Most people have heard of the mutiny on the Bounty. Even though the actual events occurred in the year 1789, the drama is just perfect for the silver screen, which explains why no fewer than four movies have been made about it. All the elements Hollywood could wish for are there: sunny, palm-shaded islands on the far side of the world; credulous, naked Tahitian women; homesick, pasty-faced British sailors who decide (surprise!) they would sooner betray king and country than give up all that to return to the squeamish, straitlaced sweethearts waiting for them at home.
But for all its prurient allure, the story of those gullible sailors and their fetching paramours is not nearly as compelling as the one told by the guy who was set adrift. With no charts, no sextant, and only a five-day supply of food and water, Captain William Bligh navigated a wave-swamped, twenty-three-foot open lifeboat loaded to the gunwales with eighteen men, over 3,600 stormy miles of the Pacific, landing safely forty-seven days later in Timor. In statute (land) miles, that’s the equivalent of drifting from New York to Los Angeles and back to St. Louis. It was nothing short of a miracle, and it remains to this day the greatest feat of navigation and survival at sea in the history of the British Royal Navy.
Along the way, Bligh made copious entries in a daily log that was published upon his return to England. The resulting work, “A Narrative Of The Mutiny On Board His Majesty’s Ship Bounty; And The Subsequent Voyage Of Part Of The Crew, In The Ship’s Boat” (available free on Kindle), might have benefited from a shorter title, like “Bligh’s Revenge.” It’s a fascinating tell-all, psychological thriller, and factual account. In reading it, I learned that while the folk hero of popular culture may be Fletcher Christian, who did nothing more than betray his shipmates and his country for a little whoopee in Whytootackee, his much maligned captain is a far more interesting character. Bligh didn’t merely survive, and he wasn’t just a masterful sailor and navigator. He was a total badass who faced insurmountable odds and never flinched. And to our great good fortune, he was also a thoughtful, literate man who lived to tell his tale.
Several parts of the narrative struck me as particularly moving. Fletcher Christian was Bligh’s second in command and a personal friend of the Bligh family. He had apprenticed under Bligh on Captain Cook’s famous voyages of discovery. In recalling the mutiny, Bligh carefully notes that “Christian, the captain of the gang, is of a respectable family in the north of England” and “a young man of abilities” whom he had taken “great pains to instruct” and who at one time promised to be a “credit” to his country. (No doubt the Christian family’s reputation declined precipitously after Fletcher’s crimes were published.) “Notwithstanding the roughness with which I was treated,” Bligh writes, “the remembrance of past kindnesses produced some signs of remorse in Christian. When they were forcing me out of the ship, I asked him if this treatment was a proper return for the many instances he had received of my friendship. He appeared disturbed at my question and answered, with much emotion, ‘That—Captain Bligh—that is the thing; I am in hell. I am in hell.’”
The delicacy with which Bligh posits his “conjecture” about the mutineers’ blindingly obvious motives will seem particularly humorous to the wizened modern reader:
It will very naturally be asked, ‘What could be the reason for such a revolt?’ in answer to which, I can only conjecture that the mutineers had assured themselves of a more happy life among the Tahitians than they could possibly have in England; which, joined to some female connections, have most probably been the principal cause of the whole transaction . . . [I]t is now perhaps not so much to be wondered at, though scarcely possible to have been foreseen, that a set of sailors, most of them void of connections, should be led away; especially when, in addition to such powerful inducements, they imagined it in their power to fix themselves in the midst of plenty, on the finest island in the world, where they need not labour, and were the allurements of dissipation are beyond anything that can be conceived.
“Female connections?” You think?
Actually, Bligh later points out that there had been desertions from “many” ships before in the Society Islands of the South Pacific but that it “ever has been in the commanders’ power to make the chiefs return their people.” It was no doubt for this very reason that the mutineers aboard Bounty elected to take the ship rather than desert it and try to hide on a small island.
The mutineers were not completely heartless. As mentioned, they did give Bligh and his men food and water for five days—enough time for the mutineers to get away and for Bligh and his followers to find a nearby island on which to live out their lives as castaways. The conspirators never imagined that Bligh would make it all the way to England and dispatch a man-of-war with precise directions to find them and bring them to the gallows.
Immediately after he was set adrift, Bligh rowed and sailed his way to the island of Tofoa, to which the Bounty had been bound, in hopes of augmenting his meager provisions. He described the women in Tahiti as “handsome, mild and cheerful in their manners and conversation, possessed of great sensibility,” and with “sufficient delicacy to make them admired and beloved.” But his account of the landing at Tofoa disproves the popular mythology that native Polynesians were all docile utopians, interested only in free love and mangoes. With no weapons but four cutlasses among them, Bligh and his crew resisted “going amongst multitudes” of natives out of fear they “might lose everything.” Out of concern for what might happen if he revealed to the natives how truly vulnerable he and his crew were, he decided to lie:
I knew they [the natives] had too much sense to be amused with a story that the ship was to join me, when she was not in sight from the hills. I was at first doubtful whether I should tell the real fact, or say that the ship had overset and sunk, and that only we were saved: the latter appeared to me to be the most proper and advantageous to us, and I accordingly instructed my people, that we might all agree on one story.
For the natives’ part, Bligh says, “they seemed readily satisfied with our account, but there did not appear the least symptom of joy or sorrow in their faces.” He was able to trade carpenter’s nails for coconuts and bread fruit, but he mentions that “the natives did not appear to have much to spare.” Later two of their chiefs appeared, who Bligh notes “were very inquisitive to know the manner in which I had lost my ship.” The chiefs suspected weakness and began cagily preparing for a sneak attack. “[T]he natives began to increase in number,” Bligh writes, “and I observed some symptoms of a design against us; soon after they attempted to haul the boat on shore. I threatened [Chief] Eefow with a cutlass to induce him to make them desist, which they did, and everything became quiet again . . . I kept buying up the little breadfruit that was brought to us, and likewise some spears to arm my men with.” Eventually the beach was “lined with natives,” Bligh states, “and we heard nothing but the knocking of stones together, which they had in each hand. I knew very well this was the sign of an attack.”
Hollywood has depicted the early Pacific islanders as an ingenuous people, incapable of artifice, but in fact their deception matched Bligh’s: “I served a coconut and bread fruit to each person for dinner,” he writes, “and gave some to the chiefs, with whom I continued to appear intimate and friendly. They frequently importuned me to sit down, but I as constantly refused; for it occurred to Mr. Nelson and myself that they intended to seize hold of me, if I gave them such an opportunity. Keeping, therefore, constantly on our guard, we were suffered to eat our uncomfortable meal in some quietness.”
After these niceties, 200 Tofoa natives did finally attack. One of Bligh’s men—the only one to lose his life in the whole adventure—was killed while trying to free the boat’s anchor on shore. “Providence here assisted us,” Bligh recalls, as “the fluke [of the anchor] broke, and we got to our oars, and pulled out to sea.” Rather than despair that the anchor fouled to begin with and that a man died trying to free it, Bligh, as was his custom, saw the hand of divine providence. Later in the voyage, when his boat’s rudder fell off, he credited divine mercy for ensuring this disaster happened while they were ashore and able to repair it, and not at sea in a storm. A true Church of England man, Bligh also insisted that the men attend to their prayers daily, proving the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes (or lifeboats).
Bligh took the lesson of his narrow escape from the natives on Tofoa to heart. He would never again put ashore on an island that bore any sign of recent habitation until he reached a European settlement. He concluded from the Tofoan’s hostility that “their good behavior” in previous encounters with British sailors “proceed[ed] from a dread of our firearms, which, now knowing us destitute of, would cease.”
After leaving Tofoa, all the men implored Bligh to set a course for the voyage home:
When I told them no hopes of relief for us remained, but what I might find at New Holland [Australia], until I came to Timor, a distance of full 1200 leagues, where was a Dutch settlement . . . they all agreed to live on an ounce of bread, and a quarter pint of water, per day. Therefore, after examining our stock of provisions, and recommending this as a sacred promise for ever to their memory, we bore away across a sea, where the navigation is but little known, in a small boat, twenty-three feet long from stern to stern, deep laden with eighteen men; without a chart, and nothing but my own recollection and general knowledge of the situation of places, assisted by a book of latitudes and longitudes, to guide us. I was happy, however, to see every one better satisfied with our situation in this particular than myself.
Bligh logs the lifeboat provisions as consisting of “150 pounds of bread, 16 pieces of pork, each piece weighing 2 pounds, 6 quarts of rum, six bottles of wine, with 28 gallons of water and four empty [barrels],” along with a few coconuts and smashed breadfruit. He resolved (with the agreement of his crew), to ration the provisions and stretch a five-day supply for two months—enough time, he reckoned, to sail to some European outpost in Indonesia. To their daily ration of bread and water he added an occasional ounce of pork and other items he was able to acquire along the way, chiefly plantains, coconuts, clams, and oysters. The crew had little luck fishing, but from within the boat they managed to catch several birds that were promptly eaten—beak, bones, feathers and all. Bligh parceled out these treasures by a special method designed to ensure fairness. He would stand behind a member of the crew designated to be the decider, cut off a morsel, and ask “Who shall have this?” The decider, unable to see the size or desirability of the morsel in question, would choose without bias which member of the crew would receive it.
Rain regularly replenished the crew’s water supply, and they were able to forage added provisions during a stop at an island off the coast of Australia to which Bligh gave a name that endures to this day: “This being the day of the restoration of King Charles the Second, and the name not being inapplicable to our present situation (for we were restored to fresh life and strength), I have named this Restoration Island.” Here the crew rested ashore for six days before pressing on.
Of all the provisions carried by the castaways, none was more carefully stewarded than the rum, followed by the wine. Bligh attributed remarkable medicinal properties to each, often bringing the men to whom it was issued by the teaspoonful back from the brink of fever and malaise. So carefully did Bligh husband and, from time to time, add to all of their stores, that when he and his men were finally rescued, forty-seven days later, they had provisions to last another eleven days.
Two things cannot be missed by even the casual reader of Bligh’s tale: one is the unremitting doom and misery he and his crew faced, and the other is their remarkable refusal to despair. “It was a great consolation to me to find,” he writes, “that the spirits of my people did not sink, notwithstanding our miserable and almost hopeless situation.” This was of no small importance, for Bligh considered that a collapse of the group’s resolve would have led swiftly to the collapse of their physical health. In this dynamic of the voyage, as he describes it, is a lesson for all of us:
Miserable as our situation was in every respect, I was secretly surprised to see that it did not appear to affect anyone so strongly as myself; on the contrary, it seemed as if they had embarked on a voyage to Timor, in a vessel sufficiently calculated for safety and convenience. So much confidence gave me great pleasure, and I may assert that to this cause their preservation is chiefly to be attributed; for if any one of them had despaired, he most probably would have died before we reached New Holland.
The mutiny took place on the 28th of April. Bligh and his crew sighted land near the Dutch settlement of Timor on the 12th of June, arriving there two days later. Bligh’s commission papers as a captain in the Royal Navy, which he was careful to request before being put off the Bounty, were not just proof of his authority. They amounted to an 18th century government charge-card. With the full faith and credit of the British crown behind him, Bligh was given money by the Dutch governor at Timor to buy a ship to sail the rest of the way home. The sum, 1,000 rix dollars, amounted to about $70,000 U.S. in today’s money. With it he acquired a modest 34-foot schooner he named the Resource and in which he set sail again on the 20th of August. He made it through Indonesia to Java. But after contracting a fever that historians believe was likely malaria, Bligh was placed aboard another ship that was bound sooner for England. He recovered and landed in Plymouth on the 14th of March, 1790.
Against the record of Bligh’s heroic voyage, the cowardice and depravity of Fletcher Christian stands in stark relief. He traded his honor and his duty, not to mention the friendship and patronage of his captain, for pleasure, ignominy, and the contempt of history. There would be no redemption and no rescue for Christian. He was drummed out of the navy in absentia. Those of his fellow mutineers who elected to return to Tahiti were captured by the British ship sent to hunt them. Three of them hanged. Christian remained at large, living a small and paranoid existence, crouched in a cave atop a cliff on Pitcairn Island, where he kept a lookout for the British ship he was certain would one day come to seize him. He and his fellow mutineers burned Bounty to the waterline and abandoned any hope of ever leaving Pitcairn of their own volition.
There are various accounts of what happened to the mutineers on Pitcairn island—none of them laudatory. Thieves without honor, they fell to drunkenness, infighting and treachery among themselves. According to sources in Wikipedia, the mutineers enslaved the Tahitian men who accompanied them, fathered several children with the Tahitian women, and died by the same code of violence under which they had lived.
Bligh, for his part, went on to greater glory, commanding several other ships and achieving the rank of Vice Admiral of the Blue in the Royal Navy. He never achieved a great military victory, which is most likely the reason (and a poor one) that no monuments stand in his memory in England. The government of Australia made amends for this slight only in 1987, when it erected a statue in his honor to “restore the proper image of a much maligned and gallant man.” Bligh ended his career as the Royal Governor of New South Wales, a former British penal colony that is now the largest state in Australia. He died in 1808, nineteen years after his ordeal aboard Bounty, at the age of sixty-four. (I recently traveled to his gravesite in London, which lies in the cemetery of the old St. Mary’s Church, beside the Thames, but it was unfortunately inaccessible due to construction when I arrived.)
Hollywood has propagated the convenient fiction that Bligh was a cruel taskmaster who pushed his crew until they had no choice but to mutiny, and that Fletcher Christian (played by stars like Clark Gable and Mel Gibson) was their tragic but heroic savior. I find the evidence of this lacking. Consider that when Bligh arrived at Timor, as a British captain he was offered private, luxurious accommodations ashore, complete with servants, while his crew was to be berthed on ships in the harbor. Instead, he insisted that all his crew lodge with him in the same house. They would enjoy the same amenities and the same food prepared for Bligh, who did not eat until every man was served:
Having seen every one enjoy this meal of plenty, I dined . . . ; but I found no extraordinary inclination to eat or drink. Rest and quiet, I considered, as more necessary to my doing well, and therefore retired to my room, which I found furnished with every convenience. But instead of rest, my mind was disposed to reflect on our late sufferings, and on the failure of the expedition; but above all, on the thanks due to Almighty God, who had given us power to support and bear such heavy calamities, and had enabled me at least to be the means of saving eighteen lives . . . When I reflect how providentially our lives were saved at Tofoa, by the Indians delaying their attack, and that, with scarce anything to support life, we crossed a sea of more than 1200 leagues, without shelter from the inclemency of the weather; when I reflect that in an open boat, with so much stormy weather, we escaped foundering, that not any of us was taken off by disease, that we had the great good fortune to pass the unfriendly natives of other countries without accident, and at last happily to meet with the most friendly and best of people to relieve our distresses; I say, when I reflect on all these wonderful escapes, the remembrance of such great mercies enables me to bear, with resignation, the failure of an expedition . . .
So, there you have it—Bligh’s revenge was a life well-lived and a tale well-told. In a footnote to my study of his voyage, I had the wonderful good fortune during my travels in London to meet Sarah Bligh. Neither she nor I know whether she is related to the famous captain, but she graciously agreed to read the first few pages of Bligh’s narrative on camera: