Critical Essays The Historical William Bligh


Bligh was born in Plymouth, England, in 1754. He went to sea, as did some of the young men on the Bounty, when he was only sixteen. His quick mastery of navigation led to his being appointed master on Captain James Cook's ship, the Resolution, during Cook's last expedition to the Tahitian Islands. After this trip, Bligh was involved in the English wars and was appointed master of a frigate and participated and distinguished himself in several battles. By the end of the war, he had earned the rank of lieutenant and was appointed captain of the Bounty when he was only thirty-two years old.

After Bligh's incredible voyage over the open seas, he reached England, and the mutiny became such an important issue that the government sent Captain Edward Edwards in the Pandora to search out, find, and return the mutineers for trial. By the time Edwards reached Tahiti, Fletcher Christian and eight others had left in the Bounty and had settled on an uncharted island named Pitcairn, where they lived undisturbed until 1808, and where their descendants still live. Of those found in Tahiti, three were found guilty and were hanged.

Meanwhile, Bligh's career continued to prosper. He returned again to Tahiti, and, this time, successfully fulfilled his mission of transplanting the breadfruit trees to the West Indies. In 1797, while captain of another ship (the Director), his crew mutinied, and, this time, Bligh was simply put ashore and left behind. In 1805, he was made governor of New South Wales, Australia, and after three years, his subjects revolted (mutinied) against him and sent him under arrest back to England because of his "oppressive behavior." Back in England, however, the "mutineers" were found guilty of conspiracy, and Bligh was again promoted — first, to rear admiral and, later, to vice admiral. Bligh died in London in 1817.

Before Bligh died, however, because of the extreme publicity of the Bounty mutiny and the subsequent trials, Bligh published a short report of the mutiny. It sold so well that, with the help of an editor, he expanded the work into a full-length account of the entire voyage. His account, however, has one major flaw: its omissions. Many significant facts are simply not alluded to. He mentions, for example, that even though the crew was an inefficient and worthless lot, he never noticed any signs of discontent among them. Furthermore, he offers an explanation for the short rations: he anticipated that the voyage might take much longer than previously thought, so meals were meager. His explanation of why Fletcher Christian overtook the ship is considered by many critics to be quite vaild; elsewhere, Bligh reports that Christian was of such a passionate nature that he was subject to "outbursts of perspiration, especially in his hands so that he soiled whatever he touched," and that he was inordinately fond of women.

Bligh's character has been variously interpreted. He has been described as a brutal, oppressive tyrant who cheated his crew of their rightful rations and withheld their pay. Yet others have praised Bligh as a master navigator (even his detractors concede this), who contributed significantly to the charting of the South Sea and was a brave naval officer who conducted himself heroically in many sea battles. He does not seem to have been unduly tyrannical; it was common to flog seamen who showed any signs of disrespect to their officers, but all accounts agree that Bligh had an abusive tongue, which he used against his officers in front of common seamen. This practice was highly unethical. Bligh's overzealous and overbearing manner made him a very unpopular commander, as witnessed by the subsequent mutinies against him. Professionally, however, he was above reproach.

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