In 1932 a novel entitled Mutiny On The Bounty, written by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall, became a bestseller. It was followed by a series of movies based on it, notably in 1935 when Charles Laughton played Bligh with Clark Gable as his first mate Fletcher Christian, and in 1962 when Trevor Howard took the role of Bligh with Marlon Brando as Christian.
The book and the movies all portray Bligh as a harsh, sadistic tyrant, fond of inflicting the lash on members of his crew for any petty offence. But some historians say this is fiction and that he was a respected, courageous and highly competent officer who enjoyed a successful career culminating in the rank of vice-admiral.
Born at Plymouth on the south coast of England in 1754, Bligh was the son of a customs officer. He joined the Royal Navy when he was seven – an incredible age by today’s thinking, but common practice in those days. It meant that a “young gentleman” could gain experience at sea before being considered for a commission.
He became a skilled seaman and navigator, his naval career went according to plan, and in 1776 at the age of 22 he was appointed sailing master of Captain Cook’s ship Resolution. Bligh accompanied the famous explorer on his third trip to the Pacific Ocean when Cook was killed.
Bligh went on to serve as a lieutenant on several ships until in 1787, aged 33, he was selected as commander of the Royal Navy’s armed vessel Bounty. His mission was to transfer breadfruit from Tahiti to the Caribbean as food for slaves used on plantations there.
Unfortunately, after a difficult voyage he arrived at Tahiti in the wrong season and had to stay on the island for five months before the breadfruit was ready to be gathered. The enforced delay became pure pleasure for many of the crew who enjoyed the warm climate, took “wives”, and generally enjoyed a life far more agreeable than that they had left behind in the UK.
Bounty departed Tahiti on April 4, 1789, much to the displeasure of many of the crew. Just over three weeks later Fletcher Christian and 18 seamen surprised Bligh in his cabin before taking control of the ship. They were about 2,100km (1,300 miles) west of Tahiti, near Tonga.
The captain and 18 loyalists were forced into the Bounty’s 23-ft long (7m) cutter and given a sextant, four cutlasses and several days food and water. Dangerously overloaded, the small boat was then cast adrift on the Pacific Ocean in what seemed a death sentence.
But Bligh was a skilled navigator and after an eventual journey of 3,618 nautical miles (6,700 km; 4,160 miles) he landed his men at Timor in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. From there they made their way back to England.
According to historian Leonard F. Guttridge in his book "Mutiny: A History of Naval Insurrection", Bligh kept up morale on the journey by telling stories of his experiences at sea, by encouraging the men to sing, and occasionally by saying prayers.
He wrote to his wife telling her what had happened: “Know then my own Dear Betsy, that I have lost the Bounty . . . on the 28 April at day light in the morning Christian having the morning watch. He with several others came into my Cabin while I was a Sleep, and seizing me, holding naked Bayonets at my Breast, tied my Hands behind my back, and threatened instant destruction if I uttered a word.
“I however call'd loudly for assistance, but the conspiracy was so well laid that the Officers Cabbin Doors were guarded by Centinels . . . I was now dragged on Deck in my Shirt & closely guarded – I demanded of Christian the case of such a violent act, & severely degraded for his Villainy but he could only answer – ‘not a word sir or you are Dead.’ I dared him to the act & endeavoured to rally some one to a sense of their duty but to no effect.
“The Secrisy of this Mutiny is beyond all conception so that I can not discover that any who are with me had the least knowledge of it. It is unbeknown to me why I must beguile such force . . . It was a circumstance I could not foresee – My conduct has been free of blame, & I showed everyone that, tied as I was, I defied every Villain to hurt me.
“I know how shocked you will be at this affair but I request of you My Dear Betsy to think nothing of it, all is now past & we will again looked forward to future happyness.”
In October 1790, Bligh was honourably acquitted by the Admiralty for the Bounty’s loss and he was recorded as being a compassionate commander who frequently spared the lash.
Historian Alan Frost says his violence was more verbal than physical; while Greg Dening, in his book "Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty", says that as a captain his overall flogging rate of less than one in ten seamen was exceptionally low for the time.
Dening adds that he was known for shortness of temper and sharpness of tongue, but his rages were generally directed at his officers, particularly when he perceived incompetence or dereliction of duty.
Bligh went on to command a number of other ships including HMS Glattan, aboard which he fought alongside Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. He was appointed Governor of New South Wales in 1806 but deposed by a group of Australian army officers because of his crackdown on an illicit rum trade that they controlled.
After returning to England Bligh was promoted to vice-admiral in 1814. He died, aged 63, in December 1817.
The Bounty mutineers first returned to Tahiti but those who stayed were to be captured and taken back to England for trial. Three of them were hanged.
Fletcher Christian and eight others, however, continued to search for a safe haven and discovered Pitcairn Island, which was more than 1,000 miles east of Tahiti and which had been misplaced on the Royal Navy's charts. They decided to settle and live out their lives there. And to be certain of avoiding detection they set fire to and destroyed the Bounty.
The spot where the ship was destroyed is now known as Bounty Bay. Descendants of the mutineers still live on Pitcairn.
Published: September 2, 2020
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