Just before the Sun rose on 28 April 1789, Captain William Bligh of the HMS Bounty was woken at cutlass point. The weapon was held by crewmember Fletcher Christian. Bligh was forcibly relieved of his command by a mob of mutineers, and bundled rudely onto a 7-metre-long boat.
Eighteen loyal crewmembers were crammed alongside Bligh in a vessel designed to carry a maximum of 15 over short distances. They were given four cutlasses, a quadrant and compass, 28 gallons of water, 150lbs of bread, 32lbs of salted pork, six quarts of rum and six bottles of wine, and cast adrift on the Pacific Ocean.
Two and a quarter centuries on, the mutiny on the Bounty is part of naval folklore and, thanks to Hollywood, Christian is regarded as a dashing rebel (played on screen by leading men such as Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson) while Bligh is remembered as a spiteful tyrant. The truth is more complicated, but it’s what happened immediately after the mutiny that underpins Bligh’s legacy in maritime history, if not in popular culture.
Colours to the mast
The mutiny was bloodless, but more members of the Bounty’s 44-man crew actually sided with their Captain than with Christian. Several left on the Bounty had to be physically restrained from joining Bligh in his apparently doomed vessel, which was so heavily overloaded that seawater lapped over the gunnels and it looked set to sink at any moment.
Whether these men were truly loyal to their Captain, however, or afraid of the consequences of being associated with the mutiny, is debatable. The ship was on a peaceful mission – to collect breadfruit from Tahiti as a potential source of cheap food for slaves – but Britain’s Royal Navy was on a permanent war-footing throughout the late 19th century. If the mutineers ever returned to England, they were assured a trip to the gallows for treason.
Despite his enduring reputation, Bligh was a comparatively moderate disciplinarian for his time, but he was notoriously short-fused and infamous for launching vicious verbal assaults on people (some historians have suggested he may have had Tourette’s). A number of the Bounty’s crewmembers passionately disliked their Captain – including some who ended up on the launch with him after the mutiny, such as the Sailing Master John Fryer, who Bligh had demoted during the voyage, installing Christian as Acting Lieutenant in his place.
Bligh’s relationship with Christian, who had served under Bligh on several previous journeys, was complex. The two men were friends, but on the Bounty, Bligh constantly berated Christian, humiliating him in front of the crew and ultimately pushing him to breaking point.
As the launch was cut free from the Bounty, Bligh stared his old friend in the eye and reminded him: “You have dandled my children upon your knee…”
“I am in hell,” was Christian’s telling, emotional response. Other mutineers were less conflicted. “Huzzah for Otaheite!” was the last shout from the renegade crew of the Bounty, as it made for the horizon. Otaheite was the contemporary name for Tahiti – the lovesick sailors were heading back to their native wives. While waiting for the breadfruit crop to reach a stage where it could be transported, Bligh’s men had spent five months enjoying the island’s laidback lifestyle and the company of its women. Returning to life on a boat was never going to be easy.
Close to the wind
The abandonment of Bligh and almost half the crew on a dangerously overloaded small boat in the middle of the ocean could have been a death sentence, but the mutineers probably assumed they would make for nearby Tonga. If so, they gravely underestimated their erstwhile Captain, who had no intention of submitting so weakly to life as a castaway.
Bligh began his seafaring career as Ship’s Boy and Captain’s Servant on HMS Monmouth, aged seven. He served with distinction under Captain Cook in peacetime and Admiral Nelson at war, and was, by all accounts, a brilliant navigator. Even so, heading for Timor in Indonesia (the closest European settlement) by crossing over 3,500 nautical miles of ocean in a barely sea-worthy boat with no charts or marine chronometer was audacious in the extreme.
Their first stop was Tofua, a tiny island 30 nautical miles away, where they attempted to augment their meagre rations. The island’s hostile inhabitants attacked them, however, and John Norton, Quartermaster on the Bounty, was killed. They were chased from the island by several canoes, but managed to distract their pursuers by lobbing clothes overboard.
Still hopelessly under provisioned – but with one less mouth to feed – Bligh then went west towards the northern tip of Australia. En route, he led the first European passage through the islands of Fiji. A meticulous cartographer, Bligh sketched the coastline of the Yasawa archipelago but, nervous after the Tofua attack and having previously heard rumour of cannibalism in Fiji, he opted against stopping. Negotiating the big swell of the open South Pacific in a boat where the freeboard (amount of wriggle room) was no bigger than a man’s hand, was a nerve-destroying nightmare of unimaginable proportions.
All hands had to bail constantly to keep the boat afloat and, to avoid capsizing, the Helmsman’s concentration couldn’t waver for a second. Big seas, storms and torrential rain assailed them. Constantly soaked and exposed to the wind, the men were perpetually freezing– but the fresh rainwater did keep them alive.
For a month, the men lived on a few ounces of bread a day and the occasional spoon of wine, but on 29 May they landed on – and named
– Restoration Island, off Australia’s east coast. Still 1,300 nautical miles from Timor, they fell upon the beach like men embracing salvation.
While island hopping north along the Great Barrier Reef, Bligh narrowly escaped a second mutiny when an altercation with Carpenter William Purcell erupted over food. It rapidly escalated until Bligh threatened Purcell with a cutlass. John Fryer and William Cole also became involved, but eventually the crew capitulated to Bligh’s need to be obeyed. Fryer later said Bligh “was as tyrannical in his temper in the boat as in the ship.”
With the boat barely afloat and morale sinking, Bligh successfully located Cape York. They sailed through the Endeavour Strait and out into the Arafura Sea in early June, and reached Coupang, a Dutch settlement on Timor, two weeks later. When they finally came ashore, 47 days after leaving Tofua, the crew were in a desperate condition, many unable to walk. David Nelson, the botanist, soon died from a fever. Bligh, desperate to reach Batavia and then Europe, bought a 10-metre schooner, HMS Resource, and the survivors set off on the 1,800-mile journey on 20 August.
In Surabaya, another altercation with his crew resulted in Bligh arresting Fryer and Purcell at bayonet point, and having them put in irons. However, on 1 October 1789, the unhappy ensemble finally arrived in Batavia. Almost immediately, Bligh departed for Europe accompanied by John Samuel and John Smith.
A court marshal cleared Bligh of blame for the loss of the Bounty, and the HMS Pandora was sent to hunt down the mutineers, many of whom had met grizzly ends. Of the survivors, 10 were brought back to England, where four were acquitted, three pardoned and three hanged – a conclusion that Bligh missed because he’d been dispatched back to Tahiti on a second breadfruit mission.
The mutiny on the Bounty and Bligh’s subsequent achievement in navigating a tiny, crowded launch over 3,500 miles from Tofua to Coupang, cemented his name next to those of Captain James Cook and Admiral Horatio Nelson as the most famous naval men of their generation. A plaudit even Bligh might have considered as compensation for being posthumously painted as a big-screen villain.