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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.

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’.

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.

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