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Just Who Was The Real Captain William Bligh

William Bligh is remembered today as the sadistic martinet who provoked the mutiny on the Bounty. But there was another Bligh: a brilliant navigator, a pioneer of ethnographic research and a thorn in the side of the class-bound naval establishment.



Captain Bligh

Born in 1754 in Cornwall, at 16 Bligh joined the Navy. Six years later he was appointed to the rank of master aboard Captain Cook’s ship the Resolution. A ship’s master was the chief navigator; it was also the highest rank attainable without a commission from the Admiralty. Commissioned ranks were generally reserved for the sons of established naval families. Cook himself was an exception, having been a ship’s master before being promoted to captain.

Class ceiling
Bligh joined Cook for the third of his great Pacific voyages. The Resolution was the first European ship to reach Hawaii. There, tragically, relations with the islanders broke down and Cook was killed. Back in Britain, the Resolution’s log was published to great acclaim. However, Bligh’s name was not mentioned, and maps he had drawn were reattributed to the ship’s lieutenants.

Bligh was now determined to gain a commission. In 1781 he married Elizabeth Betham, daughter of the Isle of Man Collector of Customs. Later that year, Bligh was appointed to the commissioned rank of lieutenant.

The Bounty’s voyage was planned by Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, who had sailed with Cook to Tahiti in 1768. He saw the Tahitian breadfruit as an ideal food source for British slaves in the West Indies. The Bounty was to sail west to Tahiti, take on a cargo of breadfruit plants; continue westward to northern Australia and map the uncharted Endeavour Straits before sailing on to the West Indies. Several sons of the gentry volunteered to join the voyage, including two members of prominent Isle of Man families: Peter Heywood and Fletcher Christian. Heywood was 14 when the Bounty set sail in 1787; Christian was 23 and seemed sure to obtain a lieutenant’s commission after the voyage.

Harsh but healthy
Perhaps mistrustful of the former ship’s master, the Admiralty did not allocate the Bounty any Royal Marines – the shipboard police force – and refused Bligh promotion to the full rank of captain: ‘Captain Bligh’ was a lieutenant. Bligh’s relations with the crew were not helped by his health-oriented shipboard regime; dancing was compulsory, and the diet included sauerkraut and limejuice to protect the men from scurvy. Cook had imposed similar policies but had qualities – diplomacy and physical stature – which Bligh lacked.

The Bounty sailed in December 1787. Failing to round Cape Horn due to bad weather, the ship took the longer eastward route. At Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), Bligh traded ship’s supplies with the indigenous people for fruit and vegetables; this was healthier than the official policy of buying dry food from European outposts but raised suspicions that Bligh was embezzling ship’s funds. At the end of October 1788 the Bounty reached Tahiti. Within six weeks the ship was loaded with breadfruit pods. However, earlier delays now meant that the wind was against Bligh. Rather than cut the voyage short, Bligh decided to remain on Tahiti until the wind changed. Over the next four months, Bligh alternated between studying the local culture and increasingly vain attempts to assert naval discipline. The crew were overwhelmed by the hospitality of the island and its people – in particular its women, described by Christian as ‘constitutionally votaries of Venus’.

Mutiny on the Bounty

The infamous mutiny on the bounty.

Rebellion on-board
The Bounty sailed from Tahiti on 4 April 1789. Tahitian indiscipline had taken its toll on Bligh, who frequently flew into rages with his crew – and with Christian in particular. Accused first of cowardice and then of theft, Christian prepared to jump ship. Then, on 28 April he and four others confronted Bligh in his cabin. Bligh and 18 loyal crew were cast off in the ship’s launch.

The men aboard the Bounty first settled on the island of Tubuai but after bloody skirmishes with the islanders, returned to Tahiti. Christian and eight others, with 18 Tahitians, then left in search of an uninhabited island. In January 1790 they reached Pitcairn Island. A naval expedition in 1808 found the island inhabited by one mutineer together with four Tahitian women and their children; all the other settlers had died in a wave of inter-racial violence. Descendants of the mutineers still live on Pitcairn.

Survival against all odds
Meanwhile, Bligh’s party had landed on the island of Tofua. After a confrontation with the islanders, he decided to sail direct to the Dutch colony of Timor, nearly 4,000 miles away. On starvation rations and navigating by dead reckoning, Bligh and his crew sailed the launch to Fiji, through the Endeavour Straits – which Bligh charted in accordance with his original orders – and on to Timor. All 19 men survived the 41-day voyage. In Britain, Bligh was cleared of responsibility for the mutiny, and was finally promoted to captain. His first command was the Providence, which followed the Bounty’s intended route and introduced the breadfruit to the West Indies. He died in 1817, having achieved the rank of Vice-Admiral.

Mud sticks
In 1793, however, 10 Bounty crew members had been brought back to Britain. Six were court-martialled: three were hanged; one was released on a technicality; the remaining two were pardoned. One of these was Peter Heywood, whose testimony blamed Bligh for the mutiny. Determined to resume his naval career, Heywood devoted himself to clearing his name – and destroying Bligh’s. When he died in 1831, his version of the Bounty story was preserved by Admiralty official Sir John Barrow. Barrow’s work inspired the novel Mutiny on the Bounty, which in turn was the source for the celebrated 1935 film starring Charles Laughton.

The real William Bligh was a great captain and an outstanding navigator, but a man whose puritanical discipline, irascible temperament and class-based grudges made him a formidable enemy. Sadly, our image of Bligh has been shaped not by his achievements but by the enmity he inspired.


Disco Days

How It Started: Emerging from Harlem’s Latin poor via the gay subculture of Greenwich Village, disco was the musical style that became a dance craze and a fashion sensation. It went mainstream with “The Hustle” in 1975 and became a way of life with Saturday Night Fever in 1977.




Disco John Travolta

Why It Mattered: Like the best fads, disco was huge, hot and inescapable. It became noun, verb and adjective: You discoed at the disco in disco clothes. And, oh, those clothes–glittery tube tops, skintight designer jeans, satin jackets, white leisure suits. The phenomenon had big names, including Donna Summer, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, the Bee Gees and John Travolta.

But the real stars were the clubs themselves, places like New York’s Studio 54, where the competition was fierce to join the likes of Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger and Calvin Klein on the other side of the velvet rope. Mirror balls, cocaine and alcohol were commonplace, and discos could even be found in hotels and airports.

The Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart had huge dance-floor hits. There was “YMCA” and “Disco Duck,” and before the fad could fade, new-wave acts like Blondie absorbed its beat. Today, dance clubs have stripped the beat down, rebuilt the engine and continue to hustle it.

The Last Word: Disco died a fiery death in Chicago on July 12, 1979. A “disco sucks” rally between games of a White Sox doubleheader culminated with a centerfield bonfire. The fuel? Saturday Night Fever soundtracks, “Ring My Bell” singles and 20 pounds of TNT. The result: a large smoking crater in centerfield, flying vinyl and a full-scale riot.

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Richard Seaman And When The Nazis Went Mad For Grand Prix Racing

The 1930s saw the birth of modern Grand Prix motor racing. It was an era absolutely dominated by Germany, as Hitler used the sport as a powerful propaganda tool to demonstrate his country’s engineering superiority.




Richard Seaman

It was no surprise when the Mercedes team won the 1938 Berlin Grand Prix: except for the fact that the winning driver, seen giving a Nazi salute as he received his wreath, was a young English aristocrat called Richard Seaman. Seaman was one of Britain’s greatest racing drivers, but his decision to race for the Germans in the ’30s has seen him written out of history and his remarkable tale remains largely unknown.

Seaman enjoyed a privileged upbringing and his father had high hopes for him – he was bitterly disappointed to learn that his son wanted to dedicate his life to a subject as trivial as mere sport. Motor racing was no more than an expensive hobby in England, but Seaman intended to make it his career.

He started off in unreliable British MGs and ERAs, racing for teams whose lack of professionalism drove him to distraction, particularly after he had experienced German excellence while visiting the 1935 Monte Carlo Grand Prix. Monte Carlo inspired him to set up his own workshop and he was consequently unstoppable in England in 1936, catching the attention of the Mercedes team manager.

When he signed for Mercedes, Seaman became the first ever top-class British racing driver. He was earning big money, but had to live in Germany and gradually became ensnared in the Nazi propaganda machine, meeting Hitler at the 1938 Berlin motor show.

Richard Seaman 2

It wasn’t just German engineering and professionalism that seduced Seaman – he also fell for beautiful young heiress Erica Popp. As war approached, they were married and Seaman’s mother wrote him out of the will – he was now reliant on Germany with Mercedes his only source of income. Europe lurched towards war, but motor racing tried to struggle on. Not for Seaman, however. His life ended with as much drama as he had lived it, chasing glory on a rain-soaked Belgian racetrack in 1939. His London funeral was graced by a six-foot lily wreath – from Adolf Hitler.

Mercedes engineers drilled any piece of metal they could to reduce the cars’ weight, Auto Union were the first team to race a mid-engined car – the norm for Grand Prix ever since – and both made use of special streamlined bodies for one race on Berlin’s fastest track – the Italians were so intimidated that they dropped out, leaving the Germans to battle it out between themselves.

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How Fares The Elephant Man now he is no longer a 9 days wonder

In 1889 a journalist payed a visit to the London Hospital that had become home to Joseph Merrick aka The Elephant Man…




The Elephant Man

Wondering how the unfortunate so-called “Elephant Man” was faring now that be had ceased to be nine days’ wonder, a London journalist journeyed the other day on his way to the London Hospital. After a few minutes of lounging and parleying in the waiting-rooms, watching all sorts of cases being brought in, from compound fracture to a put-out thumb, the emissary gained his point and was escorted by attendant towards the secluded part of the institution where poor Joseph Merrick makes his home.

Some time back, when the latter was abiding in one of the wards, he used to receive numbers of visits from curious impertinents, to use Cervantes’ phrase; but now, though various ladies of rank, in particular, are still very kind and thoughtful in their attentions, the general public is fast forgetting the “Elephant Man”. Merrick was having a meal when the reporter entered bis little room, built out on the ground floor of the ward that bears the singular name of Blizard (with one z). He brightened up visibly seeing new face, and affably motioned his visitor to taka a chair, but than relapsed Into his favourite attitude of resting his head upon his strangely disproportion ed right hand. This he does, as he has no hesitation in telling you, to relieve the pain that he constantly feels in his head, which measures as many as 36 inches in circumference.

It would serve no good purpose to descant upon Merrick’s many malformations, though, to be sure, he is willing enough to talk about himself; but it may be noted that his left hand is quite normal, and gripped the newspaper man’s band in right hearty fashion, and that he walks very lame, using stick, and alleging that this lameness it the result of fall in boyhood, which his family carelessly treated of no account. He is decidedly short and rather slight, and speaks in a very intelligent manner. His accent shows plainly that be is not Cockney.

As matter of fact, Herrick was born in Leicester some 29 or 30 years back. The disease only began to manifest itself noticeably when was in his teens, while, unhappily, his mother, who might have looked after him, died when be was ten. There were two other children by this first marriage, but his father married again, has had large family by his second wife, and has not set eyes upon his hapless son for 14 ysars. Merrick speaks with considerable bitterness of the way in which he was swindled on his tour in Belgium by his Austrian entrepreneur.

In his own words he is pretty comfortable in the London Hospital, where he has been now for considerably over two years, but how can the man, whose terrible malady seems it anything to be growing worse, be cheerful as cricket or as blithe as a lark. His little room is hung round with pictures and decked out with knick-knacks. Joseph Merrick spends a good deal of his time in making card-board models, but his chief relaxation and solace is reading. He has some shelves filled with books of various kinds, and loves nothing better than to plunge into some exciting, sensational novel or book of travel. He says that he is apt to imagine himself actually in the position of the hero of these tales; and without this comfort, indeed, he might possibly turn melancholy.

Cornish Times – Saturday 18 May 1889

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