Sunday, May 31, 2015

Captain Bligh - Misunderstood

One of my favorite tales of the sea, whether told in a book, or on the screen, has always been "Mutiny On The Bounty." I have read everything available concerning both the voyage and the mutiny, and I have come to some startling conclusions, all supported by fact.

Captain Bligh has been portrayed over the years as a cruel and heartless man. This is not accurate. The depictions of daily floggings, and the famous keel hauling episode, which never happened, have all served to miscolor the reputation of the Captain. Moreover, it has often overshadowed one of the greatest nautical feats ever accomplished; the 3,000 mile voyage in an overladen launch with scant provisions and no charts.

A careful review of the facts, and the testimonies of the crew, some of whom were mutineers, sheds bright light upon the undeserved and darker image of Captain William Bligh. The fact is that he was one of the most humane Captains of his time. The rate of floggings aboard HMS Bounty was well below that of any other ship of the era. He was also one of the best Navigators of his time, as we shall see.

Consider this, in the outward voyage to Tahiti there were NO floggings, this despite the fact that the ship's Carpenter, Purcell, had refused, on two occassions, direct orders from the Captain. This was a hanging offense, yet Bligh took no action at all. At the time, aboard other vessels, 7 floggings per month was not unusual, but in the first sixteen months there were only 7 floggings aboard the Bounty.

Moreover, Captain Bligh knew that the voyage would take two years. The practice at the time was for there to be two watches per day, which allows only sporadic sleep. This would be hard on the crew. Captain Bligh broke the watches into 3 shifts, the advantage being that the men got 8 hours off to rest instead of only 4 hours, which is very tiring. Again, this is the real Captain Bligh and not the portrayal of the man we have come to know through books and film.

The Captain had sailed with no Marines aboard to control the men, and discipline aboard was fairly relaxed. When they arrived at Tahiti he decided to let his men go ashore on a rotating basis. Having no Marine Guard aboard to prevent it, he knew he could not keep the men from the island. This was a huge mistake, as the men began to fratinize with the natives. Relationships were formed and the crew began to dread the return trip home.

In all of the logs and testimony given at the Admirality Hearing, there is no testimony pertaining to excessive cruelty on the part of Captain Bligh. Even in the journals of both Boatswain's Mate Morrison and Peter Haywood there is not a word of excessive punishment or floggings. The troubles all began within the first 3 weeks of the return voyage to England.

Half of the crew had wed while in Tahiti and were not too pleased with returning to a damp and dreary England after having lived in a veritable paradise for the past year. Chief amongst these crewmembers was Flecther Christian, who had wed the native Chief's daughter.

In the third week of the voyage home, and on Christian's watch, some coconuts had been pilfered during the night. This prompted the famed confrontation between Bligh and Christian, during which Bligh called Christian a "damned hound." To Christian this was a slur not taken lightly and he spent the remainder of the evening drinking heavily.

At dawn the next morning, Christian awoke Bligh with a cutlass at his throat. He then cast the Captain, and his loyal crew members, adrift to die. This left Captain Bligh 2 choices, either make for the nearest island, a mere thirty miles distant, and perish there, or sail with the current, three thousand miles, with no provisions, to the Dutch Island of Timor. From there he would reach England, return to Tahiti, capture several of the mutineers, bringing them back to England in chains to face justice. Some were hanged, others pardoned.

The Admirality rebuked Captain Bligh for losing the Bounty, but never acknowledged their own mistake of sending the ship on a 2 years voyage, with conscripted sailors, and no Marines. The record is fairly clear here. Captain Bligh was a man way ahead of his time concerning the treatment of men at sea. And yet, through the vagaries of history, and Hollywood, we have come to know him as a tyrant.

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