Setting the record straight
Originally posted May 2016
Hollywood has a tendency to play with the truth.
Hollywood has made several Mutiny on the Bounty movies over the years. All depicting William Bligh as a despicable mean naval captain.
Typical of the industry, Bligh was misrepresented. He was not the Charles Laughton of the 1935 movie, nor the Trevor Howard of the 1962 movie, nor the Anthony Hopkins of the 1984 movie. Bligh was a competent caring ship captain.
Fletcher Christian as portrayed by Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, and Mel Gibson respectively not quite the nice guy reflected in the films. Though not bad per se. I think in the end his penis got in the way of his judgment.
Bligh’s notoriety comes from his Bounty experiences. The Bounty was not his only court martial trial, however. Two more followed the Bounty episode.
The Bounty mutiny occurred in 1789. The second was the Spithead Mutiny in 1797. The third and last, the Rum Rebellion in 1808.
Bligh was exonerated/found not guilty in all three court martial trials. He was returned to duty in each instance.
He was a Lieutenant at the time of the Bounty mutiny. He thereafter captained eight major vessels rising in rank from Commodore to Admiral. Followed by appointment as Governor of New South Wales.
Not reflective of Hollywood’s Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard or Anthony Hopkins.
The Bounty was a small ship. Not even referred to as a ship. It was a cutlass. Had on board only one officer. A lieutenant. Bligh was the lieutenant. No Marine contingency. Marines were placed on ships to maintain security.
Fletcher Christian was on board the Bounty. He and Bligh had met in the early 1800s and became close friends. Fletcher a younger man. Fletcher was eager to learn navigation. Bligh took him under his wing.
The Bounty was headed for Tahiti. The purpose of the voyage was to obtain breadfruit which grew on Tahiti. Then return the breadfruit to slave islands in the Caribbean. The British government was hopeful the cheap breadfruit would suffice in feeding the slaves.
Bligh’s intent was to take the Bounty around South America’s Cape Horn and then onto Tahiti. Bad weather confronted the Bounty. Bligh could not get it around Cape Horn. He was required to change direction to South Africa and around its tip.
The change in course screwed up the Bounty’s time table. Involved was the breadfruit growing season. The Bounty arrived in Tahiti not at the end of a growing season. Relatively close to the beginning of the season. The Bounty was required to remain in Tahiti five months waiting for the breadfruit to reach harvesting time.
Fletcher was a Master’s Mate. Bligh gave him the added responsibility of being in charge of one of the three watches. In effect making Christian a sort of number 2 in authority.
The crew had nothing to do during the five months of wait. Tahiti was beautiful. A care free attitude existed among the natives. Love making was a constant activity. Sexual license pervasive.
The crew became accustomed to the hedonistic pace.
When the time came to leave Tahiti, the men were reluctant. They had found heaven on earth.
During the trip to Tahiti, Bligh might be described as a kinder captain that most in the British Navy. He punished sparingly. Never hung. Whipped where other captains would hang. Maintained a good diet for the men and strict sanitation on the ship.
He could not be labeled as cruel.
His one negative was that he could be abrupt and insulting.
Bligh’s nature and disposition had nothing to do with the mutiny. Most of the crew was reluctant to leave the idyllic life they were enjoying on Tahiti.
The Bounty did depart Tahiti. It did not get too far. In the middle of the night, Fletcher led the rebellion. Fletcher and some mutineers entered Bligh’s cabin, woke him, tied him and brought him upon deck.
Bligh chastised his friend Fletcher. Fletcher’s response was short…..I am in hell.
Bligh and most of the crew not supporting the mutiny were placed in a 23 foot launch. Too many bodies for such a small boat. They were given four cutlasses, food and water for a week, a quadrant, and a compass. No charts.
The Fletcher led mutineers returned to Tahiti. History tells us they lived the exotic life a while till Fletcher told them they had to leave to avoid discovery and arrest. Fletcher and the crew took their native loves and sailed off. History knows not where they went.
Bligh was a sailor of the first class. He was determined to get himself and his men home.
The nearest island with European settlers was Timor. 4,164 miles away. Bligh got the cutlass and men there. Only one died on the way. The trip took 47 days. Bligh and the crew survived on 1/12 pounds of bread per day. Bligh navigated the whole way. To this day considered a marvelous accomplishment.
The court martial honorably acquitted Bligh. Note was made that had there been more officers and a Marine detachment, the mutiny would never have occurred.
A small number of crewmen were found guilty. Only three hung. Found guilty not of mutiny, but barratry. Barratry was defined as the misappropriation by those entrusted with the care of a ship to the detriment of the owner (British Crown).
Bligh was returned to duty as a captain of a larger vessel.
Bligh was to stand court martial a second time in a mutiny situation in 1797. Bligh was captain of the HMS Director. Several other ships were involved in the mutiny. The mutiny referred to as the Spithead Mutiny.
The mutiny had nothing to do with Bligh personally. The crews mutinied for more pay and an end to brutality.
Bligh was found not guilty and returned to sea duty as captain of an even larger vessel.
Bligh’s competency and leadership were recognized by the British government in 1805 when he was appointed as Governor of New South Wales. New south Wales was near or a part of Australia.
New South Wales had a high society consisting of colonists and senior officers of the New South Wales Corp.
They were stealing the island and British government blind.
Bligh was confrontational. Actually pissed off. He ordered them to cease and desist.
No one heard him. No one wanted to hear him. Those he was chastising were making huge profits from illegal private trading. The trading primarily in rum. The incident is referred to as the Rum Rebellion.
Four hundred soldiers revolted. Took over. Found Bligh hiding under his bed. Arrested him. Kept him prisoner for two years till a court martial trial was held.
Bligh again was acquitted. The rebel leader was found guilty and dismissed from the military service with loss of pension. Meant nothing to him. He returned to New South Wales and enjoyed the balance of his life living off his ill gotten gains from the rum trade.
Bligh was obviously a competent leader. Good to his crews in comparison to other naval captains of the time. A straight arrow, however.
He faced trial three times. Was exonerated three times. Continued in service after each acquittal.
Why do I write this piece re Bligh? Simple. I think Hollywood has given him a bad deal. Hollywood has portrayed him as a villain in the Bounty movies. I wanted to set the record straight. Showing also that Bligh walked with a black cloud over his head. Three times subjected to court martial trial.