Book Review: Dangerous Waters: The Life of William Bligh, by Nigel Barnes

245 pp. $13.10

Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy

12570 Mike Kennedy

In 1962, Metro Goldwyn Mayer released the epic film Mutiny on the Bounty, a spectacular  three-hour adaption of the 1932 novel of the same name originally penned by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Produced for the then-astronomical cost of $19 million, it was one of the most lavish motion pictures ever made up to that time. Seemingly no expense was spared to ensure the historical authenticity of the film; it featured a specially made, full-scale reproduction of the HMAV Bounty, built in Nova Scotia by a team of 200 workers at a cost of $750,000.

The two co-stars of Mutiny on the Bounty were Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard, cast respectively in the roles of Fletcher Christian and Captain William Bligh. Both actors played their parts in a manner that was scrupulously faithful to the way the characters had been depicted in the novel. Howard’s Captain Bligh was a cruel and beastly tyrant who appeared to feel nothing but contempt for the common seamen, and who habitually resorted to severe punishment at the slightest provocation. At one point during the script, Bligh’s callous attitude to the men under his command is revealed when he remarks to the ship’s officers that “Cruelty with a purpose isn’t cruelty. It’s efficiency.”

In contrast, Brando’s version of Fletcher Christian was a mature and compassionate leader who dealt with the crew in a spirit of of respect and fairness, and who grew increasingly disgusted with Bligh’s excesses and barbaric tactics. The mutiny itself was portrayed as a classic struggle between good and evil, one wherein the heroic Christian rises up against the monstrous Bligh only after all other efforts to curb the Captain’s abusive treatment of the ship’s company have come to naught.

Having read both the novel and seen the film, I can attest to the fact that the producers of Mutiny on the Bounty did a masterful job of ensuring that their portrayal of Captain Bligh on the silver screen was entirely consistent with the one that is to be found within the pages of the Nordhoff and Hall book. The only problem is, in both cases, the fictional depictions of William Bligh are way off the mark with the historical reality. In Dangerous Waters: The Life of William Bligh, author Nigel Barnes charts the life journey of this well-known and much maligned figure, and paints a portrait that comes out looking very different from the one that for many years has been reinforced by popular lore.

The story begins in September 1754, when William Bligh was born in the port city of Plymouth to Francis Bligh, a customs official, and his wife Jane. At the tender age of seven, young William took the first step towards what would eventually become his life’s vocation, when in the summer of 1761 he was sent to sea as a Captain’s servant on the HMS Monmouth. Over the next fifteen years he worked his way up the ranks as an Able Seaman, Midshipman, and finally Master’s Mate, learning his trade from the ground up, and like all aspiring Royal Naval officers of the era, hoping to obtain his commission after passing the Lieutenant’s exam.

Bligh’s first big career break came in 1776 when, at the age of 22, he was selected by Captain James Cook to serve as Sailing Master of HMS Resolution, one of two vessels that Cook would take on his third and final voyage of discovery. The purpose of the voyage was to attempt to discover the Northwest Passage, and accompanied by HMS Discovery, the Resolution set sail from Plymouth in July. Three months later the two ships arrived in Cape Town, from whence they then set out across the Indian and Pacific oceans, eventually reaching the Bering Strait. Along the way, they visited many of the islands in the South Pacific to which Blight would later return when in command of the Bounty, and in February 1779 Cook himself would be killed by hostile natives in Hawaii.

After four years at sea the expedition returned to England in the summer of 1780. The following year was a pivotal one in Bligh’s personal and professional life: in February, he would be married to his wife Betsy, and in August, he would participate in the Battle of Dogger Bank, where he would earn the Lieutenant’s commission he had long sought. Subsequently, Bligh would spend the next two years serving on various ships, but with the reduction in strength of the Royal Navy that followed in the wake of the end of the American Revolution opportunities were scarce, and so from 1783 to 1787 Bligh would earn his living as an officer in the merchant navy.

It was during this time that he also first became acquainted with Fletcher Christian, a young man who aspired to a seafaring career and who was anxious to learn the art of navigation from Bligh. The two men sailed together on the merchant ship Britannia, and Bligh evidently thought sufficiently highly of Christian to appoint him as his Second Mate. Neither man realized at the time, but the friendship that was seemingly formed aboard the Britannia was destined to take a disastrous turn for the worse just a few short years later.

In the summer of 1787, Bligh returned to the King’s service when he was appointed as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and given command of the Bounty, a refitted collier of just over 200 tons. His mission was to take the ship to Tahiti and acquire a quantity of breadfruit plants; these were then to be transported to the West Indies, where it was believed they could serve as a cheap but nourishing source of food for slaves employed on the plantations. Upon accepting this assignment Bligh handpicked Christian for the post of Master’s Mate, in which capacity he would be one of the senior warrant officers aboard the ship. Two days before Christmas 1787 the Bounty set sail, with Bligh and a crew of 45 other men aboard.

Initially, the voyage seemed to go well. In contrast to the image of the merciless taskmaster that has so often been portrayed, Dangerous Waters shows that in many respects Bligh was actually a very humane commander who cared deeply about the welfare of his men, and who went to great lengths to provide as many comforts as he could. Sailors aboard the Bounty regularly enjoyed hot breakfasts, something that was almost unknown in the Royal Navy at the time, and Bligh also directed that fires be lit in order to help dry their wet clothing. To keep spirits up and dispel the boredom that accompanied lengthy periods at sea, he had a fiddler on board who entertained the men with evenings of songs and dancing. In contrast to many other naval officers of the era, Bligh was also sparing in his use of corporal punishment, preferring to verbally reprimand the men for all but the most serious of offences.

Tensions began to arise when the Bounty attempted to make its way around Cape Horn, a route which offered the most expedient passage to Tahiti. The Bounty struggled for more than two weeks to make the trip, but in the end the notoriously bad weather of the Horn forced Bligh to abandon any further attempts to traverse it, and instead he decided to make for the Cape of Good Hope, and from thence to Tahiti. It was during this period that fractions began to develop among the Captain and his command team. A few months into the voyage Bligh promoted Christian to the position of Acting Lieutenant, effectively replacing the ship’s Sailing Master, John Fryer, as second in command. From that point onwards, Bligh’s relationship with Fryer began to deteriorate, and consequently discipline problems among the crew started to become more frequent.

At the end of October 1788, after ten long months at sea, the Bounty finally reached Tahiti, which Bligh had visited ten years earlier with Captain Cook. The British sailors were warmly welcomed by the natives, and the Bounty would eventually spend five months at the island, during which time the crew gathered breadfruit plants and prepared them for the subsequent voyage. The sojourn on Tahiti was seemingly blissful, and after many months at sea Bligh’s men were only too happy to take full advantage of the natives’ hospitality. But it was also during this time that discipline began to rapidly unravel. The most serious incident occurred at the beginning of January 1789, when three sailors deserted, an offence which could have merited a trip to the gallows. The miscreants were soon apprehended and duly punished, but as the weeks went by Bligh found it more and more difficult to maintain control over the men, and keep them focused on the job they were there to do.

Finally, at the beginning of April 1798, the Bounty was ready to return home, and the vessel departed Tahiti on the 5th day of that month. By this point in time, despite all of Bligh’s earlier efforts, the Bounty was no longer a happy ship. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the sailors were reluctant to leave the island paradise to embark upon what they knew would be a long and arduous voyage home. The Captain, meanwhile, had become increasingly erratic and prone to venting his frustrations by publicly berating both his seamen and officers. Adding to the crew’s troubles was the fact that Fletcher Christian, who had become infatuated with a native girl, had grown despondent over the prospect of departing Tahiti and never seeing his beloved again.

After little more than three weeks at sea, the situation aboard the Bounty reached a flashpoint and exploded. In the early morning hours of April 28, 1789, Bligh awoke in his cabin to find Christian Fletcher standing over him, brandishing a bayonet and accompanied by two accomplices. The three men hustled Bligh up to the quarterdeck, where it soon became clear that approximately half the crew were supporting Christian’s revolt. A heated verbal exchange followed in which Bligh attempted to defuse the situation and persuade the mutineers to lay down their arms, but Christian would have none of it. Screaming that “I am in hell !”, Christian ordered Bligh and 18 other men to be placed in the Bounty’s launch, where they were provided with a sextant and a compass, and enough food and water to sustain them for approximately one week. Evidently, the mutineers assumed that Bligh and his loyalists would make for the nearest island, where they would remain marooned, hopefully for the rest of their lives.

It was an exceedingly tenuous situation for Bligh and his companions, as the neighboring islands were well known to be populated with hostile natives. With no arms to defend themselves, they faced they very real prospect of suffering the same fate that had befallen Captain Cook in Hawaii. Bligh quickly determined that their only hope of ever returning home to England lay in making for the Dutch settlement at Timor – an endeavor that would involve making a journey of 3,600 nautical miles from the point at which they had been cast adrift by the Bounty.

What followed was one of the most remarkable journeys in the annals of seafaring. Deprived of any charts, Bligh was forced to navigate only from memory. His companions in the boat were exposed to the elements, and had to survive mainly on a daily ration of an ounce of bread and a half-pint of water. Their meager rations were occasionally augmented by any fish or birds they were lucky enough to catch, and by whatever oysters, berries, and fresh water they could forage on the few islands where they dared to make land. Not surprisingly, there were times when tensions ran high, and the crew was held together only by the sheer force of Bligh’s personality.

After an odyssey of six agonizing weeks, they finally arrived in Timor, where they were provided with food and shelter by the Dutch, and offered the opportunity to arrange passage to England. Their journey to eventual salvation had been a remarkable feat of seamanship, and one for which Bligh was feted as a national hero when he and those of his compatriots who survived finally managed to return home. A court of inquiry subsequently exonerated Bligh of any blame for the loss of the Bounty, and commended him for the exceptional leadership he had shown in bringing the men in the launch to Timor.

The mutineers, meanwhile, had returned to Tahiti, where some of them opted to stay. A group of the others, led by Fletcher Christian, took the Bounty to Pitcairn, an uncharted and uninhabited island where they believed they would find refuge from the watchful eyes of the Royal Navy. In 1791 HMS Pandora, under the command of Captain Edward Edwards, arrived in Tahiti to hunt down the mutineers. Fourteen of their number were apprehended, and of these ten were eventually returned to England to face trial.

Six men – Thomas Burkitt, Thomas Ellison, John Millward, William Muspratt,, Peter Heywood, and James Morrison – were convicted and sentenced to hang. Muspratt’s conviction was later overturned on a technicality and Heywood and Morrison were eventually spared by Royal Pardon, but the three others were not so lucky, and met their fate in February 1793 when they were hanged at the yardarm. As for those who had fled to Pitcairn Island, they and their Tahitian companions remained undetected until 1808, by which time Fletcher Christian and most of the other mutineers had died of one cause or another. Their descendants continue to inhabit the island today.

Having survived both the mutiny itself and the arduous open boat voyage to Timor, Bligh was to fall victim to a public relations campaign mounted by Fletcher Christian’s elder brother Edward. In 1794 Stephen Barney, who had acted as legal counsel for one of the mutineers, published the Minutes of the Court Martial of the Bounty Mutiny. Edward Christian, who himself was a lawyer, sought to rehabilitate his brother’s reputation by publishing an Appendix to the minutes. In it, he acknowledged his brother’s role in leading the mutiny, but claimed that Fletcher’s actions had been provoked by a pattern of repeated and persistent abuse that had been heaped upon the crew by the Bounty’s Captain. Bligh attempted to rebut the allegations made by Edward Christian but to no avail, and the publication of the Appendix would serve as the first step towards perpetuating the image of the evil and overbearing tyrant that has endued to this day.

Notwithstanding the campaign of character assassination which was initiated by Edward Christian and supported by others, in the aftermath of the mutiny Bligh’s naval career continued to flourish. In 1790 he was promoted the rank of Captain, and given command of HMS Providence, with a mission to return to Tahiti and obtain the breadfruit plans the Bounty had been originally intended to transport. This time, the voyage was apparently completed without incident. Later, during the 1797 naval munities at the Nore, he helped to restore order and defuse a potentially explosive situation. He subsequently distinguished himself in action first at the Battle of Camperdown in October 1797, and a second time at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801.

The Bounty mutiny of 1789 was destined to become the event for which Bligh would be forever remembered by history, but possibly the most important challenge of his career did not come until 1805, when he was asked to become Governor of New South Wales. By that time Bligh was well into middle age and had held the rank of Captain in the Royal Navy for over fifteen years. He had successfully commanded several different warships, most recently HMS Warrior, a 74-gun third-rate ship of the line, and had earned a reputation as a firm but even-handed disciplinarian.

Bligh was recommended for the Governor’s job by Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, who believed him to be the right man to maintain law and order in the fledgling colony, which had served as a convenient dumping ground for dregs of British society. With an annual salary that was double what he earned as a naval Captain, it seemed like  plum appointment. However, no doubt much  to his subsequent dismay, almost from the moment he arrived in Australia Bligh would soon discover he was stepping into a veritable hornet’s nest.

Trouble began to brew almost immediately, when tensions arose with influential settlers such as the wealthy businessman John Macarthur, and officers of the New South Wales Corps, a regiment of the British Army that had been formed in 1789 to provide a permanent garrison in the colony. A major point of contention was the rapidly burgeoning rum trade, an illicit activity that Bligh tried unsuccessfully to suppress. The situation deteriorated to a point where, in January 1808, Bligh’s enemies staged an uprising, making it the second time in his career where he faced a mutiny.

Bligh was briefly detained until he signed an agreement promising to return to England, and was permitted to seek refuge aboard the HMS Porpoise. Eventually, conflicts arose among the rebels, their short-lived government collapsed, and the ringleaders were eventually arrested and brought to England for trial. Bligh, however, would never return to New South Wales, nor would he ever regain the post from which he had been ousted.

Even so, his career in the Royal Navy would continue to progress, and would take him to the highest ranks of the service. In the summer of 1810, he was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue, and he would continue to serve until 1814, concluding his career with the rank of Vice Admiral. Tragedy would strike in 1812 when his wife of many years passed away at the age of 60. Bligh himself would spend the last several years of his life battling an unknown illness that was likely cancer before finally succumbing in December 1817, at the age of 64.

Who was William Bligh ? According to the narrative presented in Dangerous Waters, he was clearly someone very different from the sadistic megalomaniac that has been so often depicted in popular culture. If the portrait that is found within these pages is accurate, then the truth of the matter is that Bligh was not only a remarkably capable and talented mariner, but he was also a dedicated and highly principled leader who in many respects was extremely lenient by the standards of his day, and who did everything he could to provide for the health, welfare, and morale of the sailors under his command. Nigel Barnes makes a convincing case that misfortunes like the Bounty mutiny were the product of not of any glaring flaws in Bligh’s character, but rather difficult circumstances and bad luck that he could have done almost nothing about.

It is genuinely unfortunate that the extreme – and extremely inaccurate – image of Bligh presented in 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty has seared the phrase “Captain Bligh’ into the collective memory as the apparent epitome of everything a military leader should not be. It would probably be much more accurate to say that if William Bligh was a victim of anything, it was not his own shortcomings, but rather a campaign of misinformation and innuendo that that traces its roots to Edward Christian’s Appendix, and that has progressively snowballed over the 200 years since that malicious document was first published. For this reason alone, Dangerous Waters makes for worthwhile and fascinating reading.

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