“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. I however called sufficiently loud to alarm the officers, who found themselves equally secured by centinels at their door. There were now three men at my Cabbin door and four inside (a) (Fletcher Christian, Alexander Smith, John Sumner, Mathew Quintal) Mr Christian had a Cutlass and the others were armed with Musquets and Bayonets — I was now carried on deck in my Shirt in torture with a severe bandage around my wrists behind my back, when I found no man to rescue me. I ask’d the reason for such a violent act, but I was threatned to be put to death if I said a word.”
So wrote William Bligh (Pictured, below as a Rear Admiral)
in his ship’s log entry for today’s date, April 28 in the year 1789 (The spelling is Mr. Bligh’s). It was the climax of a story which would be immortalized by authors Charles Nordhoff and James N. Hall in 1931 as “Mutiny on the Bounty”. It became famous around the world when in 1935, Hollywood producer Irving Thalburg of Metro Goldwyn Mayer concluded that it would make a good movie. Thanks to classic performances by Charles Laughton as Capt. Bligh, and Clark Gable, the image of a cruel and despotic sea captain driving his overworked crew to mutiny as a cry for simple human dignity has lived on through two more filmed versions of the story. The truth was something different.
“Breadfruit” on Tahiti
By 1786, the British plantation owners of the West Indies found that the events of the American Revolution had cut them off from their best supplies of cheap subsistence food for their slaves. They believed that the breadfruit tree (below) found on the Polynesian island of Tahiti by
the great explorer Capt. James Cook was the answer. The planters got the right people to lobby the British Admiralty to dispatch a small ship to get the breadfruit trees for them to cultivate. Command of the HMS Bounty, a small armed merchant vessel was given to Lieutenant William Bligh. Bligh had sailed with Capt. Cook, and was determined to make the voyage of the Bounty letter-perfect.
Bligh’s Needling Style of Command
Bounty set sail in December of 1787. A rough voyage made matters difficult. Bligh’s style of command made matters worse. His first mate was one Fletcher Christian (pictured below in an artist’s conception based on written accounts),
a man with an aristocratic background. Bligh had worked with Mr. Christian in past voyages, and considered him a reliable friend. While the crew had all signed on voluntarily -a singularly unusual occurrence in those days- many had done so to visit the island paradises of which they had heard, and thus were better dreamers than sailors. Bligh was not a violent man by the standards of the day. In fact he resorted to flogging his crewmen fewer times than had the great Captain Cook. But his micro-managing, needling style of command, with his regular use of foul and belittling language left his crew seething with resentment towards him.
Tahiti – An Island Paradise Seduces the Bounty Crew
The Bounty arrived in Tahiti in October of 1788, and stayed five months while waiting for the breadfruit trees to mature. During this time, the crew grew attached to the tropical climate, and to the Tahitian women; the two combining into much of what they had hoped for in a tropical paradise. Thus when it came time to leave in April of 1789, many of them were loath to return to the hard life of a sea under the command of a captain whom they disliked. While there is little evidence to support the Hollywood view of Bligh as a cruel despot, his frequent bursts of temper at an incompetent crew which had just left paradise behind drove them over the edge. The result was the April 28’th insurrection which Bligh described above, which was bloodless, but which seems to have taken Bligh completely by surprise.
Bligh’s Amazing 4,000 Mile Voyage
Bligh and eighteen other crewmen were put over the side in the ship’s launch boat with five day’s worth of supplies. Bligh was a sailor of the greatest skill, and in an incredible feat of seamanship, he guided his 24 foot launch on 4,000 mile voyage to the island of Timor. The Bounty and the mutineers sailed on back to Tahiti, picked up some of the islanders, and moved on in search of a hiding place. They ultimately found one in the remote Pitcairn Island in the eastern Pacific. Bligh had returned to England to report on the mutiny. He was given the ship HMS Providence to return to the Pacific for the Breadfruit. Another officer was sent with the HMS Pandora to hunt down the mutineers. Fourteen who had remained on Tahiti were captured and put in chains. When Pandora wrecked off the Australian coast,
four of the prisoners were drowned. The remaining ten wound up being court-martialed in England. Six of them were convicted. Of these, three were hanged, two were given the King’s mercy, and one escaped on a legality. The mutineers who arrived at Pitcairn Island fell into strife with one another, and many of them were killed by each other or by the Tahitians. The grave of Fletcher Christian has never been found. By the time Pitcairn Island was found by an American ship some 18 years later, only one of the original mutineers remained- John Adams. The descendants of the Bounty mutineers reside on Pitcairn Island to this day.
Hollywood Takes a Hand
(Click on the highlighted words below for film clips)
However the story was not to end there. In 1931 authors Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall published a novel; a trilogy of books based on the events of the mutiny. It was in these books that the picture of William Bligh as the vicious and tyrannical captain was presented to the world. MGM Producer Irving Thalberg read the books and was convinced that they would make good and popular movie material. Well Thalberg, genius film maker that he was proved to be quite right about this – the film “Mutiny on the Bounty” with Charles Laughton (below)
as Bligh and Clark Gable as Christian was a huge hit with audiences. And Laughton plays the character of Bligh as a singularly unfeeling and tyrannical man, with Christian trying to protect the crew. The film was remade in 1962 with Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando as the aforementioned Bligh and Christian. This film version cast essentially the same light on the relationship. Not until 1984 was the film remade as “The Bounty” (below) with more of a balance to the character of Bligh. Played
by Anthony Hopkins, the Bligh in this version comes off as a rather uptight and stiffly formal man who was simply overwhelmed by his situation. Christian as played by Mel Gibson is a basically decent man who is seduced by the tropical charms of Tahiti. The ending of the story is the same, but in this version, Bligh is much less of a villain. Still with Christian having been played not once but three times by matinee idols Gable, Brando, and Gibson, the image of the tyrant versus the decent man lingers….
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“Mutiny on the Bounty” by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
“Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language” by Greg Dening. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, U.K., 1992
“What Happened on the Bounty” by Bengt Danielson Rand Mc Nally Co., Chicago, 1964.