Thursday, January 29, 2015

Captain Bligh: Chronically Misrepresented

Bligh, as he appeared in 1792,
Not exactly looking like a homicidal maniac
In the late 18th century, a plan was hatched to introduce breadfruit trees from the Polynesian Islands to the Caribbean to feed the growing population, both slave and free, that worked the vast sugar plantations. Today, breadfruit flourishes in the Caribbean largely due to one man, then a thirty-three year old lieutenant in the Royal Navy known as William Bligh.
Almost everyone knows about the Mutiny on the Bounty. Whenever ‘mutiny’ is mentioned, ‘Bounty’ is slapped on, too. The story is now used as a symbol of rebellion against oppression, a poster child of Navy brutality, a struggle between the aristocracy and the common man. In many ways, it’s true; there was a rebellion, life at sea was brutal, and it was a struggle between the aristocracy and the common man…though not in the way that you are thinking, because William Bligh was the common man and Fletcher Christian was the aristocracy.
Bligh at twenty-one, as Cook's Sailing Master
William Bligh was in the Navy since he was seven. He served as an able-seaman, when there were no vacancies for a midshipman, slowly working his way through the ranks. Because of his brilliance in navigation, at the age of twenty-one, he served as Captain James Cook’s Sailing Master in his last voyage of discovery in the South Seas. It is from Bligh that we have one of the most complete accounts of the death of Captain Cook in Hawaii; Bligh was nearly killed himself, but instead of allowing his men to scatter like the marines assigned to guard Captain Cook, he held his ground until reinforcements came from the ship.
William Bligh seemed the ideal man to lead an expedition to collect breadfruit. He knew the area, he was a gifted navigator and cartographer, and was something of an explorer and naturalist as well. So, on 23 December, 1787, the young lieutenant set out, in command of a tiny ship named the Bounty, forty-six officers and men, and a friend of the family, Fletcher Christian, as Master’s Mate.
Thursday October Christian,
Fletcher Christian's oldest son
Fletcher Christian is something of an enigma. He was descended on his father’s side from Manx aristocracy. His was born on the pleasant Moorland Close estate and despite his mother’s irresponsibility with money, his upbringing would have been far superior to anything Bligh experienced as a child. Early in the 1780s, Bligh, ten years older, met Fletcher Christian, and took him on two voyages, meticulously teaching him navigation. It was on Bligh’s recommendation that Christian sailed as Master’s Mate on the Bounty.
The most accurate replica of the Bounty, from the 1984 movie,
currently resides in Hong Kong. The other replica, like its namesake,
is at the bottom of the sea.
Bligh has often been described as a sadistic commander, ruling with an iron fist and meting out terrible punishments right and left. He is universally depicted in movies by little men, ten or twenty years too old, with slightly neurotic performances, in command of replica ships twice as big as the real one. In reality, Bligh hardly ever punished his men, even allowing them to sleep during the hectic attempted rounding of the Horn in the only dry place aboard the ship: his tiny, closet-like sleeping cabin in the stern. The Bounty was a little ship, less than ninety feet long, and in a time when the average seaman stood at 5’4”, Bligh was a respectable 5’8”. Fletcher Christian was an inch taller, probably due to his better nutrition as a child.
Black sand in Tahiti
All in all, the Bounty had an uneventful voyage to the South Seas; one man died of an infection after he was bled by the drunk doctor, but otherwise, morale was good. On their navy-ordered route, storms lashed them during their attempt to double the Horn, but Bligh turned back, knowing that he was beaten, and sailed around the Cape of Good Hope instead. He managed not to lose a man in the storms when other ships, sailing the same waters that year, lost half their compliment.
The local wildlife
On the 26 October, 1788 the Bounty let down her anchor off the beautiful black sand beaches of Tahiti. For the next five months, with the help of the native chief and his people, the English sailors transplanted breadfruit trees into pots and put them in specially built containers in the great cabin of the Bounty. Bligh, when not overseeing the undertakings, was talking to the chief about his customs, surveying the harbor, and, because he was an artist, taking note of the local wildlife. Despite all his work, he noticed that his crew was getting on famously with the locals and by the time the Bounty set sail for England, a number of them were breaking out with venereal disease.
Maori Chief from New Zealand,
colored engraving 1784, copied from a painting
Bligh had a notorious temper and took most of his frustration out on Fletcher Christian, who seemed to be crossing him at every turn. Bligh’s sailors were busy getting tattoos and deserting, rather than potting breadfruit trees, and Bligh flogged them more on land than he had at sea. The native chief wasn’t helping any, either; Bligh reported that, “The chiefs have taken such a liking to our people that they have rather encouraged their stay among them than otherwise, and even made promises of large possessions.”
Captain Bligh & Co being set adrift
by the Mutinous Mister Christian
Everyone is probably familiar how, a few weeks into the return voyage, Bligh woke up to a dancing lantern over his head and a bayonet at his throat. He was taken on deck, and as the sun slowly rose, he and eighteen of his loyal crewmen were herded into the ship’s longboat and set adrift, to watch the Bounty sail off into the sunrise. For many, this is the end of the story; Fletcher Christian sailed off, first to Tahiti, to pick up wives and drop off sixteen of the mutineers, then to Pitcairn Island, with the remaining eight mutineers and many Tahitian men and women. Fletcher Christian’s ultimate fate is unknown, except that by 1808, only one mutineer was left alive; the rest had either murdered each other, or died of disease.
Captain Bligh's coconut, carved with the words,
"the cup I eat my miserable allowance out of"
For Bligh, the story had only begun. He was in a badly over-loaded open boat, with eighteen of his crew, limited food supplies, no maps and only an outdated quadrant and a pocket compass, 3,618 miles from civilization. The journey that followed is one of the most remarkable and little known in history; they withstood storms, hunger and cannibalistic islanders. Bligh, instead of being petty, was meticulously fair with the rations, often giving more to the sicker members of the crew to keep them alive. Bligh, himself, often went without sleep and most amazingly of all, was able to navigate accurately all the way to the coast of Australia with faulty and make-shift instruments and nothing but the maps in his head. On top of that, despite his emaciated condition, Bligh continued to draw maps of the coast, even discovering islands that had never before been seen by Europeans.
An artist's (optimistic) idea of what Bligh
and his crew looked like when they arrived in Timor
Forty-seven days after the mutiny, Bligh and his starving crew stumbled into Kupang, Timor. The first thing he did was write to his wife in heart-broken words, “Know then my own Dear Betsy, that I have lost the Bounty...” However, he had reason to be glad; despite the horrific conditions during the open-boat voyage, he had only lost one man who had disobeyed orders and was stoned to death by cannibals on Tofua.
Peter Heywood as a Post-Captain
Bligh returned to England a hero. It wasn’t until the fateful voyage of the HMS Pandora and the collection of the sixteen mutineers from Tahiti, that his name was blackened. One of the mutineers brought back for trial was a young midshipman named Peter Heywood, who, like Fletcher Christian, had family ties in Manx nobility. The Heywood family, uninterested in being related to a mutineer, managed to turn the story around during the trial to get Peter Haywood acquitted. But it wasn’t until the Bounty trilogy of the 1930s, and the subsequent movies based on them, that the story became so infamous.
A still from the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty
Was Bligh to blame for the mutiny? Had life under him become so terrible that the crew had to mutiny? Bligh was known to be thin-skinned and self-righteous, but he was also forward-thinking; always concerned about his men’s health and welfare. Instead of being a brutal maniac, as depicted in popular culture, Bligh’s weakness seems to have been his lenient approach to discipline. Bligh went on to command other ships and other men, playing a key role in winning the Battle of Copenhagen, and even becoming governor of New South Wales, before retiring as Vice-Admiral of the Blue. He suffered two more mutinies under his command; one, which was fleet wide, and the other, in Australia, when he tried to root out corruption.

Tahiti Revisited by William Hodges 1776 
The voyage of the Bounty might have been a disaster, but Bligh had a second chance to do it right. In 1791, a year after returning to England, Bligh, in command of HMS Providence and accompanied by the smaller HMS Assistant, returned to Tahiti, collected his breadfruit and successfully introduced the species to the Caribbean.


PS: In 2010, four men recreated Bligh’s amazing open boat voyage across the pacific with limited instruments and finished only one day over schedule. For a scholarly look at the events surrounding the mutiny, read The Bounty by Caroline Alexander. 


  1. I already knew a little bit of this, but most of it was new to me. It's fascinating :D
    There's a blog that you might be interested in, that's in some ways similar to yours; I only recently discovered it:

  2. Glad you enjoyed reading it. :) William Bligh is one of my personal heroes, because he was brilliant, compassionate and brave. Unfortunately, he's gotten a bad rap, because other people were able to sensationalize the story.

    Thank you so much for that link! I looks like a fascinating blog; just up my alley. I don't try to spend my time debunking myths, but unfortunately, a lot of things people believe are imaging that Napoleon had his hand in his coat because he had a perpetual stomach ache...:P

  3. Wha ...? That's crazy (about Napoleon)! On that blog it mentions a myth that people put their hands in their coats because painters charged more to paint both hands, lol. Actually it was just because it was a dignified pose :D

  4. Haha, yeah...well, some people have even speculated that he had stomach cancer; of course he didn't. I've heard that old 'arm and a leg' thing before - the expression actually originated in WWII. It's amazing what tour guides will attempt to tell you. :D