Saturday, June 23, 2012

Captain Bligh ... villain or hero?

William Bligh, captain of the British ship Bounty in the late 1700s, might be viewed too harshly by today’s popular culture. Although depicted in 20th century movies and fictional narratives as a merciless tyrant, Bligh probably treated the Bounty’s crew no worse than any other 18th century British sea captain would have treated them, and there is some evidence that he treated them better than most. For example, in preparing for the ill-fated voyage of the Bounty to the Pacific island of Tahiti, where the crew mutinied, Bligh hired a fiddler for the trip – based on Bligh’s belief that regular dancing would help improve the health and well-being of the ship’s crew, wrote Caroline Alexander in her 2003 book The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty. On the other hand, rather than merely providing the opportunity for dancing, Bligh required it, and punished a couple of men who did not participate in the three-hour nightly sessions. So there was a demanding, unforgiving side to Bligh as well, although that characteristic was probably needed to establish and keep control over the type of unruly men who served on British ships of the day.

The Bounty’s mission on this fateful trip was to collect breadfruit plants on Tahiti and take them to the West Indies, in hopes of establishing the plants there as an inexpensive supply of food. But the trip from England to Tahiti was especially difficult. For a month, the ship attempted to leave the Atlantic and enter the Pacific by sailing east around the southern tip of South America, but storms and rough seas prevented that approach.  So instead, Bligh took the ship on a longer route to the west, past the southern tip of Africa, then crossing the Indian Ocean and finally into the Pacific and Tahiti. After 10 months at sea, the Bounty reached the island, where it remained for five months, waiting for native breadfruit plants to grow enough to be removed successfully.

No one is certain today what led to the Bounty mutiny, in which a group of crewmen led by Fletcher Christian, reported to be Bligh’s friend and protégé, took control of the ship on April 28, 1789, several weeks after leaving Tahiti. Many on-the-scene accounts appear to be contradictory and self-serving, unfortunately. Today, some believe it was simply Bligh’s harsh demands on his crew. Others believe that the crew wished to return to the comparative comfort of their five-month stay at Tahiti, where many of them began to live among the natives and adopted a relaxed lifestyle.

But what happened next might one of the most fascinating parts of the Bounty story. Bligh and 18 men loyal to him (a few others wouldn’t fit in the boat and remained on the Bounty) were set adrift – in the middle of the South Pacific – in a small open boat that measured about 23 feet long and a bit less than seven feet wide. Fortunately, the mutineers gave them some food and water, as well as some navigational equipment. And with that alone, Bligh took that small boat and its crew some 3,600 nautical miles across the Pacific in 47 days to a Dutch settlement on the island of Timor. The only casualty of the journey was a man killed by natives of an island at which the boat visited to add to its food and water supplies, although several of the British sailors died soon after arriving on Timor.

Bligh made it back to England, where he was court-martialed for losing the Bounty but acquitted. After several more ship commands (including a second – and successful – trip to Tahiti for breadfruit plants), he was appointed Governor of New South Wales in Australia. He later returned to England, where he died at 64 in 1817.

And what happened to the Bounty mutineers?  That's another fascinating story, for another time. 

Note:  In late October 2012, a replica of the Bounty sunk off the Eastern United States. The ship was a victim of Hurricane Sandy.

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