- Cavanagh, Paula, SBLT, RAN, RANC
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The other main quality that Bligh brought to bear on his tasks was his own unyielding spirit. He faced many challenges in his long and colourful career, many of his own making, but in the end he came through them all if only by his own strength of will.
The Circumstances which led to the Mutiny
Before determining the cause of the mutiny, the circumstances surrounding it must be considered as the mutiny in all probability would not have occurred without a specific combination of events. These problems might have individually been able to be overcome, but when taken as a whole, the outcome was almost inevitable.
The Bounty herself was poorly suited to the type of undertaking with which she had been tasked. The main problems were that the Bounty was really too small to carry the cargo of breadfruit trees she was to transport back from Tahiti and house the number of sailors required to sail her on such a long voyage. Additionally, considering the fact that by the time she belatedly left harbour the European winter had begun, the Bounty was inadequately provisioned for what subsequently became a much longer and more gruelling journey than originally planned.
The first problem associated with the crew of the Bounty was the lack of other senior officers. Bligh was only Lieutenant himself when the Bounty sailed and he was not given a single commissioned officer to help him maintain discipline. His only other officers were six very young midshipmen. Interestingly, it is often overlooked that Bligh himself was only 33 years old at the time of the voyage, and Christian 22 years old.
Bligh himself was influential in the selection of Fletcher Christian as mate, and a number of other significant appointments. However, he soon came to regret some of his appointments and realised he had made some crucial mistakes, particularly with respect to some of his key personnel.
The Journey to Tahiti
The conditions for the passage to Tahiti were appalling by the time Bligh finally got permission to depart. Had he been able to depart on time, the voyage, and history, might have been different. As it was, the Bounty and her crew battled horrific conditions in a three week attempt to round Cape Horn before being beaten back and heading for the alternate passage through the Cape of Good Hope.
By the time the exhausted crew reached the Cape of Good Hope, five months had passed. It was to be ten months and almost 40,000 kilometres with poor food and trying conditions before the crew finally reached their destination of Tahiti.
The Stay in Tahiti
The crew must have thought they had reached paradise when the arrived in Tahiti. Blue skies, calm seas, abundant food and most importantly for the men, amenable women would have seemed like heaven after the hellish journey they had undertaken. The problem was that now that the men had some free time and were healthy and well fed, discipline eroded and neglect became common.
The Master, John Fryer and Christian were responsible for the day to day discipline of the ship and it is apparent that they did not do their jobs well. Bligh, well known for his temper, was furious; Christian in particular was sensitive to criticism and did not respond well.
There is little doubt, in the opinion of the writer, that this slow erosion of discipline and Bligh’s poor handling of the neglect shown by his senior officers marked the turning point of the voyage and the start of the path to mutiny. Bounty stayed in Tahiti for 27 weeks while the breadfruit plants were prepared for travel. The combination of idyllic surrounds and increasingly poor discipline made for an explosive combination when it finally came time to depart.
In contrast to his stereotypical portrayal, Bligh appears to have done many things to try to make the lives of his crew more pleasant. Additionally, the punishments he meted out over the course of the voyage are remarkably lenient considering the times.
In fact, overall, Bligh appears to have behaved with less than the usual brutality of the time both towards his own crew and the natives of Tahiti.
The Mutiny and its Cause
The mutiny itself is well documented. Bligh himself wrote:
‘Just before Sun rise Mr. Christian, Mate, Chas. Churchill, Ships Corporal, John Mills Gunners Mate and Thomas Burkitt, Seaman, came into my Cabbin while I was a sleep and seizing me tyed my hands with a Cord behind my back and threatened me with instant death if I spoke or made the least noise. I however called so loud as to alarm every one, but the Officers found themselves secured by Centinels at their Doors.’ The exact cause of the mutiny has been debated hotly for nearly two hundred years. There are multiple official interpretations on the cause of the mutiny which can be summed up as follows: