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Friday, August 14, 2009

Bligh: Enigma of the South Seas

Bligh: Enigma of the South Seas
by Chas. Anderson

No single person other than Capt. James Cook has elicited as much interest and controversy as William Bligh, captain of the Bounty, although only a lieutenant in rank. Gone to sea as an able bodied seaman at age 16, by 22 Bligh had gained enough skill to serve as sailing Master of the Resolution on Cook's third voyage.

The well known saga of the Bounty mu­tiny off Tofua on April 28. 17 39 had its roots in the personality conflicts between Bligh and his protege, Fletcher Christian as well as other members of his crew. Bligh was not at a Captain's usual advan­tage, hav­ing been placed in command of 45 men on a small ship converted from the merchant fleet

Bligh was the only son of a custom's official, having gained appointment to the Hunter in 1770 and later to the Crescent, stationed at the Isle of Man for 18 months. Bligh took advan­tage of this time to court Elizabeth Betham, whose father was acquainted with Bligh's father. He also took advantage of this quiet time to study chart making, navigation, and related sub­jects. He then received the astonishing news of his appointment to serve with Cook.

When the Resolution returned without Cook in 1780, Bligh did not receive the promotion or accolades he expected. Rumors had implicated him in Cook's death and his vehement denials were met with disapproval by the Admiralty. Bligh returned to the Isle of Man to resume his courtship of Elizabeth. They were married on February 4, 1781 and had six daughters. Twin sons died at birth. By all accounts, Bligh was a devoted husband and father.

The Isle of Man held a three-fold connection for Bligh: his wife was born and raised there; Christian's mother, along with son Fletcher, had removed there upon the death of her husband and loss of his estate; and Bounty protagonist Peter Heywood was also a well-connected Manx.

Christian's somewhat higher social status also may have caused friction in the long run, but at first it was appealing to .Bligh. Christian twice sailed with Bligh to the West Indies upon Duncan Campbell's merchant ships. Campbell was Elizabeth Bligh's uncle. At some point during the mutiny, Bligh pleaded to Christian, "You have held my child on your lap." Indeed, during the period before the Bounty embarked on October 4, 1787 but had not cleared Spithead on December 24 Christian had petitioned him for appointment and typical family connec­tions were accessed.

On the Bounty, Bligh held his first command highly and treated the seamen in the tradition of the British Navy: harshly. There was one perplexing exception: he had learned from Cook to maintain the crew in good health—for his own benefit at least, since 46 men were a sparse amount in which to circumnavi­gate the globe to obtain a valuable , cargo in Ohtahetee and deliver it I to English plantation owners in J the West Indies. Little ! did they know that the slaves I would reject this "bread grown on trees" as a food source.

Because of Bligh's new found position, he was lenient on the most common form of punishment: flogging by whip. This may have led some of his officers to believe he was weak or did not have the stomach for discipline.The Bounty reached Mataivi Bay, Tahiti on October 26, ten months out of England. At Tahiti, Bligh treated three desert­ers leniently but punished the watch commander more harshly. Bligh could fall into a rage on more trivial matters such as the bartering procedure with the natives. He insisted that all goods brought on board were to become the king's (read: his) pos­sessions. Bligh was accused of skimming some of the ship's provisions before leaving Spithead and was possibly hoping to turn a profit on his budget. At one point the ship's Master, John Fryer, refused to sign his ledger.

The incident which precipitated the final break between Fletcher Christian and Bligh occurred a few days before the mutiny when Bligh accused him of pilfering coconuts from the stock on board. Christian had served Bligh as emissary at Tenerife, had been promoted to acting lieutenant by Bligh (a slap at Fryer) and had been placed in charge of the breadfruit gathering party on Tahiti.

Upon departure from Tahiti on April 4,1789, things had de­teriorated between the two men when Bligh chastised Christian after his watering party to Numuka lost several items to native theft. Christian countered the criticism by stating that he should have been allowed the use of weapons.

On the fateful day much indecision occurred during the brief three hours in which Bligh and 18 men were placed in the 23 foot launch and set off to what was thought to be almost certain death. This view represents a gross underestimation of Bligh's navigational skills. He may have not been a beloved leader of men but his navigational acumen was incomparable. Thus, he and the castaways proceeded on an epic journey to the closest European settlement on Timor, 3,600 miles distant.

His total voyage has been estimated at 3,870 miles with I loss of only one man—Quartermaster John Norton—to hostile natives at the onset of the journey. To navigate, Bligh had only a sextant so he could determine latitude by noon observations of the sun but without an accurate time­piece, he could not determine longitude by astronomical means. But he did have longitude tables available so he was able to use a method known as "dead reckoning." At this point the men joined Bligh in a supreme test of survival, rationing morsels of bread, a pint of water, and thimble of rum. No fish were caught but an occasional bird was nabbed.

They made one landfall off the coast of Australia which they named Resolution Island. On the uninhabited Resolution Island, the crew made oyster stew. A working party dug a well and refilled the boat's water kegs. Was survival a real possibility?

Bligh was later to return as governor of New South Wales but again faced mutiny by "gangster ruling convicts" as his accustomed naval authority meant nothing in the colony. In 1810 he was forced to return to England via the Great Barrier to face another court martial. Bligh's navigation had taken them on a direct route to the Great Barrier Reef—exactly where he planned.

Was Bligh a different man on this life or death voyage? Probably not, but there was no need to impose ship's discipline other than the agreed on tight rationing. Contemporary explorer and writer Sam McKinney salutes Bligh as "one of the greatest navigators of all time." Whatever qualities of leadership he had were mustered on this difficult journey, now through the Barrier Reef and poised to run for Coupang, a Dutch settlement off Timor.

(Compared to other famous open boat voyages, this one ranks as foremost, much longer than Shakleton's emergency trip in the far South Atlantic. Shakleton had two companions to keep alive and he succeeded brilliantly to rescue his crew. Bligh's also was much more successful than the crew of the whaleship Essex whose crew was stranded for 95 days in three open boats after it sank in 1820: only a few men survived after resorting to cannibalism.)

Bligh and his crew faced further peril upon arriving in Coupang on June 14, 1789 after a 42 day journey. Later they reached Batavia after another 42 day trip through pirate infested waters. Both of these Dutch outposts were infested with malaria and several of the weakened men of the crew succumbed.

Bligh no longer seemed concerned about the welfare of his men as he and his clerk embarked after two weeks on the Dutch merchant Vlydte, landing in England on March 14, 1790. By then Fletcher Christian had established his fledgling colony on Pitcairn Island (Figure 6).

Bligh was eager to clear his name at court martial and bring the mutineers to justice, particularly Christian. He had left one parting shot to his two other nemeses: Carpenter Wil­liam Purcell and Master John Fryer, chained and left at Batavia after Bligh accused them of insubordination. Upon return, Bligh immediately set out to publish his account of the events of April, 1789 and began a (published) war of words with Edward, Christian's brother. Attempting to present himself in the best possible light, he writes: "For if the mutiny had been occasioned by any real grievances, I must have discovered symp­toms of their discontent which would have put me on guard." This might also be taken to mean he was simply impervious to the sentiments of his crew.

In letters to his wife, he was particularly bitter about Chris­tian and acting midshipman Peter Heywood. Bligh's court martial occurred in late October, 1790 and he was acquitted. Purcell was dismissed with a reprimand for insolence. Soon thereafter on November 7, the.Pandora sailed for Tahiti with orders to apprehend the mu­tineers. Bligh's midshipmen Thos. Hayward and John Hallet accompanied Capt. Edwards. They had been in the cutter with Bligh and now were to endure another open boat voyage when the Pandora wrecked on Great barrier Reef. The Pandora had come close to discovering the mutineer hideout on Pitcairn as they sighted Ducie (Figure 7), only 290 miles distant.

The Pandora had apprehended 14 Bounty crewmen on Ta­hiti. When the ship wrecked on August 28, the Bounty men were in extreme peril, having been held in the infamous "Pandora's box" just below deck. They were doomed as the ship started to sink until the last minute when a crewman opened the latch. Four drowned and ten survived to face trial in England. The trial commenced in Spithead on August 12,1792 but Bligh did not stay around to testify and only three were hanged. He had departed on his second breadfruit expedition.

This time the Admiralty did it right: providing an accom­panying ship and a contingent of marines. Bligh was joined by Bounty crew members Lawrence Lebogue and John Smith. Bligh fell very ill from recurrent malaria but recovered by the time they reached Tahiti via Cape Horn. Upon completion of this successful trip to the West Indies, Bligh was cheered by the crew. Of course, there was a sizeable bonus to be split up after payment by the planters.

Bligh went on to distinguished naval service with Admiral Nelson in the European theatre. Bounty crewman Robt. Tinkler served alongside. After surviving another court martial in 1810 after returning from Australia, Bligh was promoted to rear admi­ral in 1811 and to Vice Admiral of the Blue in 1814.He died in 1817 at age 64. He is buried in the family vault at St. Mary's Lambeth, across the River Thames from Westminster. His wife had preceded him in 1812. His last surviving daugh­ter, Jane, died in 1875. By the time of his death, the fate of the experimental colony on Pitcairn became public knowledge but it is unknown if Bligh had been informed.

When the colony had 'been discovered in 1808 (Figjure 9) by American Capt. M.[Folger, a cousin of Benjamin
{Franklin, sailing in the Topaz,[only one remaining mutineer, John Adams, a.k.a Alex Smith (Figure 10), was still alive. This information was passed along to British authorities in Chile and published in 1809. Bligh had his own problems in Australia at this time so he was apparently unaware.

John Adams, a.k.a Alex Smith (Figure 10), was still alive. This information was passed along to British authorities in Chile and published in 1809. Bligh had his own problems in Australia at this time so he was apparently unaware. Would he bother to confront Adams/Smith? When two British ships arrived at Pitcairn 11814 Adams offered to remove himself to England. He surely did not know that three of his crew mates had been hanged. Lt. Heyward had been serving in the South American British command during this period and the outcome might have been dif­ferent if he had he been stationed on the Briton or Tagus. Adams Continued to live on as head of the community until his death at age 65 in 1829. He had outlived Bligh by 12 years.

Bligh's adventures in the South Seas led to the formation two island colonies, Pitcairn and Norfolk. Both have of­fered stamp collectors a diverse and interesting view of history nd modern life on these rather isolated outposts .Norfolk has regular air service but Pitcairn still is not served by oat or plane route. Pitcairn is noted for its rock-like fortress appearance and Norfolk for its stately pine trees.

Whatever personality disorder Bligh exhibited during the Bounty trip may be compared to a head of a modern isolated family who becomes highly dictatorial and subject to being abusive. In other situations he was a highly competent naval officer, navigator, leader, and devoted family man. His career
might have paralleled many other officers of his time if not for the mutiny of the Bounty under the direction, of Fletcher Christian. While the Bounty still lies at the bottom of the bay bearing its name on Pitcairn, the crew of the Yankee, Capt. Irving Johnson, located its position in 1957 and was able raise its 12 foot V-shaped anchor to the surface .He was assisted by diver/writer Luis Maiden, who had made this a project for National Geographic (December, 1957).

The editor of Bligh's journals. Owen Rutter, describes him thusly: "Many of (his) characteristics remained constant throughout his career; his detestation of inefficiency, insistence on discipline, accuracy in navigation, and determination in the face of danger and (finally).. .his irascibility."
In 1967 the Pitcairn islanders were gracious enough to is­sue a three stamp memorial to William Bligh (Sc. 85-87), not exactly a hero on the island.
Bligh has been portrayed on film several times: 1916 by George Cross (Australia); 1933 by Mayne Linton (also Austra­lia); 1935 by Charles Laughton (Hollywood); 1962 by Trevor Howard (also Hollywood) and the third classic from Hollywood: 1984 by Anthony Hopkins. Several replicas of the Bounty have been used for these efforts.
Fig. 12, Pitcairns Sc. 500, the Bounty & its anchor
1986 stamped envelope picturing the Bounty, with August 4 First Day of Issue cancel at Stampex, in Adelaide, Australia

December 14, 2007
Mekeel's & Stamps MAGAZINE
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