Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Jul 2, 1991
Published on: Reuters
1 min read
Fletcher Christian and the mutineers send William Bligh and 18 others adrift in this 1790 painting by Robert Dodd

By Wilson da Silva

SYDNEY – The rehabilitation of Captain William Bligh has begun.

He has been painted by Hollywood as one of history’s villains, the British sea captain whose tyrannical behaviour led the crew of his brig The Bounty to mutiny in 1789 on a voyage of the Pacific.

But organisers of the world’s most detailed exhibition on the mutiny say Bligh was a brilliant man whose achievements have been forgotten, while his crew’s historically insignificant mutiny has been blown out of all proportion.

“Bligh ordered flogging less than Captain James Cook ever did,” said curator Paul Brunton of Australia’s State Library of New South Wales, comparing Bligh with the decorated British explorer credited with discovering Australia.

“He wasn’t as brilliant as Cook at navigation, but he has certainly been given an undeservedly bad name.”

The library has just completed a five-month exhibition, “Mutiny on the Bounty”, which brought together more than 100 artefacts surrounding the mutiny.

It includes maps, paintings, telescopes, Bligh’s handwritten logbook – taken with him when he was thrown off his ship by mutineers – numerous letters and journals written by participants, and the proceedings of the famous court martial that followed.

The exhibition has attracted 26,000 visitors, and when it ends its Australian tour next year, it will go on to the United States.

Bligh sailed with Cook, fought bloody naval battles alongside British naval hero Lord Nelson and was made governor of the young Australian colony of New South Wales. Some of today’s maps are based on the navigation charts he drew during voyages with Cook.

But he is mostly remembered for a shipboard rebellion, led by his second-in-command Fletcher Christian, in the early hours of April 28, 1789.

“Just before Sunrise, Mr Christian and the Master at Arms...came into my Cabin while I was fast asleep and seizing me, tyed my hands with a Cord and threatened instant death if I made the least noise,” Bligh says in the logbook page describing the mutiny.

There were 24 mutineers against the 18 who stuck with Bligh and were later cast adrift on a longboat. Bligh rationed food and water, and navigated through 41 days and 6,705 km (4,170 miles) of ocean from near Tahiti to the Dutch colony of Timor.

It was a feat which confirmed Bligh’s resourcefulness, his supporters say. With few provisions, low morale, and battling often stormy seas, the weakened longboat crew even managed to outrun canoe-borne attacks from hostile Fijian natives.

But popular history has made a hero of Christian, five films have portrayed Bligh as the heartless commander, and most of the 2,500 books and articles have focused on the romance and myth of the South Seas story.

While Christian has been played in films by sex symbols like Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson, Bligh has been protrayed by Mayne Lynton, Trevor Howard and Anthony Hopkins.

“Bligh has always been portrayed as an old man in his sixties, when he was in fact only 33, while Christian has always been the young and virile romantic lead,” said Brunton.

Many scholars blame Bligh for the mutiny, but some ascribe to him very complicated motives. One psychologist has attributed the mutiny to Bligh’s purported frustration and guilt over homosexual feelings he had for Christian.

Brunton, who spent 18 months researching the tale, said the mutiny was a minor maritime incident which turned into an issue during the court martial of the mutineers three years later.

There was a campaign to discredit Bligh and make the mutiny seem justifiable, led by the moneyed families of some of the mutineers, Brunton says. Bligh had humble origins, unusual for a captain of the Royal Navy of the time, and it worked against him.

Bligh was acquitted of his ship’s loss in the court martial, commanded return voyages to the Pacific and was promoted to vice-admiral three years before his death in 1817.

But his reputation could not have been bolstered when, as New South Wales governor, he was deposed by a military coup in 1808, after serving only three years.

The colony’s richer settlers felt threatened by his reforms, which benefited small landholders, and incited the military to rebel.

Christian and the others sailed to Tahiti, where 16 of the crew stayed while the others eventually departed, along with a complement of native women, and settled on uninhabited Pitcairn Island, an isolated rock in the Pacific.

The mutineers on Tahiti were captured and those that survived the journey to Britain were court martialled. Christian and most of the European men had killed each other by the time an American whaling ship found the settlement in 1808.

Descendants of the mutineers today live on Pitcairn, a British possession, and Norfolk Island, an Australian territory 1,300 km (810 miles) off the country’s eastern coast.

Perhaps Bligh’s ghost can now rest. Aside from the exhibition, a statue of Bligh stands in Sydney Cove, erected “to restore the proper image of a much-maligned and gallant man”.