- Cavanagh, Paula, SBLT, RAN, RANC
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Man and the Mutiny
‘Irascible, courageous, brilliant Bligh, because he had an ungovernable tongue and a short, explosive temper provoked rebellion where there was no justification and revolt where there was no reason. He remains in spite of it a great sea captain, an indomitable man.’
It could be said that William Bligh deserves to be remembered more for his failures as a leader than his successes, but, ironically, one of his greatest leadership achievements would never have occurred without his greatest failure.
The fact that, after the mutiny on HMS Bounty, he kept himself and all but one of his men alive throughout a voyage described as one of the ‘truly heroic deeds of British naval history’ is a testament to his exceptional leadership abilities. Unfortunately, like his temper, Bligh’s leadership was somewhat erratic and explosive.
This paper aims to explore Bligh’s leadership of the Bounty and her crew and how that, in combination with the circumstances of the mission to Tahiti, caused the mutiny. Ultimately the author seeks to provide an alternative viewpoint on how responsible Bligh was for the mutiny.
Achievements and Failures
Bligh’s most significant failures always seemed to end in mutiny. However, it is unfortunate that these events, the causes of which have been the source of much contention for the last 200 years, overshadow some great successes.
It is often forgotten that Bligh was given command of HMS Providence for a second expedition to Tahiti. This time he was successful, and not only acquired another cargo of breadfruit trees but he also surveyed the Fiji Islands and Torres Strait during the same voyage. It was ‘a model of brilliant seamanship, fine leadership and magnificent scientific achievement.’
Additionally, Bligh went on to have a highly successful naval career after the events of the mutiny. He had great success while commanding HMS Glatton at Copenhagen and the praise he received from Nelson for his actions is a testament to his ‘skill and courage as a captain, the accolade of a seaman’.
There is much conjecture about Bligh’s style of leadership, indeed the debate still rages 200 years later. There is the stereotype of him as a tyrannical and domineering commander whose methods were so intolerable as to have caused the mutiny on the Bounty. However, this must be compared to the well documented fact that Bligh was considerate of the welfare of his crew far beyond what was typical for the time.
A great deal of Bligh’s leadership successes stemmed from his personal energy and enthusiasm. There is no doubt that his was a strong will which he often tried to impose on others. Unfortunately, he had a well documented temper. Indeed, in the words of Fletcher Christian himself, Bligh was ‘very passionate’.
Bligh’s stern and often unbending view of regulations is what likely caused the stereotypical view of him as a tyrannical leader, and however unfair this view might have been, his apparent lack of interpersonal skills and inability to control his temper are what ultimately caused his greatest failures. Without his great skills as a seaman and navigator it is unlikely that he would have ended his career as successfully as he did.
As mentioned earlier, Bligh had an often rocky relationship with his subordinates due to his explosive temper. That said, William Bligh had a good reputation. For example, Bligh and Fletcher Christian first crossed paths when Christian wrote a desperate letter to Bligh begging him to take him to sea as he realised what a priceless opportunity it would be.
With respect to his superiors, Bligh clearly impressed them on many occasions. Bligh’s exceptional skills as a navigator and hydrographer were the reason for his appointment as sailing master to HMS Resolution over other candidates and it is clear that Bligh excelled in his role as navigating officer to Captain Cook and was noticed as a result.
Bligh’s main intellectual quality was his own willingness to learn. As he had neither influence, nor money to purchase a commission, he had to rely on his own intelligence and ability to hone his skills as a seaman and navigator to bring about his promotions.