DEFENDING CAPTAIN BLIGH
Maybe we are just being “Devils’ Advocates” here but we feel that a 200-year old injustice has been done to William Bligh. He is, of course, the villain in the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty. He was the evil captain of the HMS Bounty who made Fletcher Christian declare, “I am in Hell, I am in Hell!” Captain Bligh has a reputation for brutalizing his crews on their long voyages; but did he? Or was he just a convenient villain for literature and Hollywood?
William Bligh was born in the Cornwall district of England in 1754. He was the son of Francis and Jane Bligh. A smart and serious lad, William was signed up for the Royal Navy at seven years old. It was customary at the time for young gentlemen to be initiated into the sea faring life at an early age. By the time he was 16, he was an “able seaman,” a rank that many sailors achieved only after a career at sea. One year later William had become a midshipman, or junior officer.
At age 22, he was given the remarkable honor of being chosen by Captain James Cook to be his “sailing master,” the person in charge of navigation, on Cook’s third voyage of exploration to the Pacific. Five years later he fought under Lord Howe at Gibraltar.
In 1787, this well respected young officer was recommended for an assignment to lead an “experiment” for the King. He was just 32 but had already spent almost 25 years at sea. At that time the British government had control of the island of Jamaica. It was proving difficult to keep all the slaves, working the plantations, fed adequately so a plan was conceived to determine if Breadfruit plants could be used as an inexpensive food source. Bligh was given command of a converted merchant ship, renamed HMS Bounty, which he was to sail to Tahiti to acquire the Breadfruit; then bring the cargo back to Jamaica for planting
Large sections of the Bounty were converted to accommodate the Breadfruit, including the Captain’s quarters. Bligh was confined to a cramped cabin adjacent to the crew quarters. William was officially the only officer on board. Others, including Fletcher Christian, only acted as officers, without appointment. The crew recruited for the voyage was largely made up of recently released prisoners and town drunkards with very little discipline or respect for authority. Additionally, a Navy ship usually carried a detachment of Royal Marines aboard to fend off hostiles and keep peace on the vessel. None were provided for this mission. This combination of a long voyage, cramped quarters, untrained “officers,” an unruly crew, and no guards offered a potential for disaster.
The voyage to Tahiti was enormously difficult. For a month, Heavy seas blocked the passage around the tip of South America. Captain Bligh was forced to reverse direction and sail around the tip of Africa instead. It took ten months for the Bounty to reach Tahiti. Hollywood has given us the image of Captain Bligh dispensing harsh punishments to the crew on a whim. But this has never been substantiated. The ship’s log indicated that corporal punishments were few. Most times he resorted to verbal reprimands instead of flogging, and no one was hanged.
William Bligh was an educated man who recognized that good diet and sanitation improved the welfare of his crew. He was careful about the quality of the crew’s food, and ordered his men to keep the ship clean. He rearranged the crew’s work schedule creating three shifts instead of two which allowed the men to get a longer uninterrupted period of sleep.
In October of 1788, the Bounty arrived in Tahiti. They stayed there five months to allow the young Breadfruit plants to mature to a point where they could be safely transported. William Bligh permitted his men to live on the island instead of on the ship; which may have proven to be his fatal mistake. Many men got tattoos and a significant number formed relationships with the women there. Fletcher Christian married. The crew became socialized to the culture of the Tahitians and the pleasant atmosphere of the island. While in Tahiti, Bligh tried to keep the spread of venereal disease under control, although unsuccessful.
As the time for departure came closer, tensions between Bligh and his officers became stressed. The Captain did have the trait of excess vanity and entitlement but not to the extent depicted in fiction. The crew, unaccustomed to the rough sea life, was reluctant to leave their new found paradise. They had been given unusual freedom by their captain while on the island and they did not want it withdrawn.
Twenty three days after leaving Tahiti, Fletcher Christian and some of his followers broke into Bligh’s cabin, tied him up, and brought him on deck. The Bounty had been taken over without a fight by less than half the crew. Of the seven “officers,” six remained loyal to Bligh; only Christian mutinied. Of the crew, 19 of the 35 mutinied.
The mutineers ordered that Bligh, the ship’s master, two midshipmen and several more loyal crew members into the ship’s launch. They were given four cutlasses, a compass, and enough food and water to reach the nearest port. They were not given any charts or a sextant to give them a location. The Bounty sailed off back to Tahiti. William Bligh was an exceptional navigator however and took the small band on a 3,618 nautical mile voyage to Timor (Indonesia) in 47 days. It stands today as a near impossible achievement. Only one man was lost, killed by natives on the island of Tofua.
Fletcher Christian and his men moved from island to island for some time trying to avoid the Royal Navy which had sent ships out to capture them. Several remained in Tahiti and others settled on Pitcairn Island. They sunk to Bounty to avoid detection. When the Navy arrived at Tahiti they rounded up 14 mutineers and returned them to England. Four died in route but 10 arrived ready for trial. Only three were hanged. The others were acquitted or pardoned largely due to the forgiving testimony of Bligh himself. William Bligh was honorably acquitted for the loss of the Bounty.
Captain Bligh resumed his naval career; commanding large multi-cannoned “ships of the line.” He proved himself a very loyal, able, and heroic servant of the Crown. In 1805, he became the Governor of New South Wales in the Australian Territory. Prior to his death in 1817, William Bligh was promoted to Vice Admiral of the Royal Navy.
Was he a stern disciplinarian who demanded loyalty? Yes. Was he an intolerant tyrant who abused his crew sadistically? Certainly not.