July 11, 1991

Article at Miami Herald

Exhibition Leads Way to Rescue Capt. Bligh

Portrait of William Bligh c.1776 by John Webber


SYDNEY: The statue of Capt. William Bligh in Sydney Cove says that it was built “to restore the proper image of a much-maligned and gallant man.”

Controversy has followed Bligh since the crew of his ship, the HMS Bounty, mutinied against his command in 1789.

Bligh has been popularly portrayed as a foul-mouthed sadist, but organizers of the world’s most detailed exhibition on the mutiny say that he was a clever man whose achievements have been forgotten, while his crew’s historically insignificant revolt has been blown out of all proportion. 

“Bligh ordered flogging less than Capt. 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 artifacts surrounding the mutiny.

The display includes maps, paintings, telescopes, Bligh’s handwritten logbook – he took it with him when he was forced off his ship – numerous letters and journals written by participants, and the proceedings of the court-martial that followed.

Bligh sailed with Cook, fought naval battles alongside Horatio Nelson, and was made governor of the young Australian colony of New South Wales. Some current maps are based on the navigation charts that he drew during voyages with Cook.

However, he primarily is remembered for the shipboard rebellion, led by his second-in-command, Fletcher Christian, on 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, tied my hands with a cord and threatened instant death if I made the least noise,” Bligh wrote in his log.

Bligh and 18 loyal crewmen were cast adrift in a small open boat with scant rations. Without charts and suffering incredible hardship, Bligh steered the men to safety on Timor in the Dutch East Indies after a 41-day journey.

It was a feat that confirmed Bligh’s resourcefulness, his supporters say, but popular history has made Christian, not Bligh, the hero.

Five films have portrayed Bligh as a cruel and tyrannical commander, personified by Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard and Anthony Hopkins. Christian has been played by sex symbols such as Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson.

Most of the 2,500 books and articles have focused on the romance and myth of the South Seas story.

“Bligh has always been portrayed as an old man in his 60s when he was in fact only 33, while Christian has always been the young and virile romantic lead,” Brunton said.

Many scholars blame Bligh for the mutiny. Some attribute it to his brutish behavior. Others regard him merely as overzealous and overbearing. One psychologist blames the mutiny on Bligh’s purported frustration and guilt over his homosexual feelings for Christian.

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

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 came from a humble background, unusual for a Royal Navy captain of the time, and it worked against him.

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

He was sent to New South Wales as governor in 1805, but complaints about his oppressive behavior led three years later to another revolt against his authority.

Christian and the other Bounty mutineers sailed to Pitcairn Island, an isolated rock in the Pacific where their descendants live today. Some of the mutineers returned to Tahiti, where a group was captured. Those who survived the journey to England were court-martialed and three were hanged.