Righting a historic wrong: the real story of the mutiny on the Bounty

Michael Buerk tells the tale of the much maligned William Bligh and his perilous 3,600-mile journey across the pacific, now re-created for a Channel 4 documentary

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William Bligh may well be the most maligned man in history. His name has become a byword for cruelty; a tyrant who drove the crew of his ship, HMS Bounty, to such despair that they were forced into the most famous of all mutinies.

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It’s almost complete nonsense. Bligh was no tyrant. Hot-tempered certainly, foul-mouthed occasionally – what naval officer wasn’t? But he was among the kindest and most considerate captains of his day.

He was particularly decent towards Fletcher Christian, an attractive but weak man, whom he had befriended and sponsored but who repaid him by sending him to pretty much certain death.

Ever since I was a boy who graduated from Treasure Island to Hornblower, I’ve been fascinated by the mutiny on the Bounty. It deserves its worldwide fame, but it should be for Bligh’s escape, one of the greatest maritime achievements of all time. And we’ve got the hero and the villain completely mixed up.

Tahiti, in October, 1788, was a paradise that had only recently been discovered. The Bounty’s men had been banged up for nearly a year in a small wooden box that was stifling, squalid and damp. Bligh’s leadership had been the main reason they had survived terrible storms at Cape Horn. He kept them healthy as well as safe, priding himself on issuing hardly any punishments.

Now they were surrounded by beauty, the people as much as the island. What must they have seemed like to the English sailors? Men who were mostly toothless, the majority of them pockmarked from endemic childhood smallpox, bow-legged, misshapen, scarred – and, despite Bligh’s best efforts, filthy and stinking as well.

Tahiti was a sensuous and uninhibited society. The girls amazed and delighted the English sailors – and left Bligh aghast. He wondered in his log at the “uncommon ways they have of gratifying their beastly inclinations”.

They had to stay five long, languorous months, collecting breadfruit plants the British government thought would make cheap food for slaves on the West Indian sugar plantations. It was a surly crew that said goodbye, probably for ever, to friends, lovers and, in some cases, unborn children.

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Admiral William Bligh, Captain of Bounty

The atmosphere quickly soured. Bligh and Christian fell out.

The flashpoint was ridiculously trivial. Somebody stole a couple of coconuts from a bag kept on deck. Christian was one of those Bligh accused of theft. There was an argument. But if the row was a storm, the Bounty was a teacup. So much so, Bligh invited Christian to dinner that evening. Christian, in a huff, refused.

At dawn the following day, Bligh was woken in his tiny, windowless cabin by hands pressing down on him. Christian and three other seamen armed with pistols and cutlasses dragged him out of his cot and bound his hands behind his back. He kept shrieking “murder” at the top of his voice, as he was pushed up the stairway.

Christian, who had spent the previous evening drinking, was wild and dishevelled, and kept poking Bligh with a bayonet. In the confusion, Bligh said to him: “Mr Christian, I have a wife and four children in England, and you have danced my children on your knee.”

But the ship’s launch was swung over the side and the loyalists were ordered into it, far more than Christian had expected. At least four of those who wanted to go with their captain were forced to stay on board because there wasn’t room. They were pretty well bound to die. There were 19 men packed into the launch, which was only 23 feet long, and little more than six feet at its widest.

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Bligh seized in his cabin by mutineers

They had managed to gather only minimal supplies – some bread, salted pork, a little rum, and water… enough to last that many people, on normal rations, just five days. The launch was so weighed down, the freeboard – the bit above the water – was just nine inches, the length of a man’s hand.

Bligh sailed that overloaded little boat 3,618 miles. It took 48 days. It was a triumph of navigation, of seamanship, of pure leadership that has probably never been rivalled. And all the time he kept a detailed log, a journal of endurance that sometimes seems beyond belief.

He first made for Tofua, the nearest island, hoping to supplement their supplies. But the islanders attacked them and beat the quartermaster to death before they could escape.

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Captain William Bligh being cast adrift

Bligh decided – no more islands. Instead, he headed for the nearest European settlement, the Dutch East Indies, thousands of miles away. He set the ration – one ounce of bread and a quarter pint of water a day. He split the men into watches so that they could find a tiny amount of space in the impossibly overcrowded boat.

Horribly soon they were in a violent sea, waves so high the launch floundered, becalmed in the troughs of their valleys. The men bailed nonstop, but the sea constantly threatened to swamp them. It went on like that for 24 days: endless downpours, numbing cold, the boat continually awash in the waves.

Every so often, there were violent storms – thunder and prodigious lightning. All the time, they were bailing, bailing for their lives.

The men had terrible cramps from not being able to stretch out. Because the sea was warmer than the air, Bligh got them to dip their clothes in it, wring them out and put them on again to warm up.

He had no maps or charts. Just a quadrant and a compass, and a bit of rope they put knots in and slung over the side to gauge speed.

More storms. Even more suffering. All meticulously recorded in his log. “Our situation highly perilous… men half dead… Every person complained of violent pain in their bones.”

It was nearly a month after they were cast adrift, when they reached the Barrier Reef and then the northern coast of what is now Australia. So exhausted and cramped, only half of them could get out of the boat to collapse on the sand.

They found oysters and some berries, which made them violently ill. They coastal-hopped for four days to the northern tip of the continent. Then all that remained was 1,100 more miles of open water. The men were at the mortal limits of exhaustion when on 14 June the launch finally approached Kupang on the island of Timor.

Their bodies were skin and bone, the limbs swollen, their wits stupid, their clothes rags. But they were alive. Thanks to Bligh’s careful management, there were still 11 days’ rations left. Bligh was lionised on his return. He died a vice-admiral after a chequered but eventful career.

Some of the mutineers were caught, a few hanged. Christian died on Pitcairn Island where the mutineers’ descendants still live.

It was his influential family – who were much better connected than any of the surviving crew – who started to blacken Bligh’s name and, after his death and memories of his achievements had faded, turned a hero into the villain he never was.

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Mutiny is on Monday 6th and Tuesday 7th March at 9:00pm on Channel 4