Saturday, May 21, 2016

Bligh: Hero? Villain? Something in between?

I recently read Lieutenant William Bligh's account of the breadfruit mission to Tahiti and the resulting mutiny.  It provided a very different narrative than the one seen in the various Mutiny on the Bounty movies.

When determining who--Bligh or the mutineers--is the true villain(s), here are a few facts that merit consideration:

- Bligh was ordered by the Admiralty to take the Cape Horn route.  He protested due to it being the wrong time of year for favorable winds.  The Admiralty relented, sort of, saying that if the Cape Horn route proved too difficult, then Bligh had permission to sail east and approach Tahiti via the Cape of Good Hope.  Bligh followed orders.  He sailed west for the tip of South America, gave it his best shot, found it impossible to round the tip of the continent, and eventually turned east.  It is unfair for him to receive the blame for this--that blame falls on the Admiralty.

- Bligh was a very capable navigator.  His journal is filled with latitude and longitude reckonings, down to the minute, as well as the usual talk of winds and currents, and the narrative paints a picture of a man who knows almost exactly where he is on the globe at any given time.  This is not a man who is blundering his way across the ocean.

- The crew was young.  At the ripe old age of 33 when the breadfruit mission began, Bligh was one of the oldest men aboard.  Fletcher Christian, the hero of the movies, was 23.  The youngest crewman was 15.

- The day of the mutiny, Christian and the others repeatedly warned Bligh not to say anything or he wold be killed.  Bligh ignored their warnings and continued to try to engage them in conversation.  He was threatened time after time for talking, but they were empty threats.  The mutineers don't come across as men of conviction, but rather blusterers who don't have the courage to follow through.

- After the mutiny, Bligh and his supporters were cast adrift in the ship's launch.  One of those men would later be killed by hostile natives.  The rest survived long enough to reach the Dutch Coupang colony on Timor.

- Bligh strictly rationed the food and water aboard the launch in order to make it last the 3500 nautical mile journey to Timor.  A typical meal consisted of an ounce of bread and a quarter-pint of water.  There was also some pork, rum, and wine aboard, as well as the occasional bird or fish they managed to catch, but all those were rare treats.  The men were skin and bones by the time they reached Coupang.  They sailed into the harbor about a month-and-a-half after the mutiny.

- Meanwhile, the mutineers returned the Bounty to Tahiti.  They lied to the local chiefs in order to trick some men and women into coming aboard the ship.  The men were to be a source of labor.  The women were to provide sex and children.  The natives were essentially slaves.  The goal was to establish a permanent settlement on another island.

- Fletcher Christian had a hard time maintaining his authority.  There were gun battles and constant strife.

- The Pitcairn settlement was a disaster.  Almost all the men, including Fletcher Christian, were murdered.  The women, at one point, tried to build a boat and sail away.

- Most of Bligh's men made it back home.  A few died in the weeks after the launch reached Coupang.

- The natives were mostly hostile.  Bligh is never really disparaging of them in his journal--perhaps influenced by Rousseau's idea of the "noble savage" which was in vogue at the time--but the fact remains that those natives were problematic.  The Tahitians were the friendliest, but were still constantly stealing stuff from the Bounty.  Bligh would complain to the chiefs about the missing goods; sometimes they would get the stuff back, sometimes not.  The people of other islands would be welcoming one moment and murderous the next.  Some were cannibals.  During the trip to Timor, Bligh would avoid going ashore on an island if he saw any evidence of human settlement.  The English sailors were basically trying to "sneak" across the ocean, and that says a lot, especially considering the dire straits they were in regarding food and fresh water.

So what can we conclude from all this?

In my opinion, the obvious answer is the likeliest.  Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers, being the young, testosterone-surfeited, and impressionable teenaged and twenty-something-year-old men that they were, were seduced by the easy living and easy women of Tahiti.  The five months they spent there proved sufficient to tear down their self-discipline.  When it came time to leave, they simply couldn't bear the thought of giving all that up and returning to a life of duties and responsibilities.  They "went native" in all the worst senses of the term.

Bligh, on the other hand, was old enough and rigid enough to stay the course.  He was not a cruel man, but he did mete punishment when necessary, and he did seem to have some social difficulties at times.  I wouldn't be surprised if he had Asperger's Syndrome or some similar thing.  His meticulous reasoning and calculations, both when it came to navigation and rationing, would seem to support this.  He was a man who seemed more comfortable with numbers than people.

The resulting chaos and violence among the mutineers speaks for itself.  When you and your pals are murdering and kidnapping people left and right, then YOU are the bad guy, not your disciplinarian captain who would go on to save a bunch of men's lives by successfully leading them over 3500 nautical miles across the open ocean in a glorified rowboat.

The Wikipedia entry says this:

The generally accepted view of Bligh as an overbearing monster and Christian as a tragic victim of circumstances, as depicted in well-known film accounts, has been challenged by late 20th- and 21st-century historians from whom a more sympathetic picture of Bligh has emerged.

...and I agree with those modern historians.  In my opinion, Bligh was unfairly maligned by the descendants of the mutineers and by Hollywood.  He was the hero; Christian the villain.  But Christian was a sexy, romantic villain, and Bligh an awkward, uncompromising hero, and that makes all the difference as far as some people are concerned.

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