The year is 1801, two decades after the Mutiny On The Bounty. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson engages the tenacious Danish fleet to prevent Scandinavia succumbing to the influence of the French.
The Vice-Admiral penetrates the Danish blockade at Copenhagen, picking through the treacherous shoals along the harbour inlet. Already three of his 12-strong squadron have run aground and are out of action.
The hidden Danish batteries begin unleashing their firepower. In the melee and chaos, there is little room for manoeuvre.
Nelson’s commanding officer, Admiral Hyde Parker, watches from afar, his flagship held back by the threat of shallow waters. He can see little through the smoke but what he does see is alarming. Signals of distress from the three stricken vessels. Parker, unsure of Nelson’s fate, runs up the “43” – stop the battle!
Where Parker is cautious, Nelson is cavalier. He acknowledges the signal but famously ignores the command, keeping the “16” hoisted high for all to see – continue the engagement.
“I only have one eye I have the right to be blind sometimes,” he tells his flag captain Thomas Foley aboard HMS Elephant. Holding his telescope to his blind eye, he says: “I really do not see the signal.”
Another ship of his squadron, HMS Amazon, obeys Parker’s instruction and Captain Edward Riou withdraws. Nelson’s numbers dwindle. The captain of the Glatton is the only person left to see both conflicting signals. He has to decide if he is willing to disobey his commanding officer and run with the Vice-Admiral.
He picks his fateful course of action. He flies Nelson’s signal and keeps the ships about him fighting, earning praise from the great man himself for his contribution to the victory that follows.
The Glatton’s rebellious captain is 54-year-old William Bligh, a man who, ironically, has become synonymous with unyielding naval authority.
A luckless man
History has been cruel to an exceptional navigator and seaman who sailed with both Captain James Cook and Admiral Nelson during a career that saw him rise to Vice-Admiral and Governor of New South Wales.
Yes, Bligh was, according to contemporary reports, thin-skinned and he was a strict disciplinarian, although not more so than any of his contemporaries. He was prone to dark moods and flashes of temper, but perhaps his greatest flaw was lucklessness.
The Mutiny On The Bounty was not even the only mutiny he encountered in his career. In 1797, he was one of the captains whose crews rebelled over “pay and involuntary service” during the Nore rebellions that infected the whole of the Navy.
And while Governor of New South Wales he clamped down on private trading ventures by soldiers and civil servants only to see those he thwarted rise up in the Rum Rebellion of 1808 when 400 soldiers marched on Government House, Sydney, to overthrow his regime. With nowhere to go he was effectively imprisoned on HMS Porpoise off the coast of Tasmania for two years.
The miraculous delivery
It was not the first time he found himself adrift, floating on uncertain seas and the victim of opprobrium. On April 28, 1789, after a bloodless coup, the then 35-year-old and 18 loyal crewmen were deposited in a 7m cutter with four cutlasses, food and water, a quadrant and a compass and no charts. Effectively they were being sent to their deaths.
Yet, in this vessel Bligh undertook a near-miraculous 3,618-mile voyage, reaching Timor in 47 days, losing only one crewmen, who was killed by hostile natives in Tofua. He was able to return to Britain, where he was feted as a hero, cleared by a court martial and able to resume his career.
The 25 left behind, comprising mutineers and those loyal to Bligh who could not fit in the boat, settled on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island.
Soon many would be dead, killed by each other or by locals or caught by the British authorities, brought home to be tried.
It was the idyllic and soporific life on the Polynesian Islands that was the root cause of the mutiny, according to historians. The inexperienced crew had been laid up in this paradise for five months, enjoying the sexual freedom and idleness that the islands offered.
In contrast, life aboard the Bounty must have seemed like damnation itself. Bligh was not an usually cruel leader. He ordered men flogged when the usual penalty was hanging and the level of flogging was below the norm for the Royal Navy. He had kept his crew healthy when life at sea was a constant diet of deprivation and hazard, and he had kept their ship intact through the terrible storms of the Cape Horn.
Only a quarter of them opposed the captain but for many the pull of the easy life of sexual liberation was sufficient to cast aside their grim naval existence.
Fletcher Christian, a weak 24-year-old man, was Bligh’s friend but had become the target of his irascible moods to the extent that he considered deserting on his own before taking soundings from shipmates about a wider mutiny plot. The breaking point was the theft of coconuts, for which Bligh blamed Christian.
“I have been in hell for weeks past. Captain Bligh has brought this on himself,” he told a friend.
In the early hours of the morning Christian and his supporters took the upper deck and three went to Bligh’s quarters tied his hands and brought him to Christian, his protege. The traitor was waiting, with a bayonet in his hand and a weight around his neck so he could throw himself to his death if the mutiny failed.
In a letter to his wife Betsy in 1791, William Bligh wrote: “I demanded of Christian the case of such a violent act but he could only answer – ‘Not a word sir or you are dead.’ I dared him to the act and endeavoured to rally someone to a sense of their duty but to no effect.”
With 18 others, Bligh was deposited in that tiny cutter, lying dangerously low in the water and bearing enough rations for just five days. There was nothing about them but hostile seas and fractious lands.
He pleaded with the friend he had tutored and supported. “Mr Christian, I have a wife and four children in England, and you have danced my children on your knee.”
But Mr Christian was unmoved. And so began one of the greatest episodes of seamanship the Navy has chronicled, with Bligh never once forgetting his duties – maintaining his log and drawing up maps – while all the time bailing out the vessel.
Water washed in from the sea and cascaded down in numbing sheets of rain.
“Our situation highly perilous… men half dead... Every person complained of violent pain in their bones,” he wrote in his log.
But by the time the launch found Kupang on Timor, his careful management meant there were still 11 days of rations left.
Fletcher Christian had first met William Bligh abroad the merchant ship Britannia in 1786. Bligh had granted the Able Seaman the privileges of berthing in the officers’ quarters.
In 1787, Bligh asked Christian to serve aboard HM Armed Vessel Bounty for the two year voyage to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies. The Navy Board turned down a more senior rank for the young man but Bligh appointed him acting lieutenant anyway.
Christian would survive another handful of years on the Pitcairn Islands, dying at the age of 28, apparently in a conflict between mutineers and Tahitian men, although the manner of his death has remained a mystery with one theory putting him safely back in England. He left a wife Maimiti and three children and his descendants still bear the “Christian” name.
A reputation ruined
Whatever his actual fate, his reputation has been enhanced by history just as Bligh’s took a vertiginous fall.
Hollywood has helped with film versions painting the story in black and white – there was the 1935 Clark Gable vehicle that fixed Bligh in the public mind as the sadistic, plump and overbearing Charles Laughton character. And Trevor Howard in 1962 bullied the dashing Marlon Brando.
But the change in Bligh’s fortunes began soon after his heroic return, orchestrated by those invested in the good name of Christian and, consequently, the poor reputation of Captain Bligh.
After his return to England a year after the mutiny, Bligh was given command of HMS Providence and had left England in 1791 on a second breadfruit expedition.
In 1793 the court martial began of the mutineers who had been rounded up and returned by the HMS Pandora.
By the time, Bligh returned to England, late in 1793, public opinion had switched completely.
The mutineers had filled the court martial with tales of his cruelty. The following year, Fletcher’s brother Edward Christian published his Appendix, a report on the proceedings that put Fletcher in a favourable light and cast Bligh as demon.
In 1805 Bligh was reprimanded for using bad language to his officers, which entrenched his reputation as unsympathetic authoritarian and a year later he was shipped off to New South Wales where the Rum Rebellion awaited. He died, aged 63, in December 1817.
The first published account of the mutiny, beyond Bligh’s log, was by Sir John Barrow in 1831. Barrow was a family friend of Peter Heywood, who was one of the mutineers brought back on the Pandora. He was 15 at the time.
The boy had escaped hanging and later received a Royal Pardon from King George III, which has been attributed to his family wealth and strong connections.
Sir John was one of those connections and his book emphasised Bligh’s harsh regime in order to cast a favourable light on the young Heywood’s actions.
Heywood’s own stepdaughter Diana Belcher further exonerated him in 1870 and, according to historian Caroline Alexander “cemented many falsehoods that had insinuated their way into the narrative”.
Bligh was no angel but he was a man of duty, oblivious to his polarising effect and naively convinced that posterity would hold his name high.
He wrote: “My misfortune I trust will be properly considered by all the World. It was a circumstance I could not foresee. My conduct has been free of blame, and I showed everyone that I defied every villain.”
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