If one mentions The HMS Bounty, people tend to immediately think of the Mutiny on the Bounty. If one mentions the name Captain William Bligh, most people envision an old, mean, ugly sea captain—a captain whose men revolted against him because of his bad temper, who treated his crew poorly, and who constantly flogged his men. Now let’s separate the reality from the movies…
In 1776, the great English explorer Captain James Cook selected 22 year-old William Bligh to accompany him on his third voyage to the Pacific. In 1787, at 32 years old, William Bligh was the commanding Lieutenant of the Bounty. It is customary for the person responsible for a boat to be addressed as the Captain. Even today, people still refer to him as Captain William Bligh. There were no other officers on the Bounty or marines to enforce discipline on the Bounty. If there had been marines on the Bounty, the Mutiny would have never happened. The HMS Bounty (Her Majesty’s Ship Bounty) never really existed. William Bligh was the Captain of the HMAV Bounty (His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty).
A decently treated crew
The Bounty’s log shows that Bligh resorted to punishments sparingly. He scolded his men, whereas other captains would have whipped or even hung them. It is true Bligh swore a great deal and threatened his men, but in reality treated his men rather well. On October 19, 1788, almost 28,000 miles and ten months into the famous Mutiny voyage, John Mills and William Brown refused to participate in the evening’s mandatory dancing. Bligh’s coldhearted punishment was merely to cut off their grogs. In the Eighteenth Century British Navy, a grog was an alcoholic drink made with rum, lemon, cane sugar and water. John Mills, The Bounty’s Gunner’s mate, and later one of the mutineers, was killed in a slaughter on Pitcairn. William Brown (an assistant gardener on the Bounty) was sentenced to death for his role in the Mutiny. He was executed on October 29, 1792 and left to hang for two hours. To keep his men fit and relaxed, Captain Bligh signed on Michael Bryne, who was almost completely blind, as an able-bodied seaman on The Bounty, for the express purpose of playing his fiddle while the sailors danced. By dividing his crew into three watches, Bligh allowed his men longer periods of undisturbed sleep. During the entire voyage to Tahiti, Bligh only had ten of his men flogged, with a total of 217 lashes. That was far fewer floggings than Captain James Cook had ordered for his men.
Bligh recommended Fletcher.
For some unknown reason, people believe that Fletcher Christian and William Bligh first met on The Bounty. In reality, these two had sailed twice to Jamaica before the famous Bounty voyage. Bligh had invited Christian to his home for dinner and he even “danced Bligh’s children on his knee.” On Bligh’s recommendation, Christian was appointed Master’s Mate of The Bounty. At the time of the Mutiny, most of The Bounty crew sided with Bligh. Fletcher Christian gave the Bounty crew a choice to either stay with him on The Bounty or join Bligh in the 23-foot long boat. Christian was quite surprised to see how many men wanted to remain with Captain Bligh. Of The Bounty’s 44 crewmembers, only 18 joined Fletcher Christian and four more crewmembers wishing to go with Bligh were forcibly held back. When Fletcher Christian placed Bligh in that tiny 23-foot-long boat, so many of the men wanted to accompany Bligh, which created a real danger that the boat would capsize. Finally, the boat was loaded with only 18 men, a sextant, 4 cutlasses, 150 pounds of bread, 32 lbs. of pork, 6 quarts of rum, 6 bottles of wine, and 28 gallons of water.
An incredible maritime odyssey
After 47 long days at sea and 3,618 miles later, Captain William Bligh and the other castaways arrived at Timor (an island in South East Asia). During that time, only one man was lost when natives on the island of Tofua killed him. To accomplish this astonishing voyage, William Bligh was truly one of the great navigators of the British Royal Navy. Captain James Cook was a great cartographer. With all due respect, William Bligh was also considered a great cartographer of his time. After the Mutiny, much of the charting done by Bligh was destroyed and other charts were credited to other people. The book of James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff transformed the original story of The Mutiny on the Bounty. Their aim was to give this story more commercial appeal and a suite of Hollywood movies followed. In the 1935 Hollywood classic film Mutiny on the Bounty, you had to hate William Bligh (played by the great English actor Charles Laughton). He was disgusting, nasty and mean with a permanent vile look on his face. This is the image most people have of William Bligh. When the mutiny of The Bounty actually took place, William Bligh was a handsome 33 year-old Aristocratic looking man. It is customary procedure in the British Royal Navy that when a Captain loses his ship, for whatever reason it might be, he is court-martialed. At his court-martial, Bligh was quickly exonerated for the loss of The Bounty and soon after, he was promoted from Lieutenant to Commander. By the time of his death in 1817, he had risen to the rank of Vice-Admiral William Bligh, FRS, of Great Britain’s and King George the Third’s Royal Navy. The Bounty was a three-masted square-rigged sailing ship.
The inscription on Bligh’s grave reads:
To the memory of william Bligh esquire frs
Vice admiral of the blue
The celebrated navigator who first transplanted the bread fruit from Otahettte to the west Indies
Bravely fought the battles of his country and died beloved respected and lamented on the 7th day of December 1817 aged 64
Laurance Alexander Rudzinoff