crew gnawed at his belly. I could not tell you if this one incident brought about all that follows, but it seemed to be the turning point in our ordeal. Bligh ended by cutting the daily allowance of yams for the men and making sure everyone knew the ship would return to his iron hand for the long voyage back to England.

The stay in the idyllic island paradise lessened the structure of command and all the men, including myself, grew used to a life away from the hard discipline of the Royal Navy. Charitably, I assumed Bligh used the coconuts as an excuse to remind the men of their duty to the ship now that the nirvana of Tahiti lay behind us. Bligh believed strongly, possibly too strongly, that the harsh discipline of the Royal Navy forced the men to stay in line. Still, the berating of his second in command went against the nature of most captains of the Fleet. It did morale no good to humiliate officers in front of the men. Christian took the berating badly and disappeared into his cabin in a sullen sulk directly after the incident.

During mess that evening I found myself in the company of Samuel, the captain's clerk and a certain toady; Peckover, a Gunner; and young Robert Tinkler a fellow Midshipman. Charles Churchill, the Master-at-Arms, came into the hall and asked Samuel to help him with some minor duty involving inventory. Samuel grumbled, but even he knew enough not to disobey a direct order. It didn't seem unusual to me at the time, but now I realize Churchill removed Samuel so that we could discuss the captain in privacy. The captain would hear any words spoken within earshot of the clerk within a few short hours.

As soon as Samuel's frame passed through the door, Tinkler leaned close to me and glancing once around said with a mischievous grin, "'Twas I who stole the coconuts."

"Then it is you we have to blame for the dressing down," I said although I couldn't help smile with the rambunctious young man. With sandy blond hair, even brighter after the long months in the sun, a bright smile and a baby smooth chin, Tinkler could have starred on the stage as Hamlet or even a young Desdemona.

"I took it for a ceremony, the Tahitians taught us. we're doing tonight in the forward hold. You need to have a coconut."

"What kind of ceremony?" I asked although I remembered some small hints of dark things that slipped from the Tahitians in unguarded moments.

"It's just to summon a good wind for the trip back to London," explained Tinkler with an infectious smile and dissuasive wave of his right hand. "We don't want the trip back under Bligh to last any longer than possible."

I couldn't help notice the snake-head tattoo that peeped out ominously from his shirtsleeve and a chill roamed down my spine. I thought seriously about alerting the captain to the black magic going on below decks, but assumed it would not cause real trouble. Bligh overreacted to almost every situation and I can honestly say I disapproved of the harshness he displayed in running the daily life of the ship.

"You're invited too," said Tinkler with apparent disinterest.

"No. No thank you, Robert. I'll leave the magic up to you and the crew. Really, you should be careful about associating with the men in those kinds of activities. It can't be good for discipline."

I forgot the encounter until early the next afternoon while standing on the quarterdeck with Captain Bligh. His face bore an expression of pure contentment that I noted because Christian still sulked in humiliation and rage. It seemed impossible that the captain did not realize how his second in command felt and, for that matter, the rest of the crew. Christian's popularity among the crew far outstripped that of Bligh and I suppose it is possible the captain wanted to lower the mate in the estimation of the men. His dressing down accomplished exactly the opposite and the crew looked sullen and furtive.

Bligh looked to me and said, "Well, Byam, we seem to have an excellent breeze for England."

Then I remembered Tinkler and his coconut and a cold fear revisited my spine as I realized the accuracy of the captain's assessment. A strong wind blew from the northwest, pushing the ship towards London at a great rate. Bligh seemed satisfied with that single comment and headed back towards his cabin without a further word.

I stood on the quarterdeck for what seemed an eternity as crewmen went about their business all around and above me. I tried to appear innocent, walking up and down the deck while looking closely at the sailors to detect any suspicious behavior.

John Sumner, an able seaman working in the riggings, larked about with a great grin on his face and I watched him through the corner of my eye for a few minutes. At one point he licked his index finger and raised it into the air checking the wind direction. He smiled and waved to Isaak Martin, another seaman also fifty feet up in the riggings, and made a strange motion with his hand. Martin smiled back and returned the motion, but put his palms down as if to suppress the other man's actions.

I managed to contain a wave of panic that spread over my body at this strange exchange and I determined to head below deck to Christian's cabin and discuss the matter with him. Soon duty caught up, occupying me for the rest of the afternoon and I forgot my plans of a meeting with Christian. At about two bells that morning, my normal watch, I was on deck chatting with Tinkler. Christian appeared on the after ladderway and took a dozen turns up and down the deck before he observed me standing between the guns.

"Oh, it's you, Byam," he said in an unsteady voice. "Do you know that he invited me to eat dinner with him this evening?"

"Did you go?" I asked hoping that Bligh planned an apology of some sort. An explanation, farfetched no doubt, that would put an end to the hatred brewing in Christian.

"Of course not," he spat with a look of contempt. Then gloom returned to his face. Never before, and I hope never again, did I witness such a look of bleak despair. Christian seemed at the very end of his endurance. "We're in his complete power. Officers and men to be kicked about like dogs and there can be no relief until we reach England." He paused for a moment as if contemplating something and then spoke again. "Byam, if something should happen and I couldn't reach home, would you go see my family in Cumberland?"

"Of course," I replied. "You can count on me."

"Good! That's settled then."

He started to walk away but I remembered my plan to talk with him and I shouted out, "Christian . . . there is another matter I want to speak to you about."

He turned and walked back to me with a quizzical expression on his face. "What is it?"

"Some of the men seem to be involved in a Black Mass taught to them by the Tahitians and it concerns me."

"Yes," he said. "I've noticed the same thing. I believe a ceremony took place last night."

"We need to do something," I replied. "I'm no friend of Bligh, but we cannot tolerate such evil below deck."

"You're right, Byam," he said his body rigid. "I think something is planned for this evening. I'll go below deck and put a stop to it. No need for you to involve yourself in the matter. I'm glad you brought this up to me, Byam, for my mind is occupied with other thoughts."

Something in Christian's attitude bothered me as he departed to return below deck. I looked around and noticed Tinkler still standing nor far from me. "Robert," I said. "Do you have another ceremony scheduled for this evening?"

He looked darkly at me for a few moments and finally nodded.

"I'd avoid it. Christian knows and plans to break it up. You can't trust black magic. I guess anything seems better than Bligh, but we'll be in England soon enough and you can ship out on a better vessel than this."

Again he looked at me, with a black glow in his normally bright eyes for a few seconds, and then turned his back and followed Christian below deck, pausing to utter only one phrase, "Wind's favorable today, is it not?"

Those final words from Tinkler sealed my fate. Now I knew that I must go below deck and check on the crew. I could not let Christian face the madness below alone. If a young, intelligent, midshipman like Tinkler could fall prey to the superstition of the islands then the men must be deeply into the degeneracy. I resolved to wait another couple of hours on deck and then creep below to find out how deep the darkness seeped.

Those hours seemed to pass with the slowness that always accompanies great anticipation or dread. As time pasted the temperature seemed to drop to an unnaturally cool level, for I soon found myself shivering and contemplating going below deck for my pea coat. The wind stopped blowing for the first time since the previous evening and a most unnatural fog began to thinly form about the ship. I almost lost my nerve and let Christian deal with the situation, but I managed to bolster my courage with the help of a jigger of rum. At the sound of six bells I made my way below deck to the cargo holds. The fog and cold made the ladders slick and I almost tumbled headfirst to my death as I slowly sneaked down to the hold. It sometimes seems to me that I should have fallen to my death that night rather than witness the events of the next twenty four hours. Still the hold on life is precious and one not to let slip through loose fingers.

The fog seemed denser as I crept slowly through the darkness. I knew the ship backward and forward and trusted my memory to avoid using a lamp and alerting those ahead. A red glow bathed the entire cargo hold as I approached. A group of sailors squatted in a circle looking intently into the middle at some unseen activity. The ceremony seemed to have attracted more than half the crew, including some of the higher ranking officers, I noted as my approach brought me close enough to see their faces in the dim red haze.

I heard a strangled voice, from the center of the men, uttering sounds I could not identify as a language. It sounded like a man trying to use words not intended for a human throat and my stomach heaved for a moment threatening to dislodge my supper of rum. Shaking my head to clear it of the unnatural fear, I continued forward although my very fibers urged me to turn and run. The men in the circle began to chant words in the language of the Tahitians, but I could make no sense of their arrangement. I recognized individual words, but the phrases seemed unconnected like a young child's random babbling. Interspersed were other words of an unknown language, Dagon, Shoggoth, Tekeli-li, and others that I cannot pronounce nor spell with any accuracy.

Approaching closely enough to see what captivated the men in the center, I fear I gasped in utter shock. Luckily the men remained too occupied with their own unholy actions and I remained hidden. Christian, trusted and loyal, stood in the middle of the gaping men, his face twisted into a shocking grimace. The strange words seemed to leap unbidden from his mouth without his consent; his eyes rolled back into his head like those of a shark gulping its prey. He grasped a rat in his left hand, a ship's dirk in his right. The chanting of the men seemed to reach some kind of crescendo, with repeated references to Dagon, and Christian plunged his dagger into the belly of the helpless rat. With a swift motion he disemboweled the creature and began to pour its blood onto the deck in some kind of careful pattern.

I stood totally frozen at the spectacle, unable to utter a word of protest or horror, as Christian continued to spread the blood about. Then he took the rat by the tail, raised it over his head like an owl, and lowered it towards his mouth. A shrill screech tore itself through my paralyzed throat as the rat began to disappear down his gullet. The men still took no notice of me, but Christian somehow managed to smile at me as he slurped down the tail of the creature.

I felt my grip on consciousness slipping as darkness slowly engulfed me. As I slid to the floor a voice came from the other side of the gloom. "You men break up this unholy practice!" shouted Bligh and a scuffle broke out, but that is the last I remember of the horrible early morning ritual.

A rough hand shook me awake at what time I do not know. I recognized Captains Bligh's voice amongst the shouting from the deck above. For a brief moment it seemed that I had dreamed the entire episode of the previous evening and the world remained the orderly place I always thought. Then I noticed Thompson holding a musket with the bayonet fixed standing guard over the arms chest and the horror of the night before returned to my mind in full force.

Then Churchill spoke, "Get your wits together, Byam. We have taken the ship and Captain Bligh is a prisoner."

I must have stared at him in amazement for a moment, because he waved his bayonet at me in a menacing fashion and I found myself compelled to go up on deck. For a moment I thought it still must have been evening as darkness cloaked the ship. An incredibly dense fog seemed to surround us, but I could make out the brightness of the sun barely penetrating the evil. The men, I do not know whether to damn them by calling them mutineers or devil worshipers, led me to the mainmast where Bligh stood bound and shirtless. His eyes lolled unseeing in his head and a white foam dribbled from his lips. To see the captain hopelessly insane ripped any hope of salvation from my breast. There could be no doubt as to our fate in the hands of a mad crew.

Soon the mutineers rounded up the rest of the uninvolved crew including Thomas Huggan the surgeon, John Fryer the master, William Purcell the strong and steady carpenter, George Stewart a fellow midshipman and various seamen. With little ceremony they tied us to various masts and bulkheads while they danced about in amusement.

Young Ellison, a good-natured lad, seemed to treat the entire episode as a lark of some kind. He capered about Bligh shouting insults at him and waving a cutlass with reckless abandon. Some of the mutineers did not seem to understand the underlying Satanist bent to their comrade's ravings. I noted, with a glimmer of hope, these sailors looking at the unnatural fog and shrinking away into safer corners of the ship.

After an eternity of waiting, Christian appeared naked on the deck, his body painted with strange symbols and many of the men cheered wildly. Those who now began to realize the full nature of the mutiny either shrank away or pretended to go along as the numbers stood badly against them. Christian, whose very name served to further mock the proceedings, walked over to the senseless Bligh and put a dirk to his throat.

Cries of, "Slash the bastard!" and "Throw him overboard and let the Deep Ones take him!" came from the mutineers. Christian raised his hand in absolute command and the men quieted instantly. "We cannot kill anyone who has seen the light," he said touching Bligh's sightless eyes with a gentle caress. "But we do need blood to bring our savior, don't we, boys?"

At this the men again gave a great cry although I noted many, including Muspratt and Morrison, shrinking away from this insanity. A look of grim determination came across their faces and they kept away from the rest of the crew. I remember it, because it gave me hope that a chance still existed to wrest control of the ship from the mutineers and restore order to this seemingly damned vessel.

Now Christian walked from one bound captive to the nex,t examining them closely. When my turn came I stared him in the eyes, looking for some semblance of the old Christian, but the only thing remaining seemed to be an insane creature. He looked me over like a man shopping for a prime chicken, but passed on to the others. He pointed to the surgeon, Huggan, and motioned the men to untie him. Huggan's eyes showed white with fear and he begged piteously for release. Christian ordered the men to tie him across one of the guns as if to suffer a beating.

The mutineers crowded about waving weapons, laughing and jumping up and down in excitement, but I noticed Muspratt, Morrison and, to my amazement, Tinkler slinking away and discussing things in a low but animated tone. They pointed to the mad crewmen and shook their heads in disbelief. The crew and Christian did not seem notice this defection and carried about their business with a carefree attitude.

The men took a new sail from the locker and spread it out on the deck. Churchhill organized a party of five seamen and took them below decks on what he called a rat hunt. They soon returned carrying a half dozen squirming creatures and Christian looked at them, a wide-eyed smile of unholy excitement on his face. Soon the men gathered in a large circle and Christian began to utter strange chants reminiscent of the night before. The men busied themselves slitting the rats open and pouring their blood onto the white sail in sloppy but definite patterns.

Tearing my eyes from this scene I spotted Tinkler, Muspratt and Morrison unobtrusively lowering the launch into the sea and hope sprang into my breast. I managed to catch Tinkler's eye for a moment and I knew he planned to help us escape. Then, fearing the mutineers would notice the direction of my glance, I steadfastly stared at the progress of the men. The rat's blood ran dry and the men began to chant strange Tahitian phrases similar to those of the night before. Christian, at the center of the ceremony, raised his arms and danced violently on the sail while tortured words sprang from his throat.

The fog, already dense, seemed to creep further into the ship and soon I could make out only the vague outlines of the men and Christian as they carried out their ceremony. "Bring the sacrifice," shouted Christian's voice from the gloom and the men cheered wildly.

"Please," screamed the voice of Huggan. "In Christ's name," he beseeched. I could hear him weeping although I could not see exactly what transpired through the fog. The surgeon began to cry loudly and continued to plead for mercy as the intensity of the chanting increased.

"Smell that," called one of the mutineers out of the gloom. "He's lost his bowels," another laughed. "Better to feed our new God," yelled a third. Even I, across the deck, could make out the foul odor of the man.

The ceremony seemed to be reaching a peak as the chanting became erratic and the men's frenzy reached new heights. In the deep fog it seemed to me as if the crew returned to some primeval state as they lunged around the deck in a frenzy. I vaguely, the fog becoming increasingly dense, witnessed men cutting their own arms and drinking the resulting flow of blood. I also saw acts of sexual perversion that I do not care to elaborate on.

Finally Christian's voice rose high above the babbling of the others as strange sounds shrieked from tortured vocal cords screaming louder and louder and then suddenly stopping. Silence filled the air, but then I heard a strange bubbling, gurgling sound coming from where Huggan last lay. Then I felt a slight stirring from behind me and twisting my head around I made out the form of Tinkler working on the ropes that bound me.

"Be quiet, Byam," he whispered. "I swear I didn't know it would be like this. I swear I didn't," he repeated. "Muspratt and Morrison have the launch and I'm freeing all the prisoners so . . ." His voice trailed off and a glazed expression came over his frightened eyes.

"For God's sake Tinkler," I said in fear. "Hurry up." The boy stood mesmerized, looking up towards the ship's riggings. I shook my eyes from him and glanced upward to a sight that will fill my dreams for the rest of my cursed life. Long tentacles, like those of a giant octopus, writhed among the ropes and descended towards the men gathered on the deck. One of the abominations darted forward with astonishing swiftness and grabbed a mutineer, lifting him high in the fog. A single screech came from him and then a moment later the trunk of his body landed near me with a sickening thud. What happened to his lower torso I do not know nor would I care to find out.

Tinkler shrieked once, dropped his knife, ran full speed to the side of the ship and leaped overboard. I could see a number of men taking the same route and Purcell, who carried Bligh over a shoulder, looked back at me once, as if in apology, and joined his comrades.

The seemingly endless supply of tentacles grabbed mutineers and loyal men alike with an unfathomable randomness and soon the deck ran red with blood. One of the tentacles grabbed me and tugged against the ropes restraining me. It tried to pull me, but the good seaman knots held tight and I thanked God that Tinkler did not manage to get very far with his cutting. It seemed my body would break and the skin on my arms began to peel back because of the tremendous pressure. The thing stank of the ocean, my nerve failed against the pain and horror and I fainted for the second time in less than a day.

When I awoke, still tied to the mast, it took me only a moment to remember the night before and I started in horror. Dried blood covered the decks, but no sign of the mutilated corpses remained. I spotted Christian sitting on the torn and bloody sail, a glazed and confused look in his eyes. Muspratt and Morrison lay together at the edge of the ship, locked in each others arms their eyes closed and their faces showing grimaces of fear.

Christian looked to me, I recognized the old laughing expression in his face instantly, and then around the deck to the men who had survived. He rose slowly up and walked over to me. "Well, Byam," he said his voice shaking but a look of clear sanity in his eyes. "We're going to have to come up with a good story."

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© 1999 Edward P. Berglund
Bethia": © 1999 Tom Liberman. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1999 Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: August 17, 1999; Updated: August 9, 2004