Profanity on the Bounty

Swearing and cursing is one of those human activities that has no direct counterpart in the wild. Animals do make vocalised threats, it’s true, but always with the aim of warning off intruders. Statements of the kind “you are a cunt” are not used because they would serve no purpose. Telling a lion that he is a foul-breathed fucker may be accurate enough, but it would not hurt his feelings or cause him to change his immediate plans. In fact, it would be a complete waste of an insult.

For humans, of course, swearing serves various social functions, one of which is to relieve the feelings of the swearer. But this catharsis often comes at a high price. Consider the case of William Bligh of the Royal Navy. He ought to be remembered as a skilful navigator and fearless commander, mentioned in dispatches by Nelson for his bravery at the Battle of Copenhagen. Instead, he is famous for a tawdry soap opera enacted in the South Pacific that resulted in the loss of his ship to an upper class fop named Fletcher Christian. And it all happened because of Bligh’s habit of swearing.

Let it be said straight away that Bligh never called anyone a cunt. His preferred epithets were: “infernal scoundrel”, “contemptible thief”, “incompetent mongrel” and “cowardly rascal”, which in modern English would pass for measured and even affectionate rebukes. But this was not so in the late 18th century. Most unwisely of all, he would apply these descriptions to his fellow officers in front of the whole ship’s company, yet a short while later behave as if nothing had happened. Were one to write a book on human social conventions, this sort of thing would come high on the list of faux pas.

Yet thanks to the deeply ingrained discipline of British seamen, Bligh might have got away with his cursing had it not been for the events that occurred in Tahiti. As every film buff knows, the crew of the Bounty had an extended period of shore leave on that tropical island, where the native women were eager to offer them a full repertoire of carnal pleasures. Mr Christian was one who indulged himself to the utmost, and he may have been vain enough to believe some of the flattery that women employ on such occasions to maintain the stamina of their stud. Certainly, a man who has got used to remarks such as “Fletcher big white dick make Tahiti girl happy” is going to place service to King and Country lower down on his list of priorities.

This period of indolence and debauchery meant that the crew of the Bounty were in no fit mental state to resume their duties when the ship eventually set sail, far less accept the insults of the ship’s captain with British stoicism and restraint. So when Bligh called Christian “a coward” over some trivial incident, he was promptly cast adrift on a small boat, which he nonetheless brilliantly navigated to Timor.

Bligh was not a bad man by any means and his use of the cat ‘o nine tails was sparing by the standards of the day. But his cursing became so habitual that he lost all sense of the offence he was causing his colleagues. Perhaps there is a warning for bloggers here. Could they become so accustomed to the use of swear words in a humorous context that they forget the powerful effect of these phrases and expressions outside the community of their readers? I have a vision of a solitary
bearded man in a lifeboat, desperately reading the vessel’s manual while receding into the wake of an ocean liner, whose stony-faced skipper is on the bridge, muttering about the riff-raff that can afford to go on cruises these days.

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