Misunderstood–Capt. Bligh of the Bounty

By Harold Stephens

MGM Bounty dropped anchor where the Original Bounty anchored 200 yeas before, and where I had my bamboo house on the shore.

The mutiny that occurred aboard HMS Bounty in 1789 is the most infamous and the most talked about mutiny in all history. The court-martial that took place in England after the mutiny tried in vain to exonerate Captain William Bligh of any wrong-doing but in effect it only stirred up more controversy. A score of books, most of them defending Fletcher Christian, Bounty’s first mate, appeared in print. The incident inspired Lord Bryon to write “The Island,” novelists Nordoff and Hall to do a trilogy on the mutiny and motion picture industry to film not one but five versions of “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Each one portrayed Captain Bligh as an evil and sadistic monster.

I shot this photo of Bounty moored in Papeete Harbor after a busy day of filming.

The first movie, shot in 1916, was a silent film shot in New Zealand, and gave the impression that Bligh was a failure as a commander. The second one was an Australian film, “In the Wake of the Bounty,” and showed Bligh as an evil captain in the flogging scenes. MGM bought up the rights and there followed three modern versions of the mutiny. The 1935 Charles Laughton/Clark Gable version, with Laughton portraying a pathologically cruel Bligh and Gable a manly, honorable Christian, displayed the classic conflict between tyranny and a just cause. The struggle on the Bounty was a moral and an ideological one. The 1962 Trevor Howard/Marion Brando version had Brando lisping his way through the role of Christian as a gentleman fop finding true honor in standing up against Bligh’s austerity. In the 1984 Anthony Hopkins/Mel Gibson version, Bligh is a man bedeviled by nothing so much as his own vaguely homosexual jealousies. The struggle on the Bounty was psychological.

So, the question that remains, who really was Captain William Bligh? Was he the evil tyrant he was made out to be? Or was he merely a marionette for writers looking for a cause and effect.

In 1961, while living on Tahiti, I was fortunate to befriend Lola Hall, the wife of James Hall, the co-author of the Bounty trilogy.

Mrs Hall in front of her house in Tahiti with Barbara de Castro, daughter of author Bill Stone.

Mrs. Hall gave me access to the Hall library and with subsequent reading about the mutiny I gained an entirely new insight to understanding both Fletcher Christian and William Bligh. It’s quite amazing how history, or time, can distort the facts. The blame of the mutiny, I conclude, was neither the fault of neither Fletcher Christian nor William Bligh. I realize this after I relived the whole Bounty period in Tahiti when MGM came back in 1961 to re-film their new version of the mutiny. Let’s go back into the pages of history for a bit and examine the mutiny scene again.

The date is April 26,1789. Darkness had fallen and as the HMS Bounty groaned under full sail on a starboard tack, her captain, William Bligh, a 32-year old lieutenant, sat in the dim light of his quarters, making an entry in the ship’s log, having sighted the island of Tonga. He turned in, only to be awoke at daybreak with a sudden start. He heard someone stirring outside his door. Slowly, so as not to make a sound, he reached for his loaded musket he kept next to his bunk. He was too late! The musket was gone. And then, in the pre-dawn light, he saw a shadow standing over him. The man gave a signal, whom Bligh immediately recognized to be his second-in-command, Fletcher Christian, and immediately two men bounded into the room, fell upon Bligh and dragged him to the floor. He felt the cold cutting edge of a cutlass against his throat and a musket poking in his side.

The two mutineers then bound his hands behind his back, and with the point of the cutlass led him on deck. The crew was assembled aft and divided into two camps, with those in control armed with muskets and knives. A launch was hastily lowered and 18 men, those loyal to Bligh, were ordered over the side. The mutineers then turned to Bligh and untied his hands. Without further ceremony, he was forced over the side into the waiting launch. As the mutineers stood on deck, jeering and throwing insults, the launch was set adrift, to perish on the high seas. But the mutineers made one mistake. They misjudged Captain Bligh. With 18 men in a 23′ launch with little water and only a few loafs of bread for food, Bligh sailed the tiny vessel westward across the South Pacific for nearly 4,000 miles.

From my small dugout I took this photo of Bounty Stern. The director didn’t like it.

The story doesn’t stop here. Bligh and his men arrived in Portuguese Timor, and finding no boat available for their return to England, they built their own vessel and sailed home.

After the trial in England, Captain Bligh was exonerated and given command of another ship to return to Tahiti to gather breadfruit to transplant to West Indies, hopefully to supplement then diet of the slave population living there. He succeeds this time.

Being a man of mutinies, in the early 1800s Blight was sent to Sydney to quell a mutiny there, and ultimately became the governor of New South Wales. That part of his life is seldom mentioned. Think what he had to face: men that he had send into exile.

Nor is it often told that he died in bed at his home in England with his wife at his side, surrounded by his six children.

Unfortunately, most of what we learn about Captain Bligh comes from novels, and novels are generally not concerned with truth, only entertainment, and, of course, from the silver screen. What we seldom read is about Bligh is his achievements. He was 12 years old when he went to sea as a cabin boy. He showed remarkable promise and was promoted to cadet in His Majesty’s Navy. He learned to navigate, among other things. When Captain James Cook was looking for a sailing master for his third voyage of discovery and exploration of South pacific, he chose William Bligh. Bligh was 16.

Two years later, when the expedition was in Hawaii, looking for timber to replace a mast damage in a storm, Captain Cook went ashore in a longboat to negotiate with the Hawaiians who were proving to be hostile. The lieutenant of the longboat that brought Cook ashore, seeing trouble when the natives began picking up stones, gave orders to withdraw, leaving Cook on the shore. Bligh was in charge of a second longboat standing off shore, and when he saw what was happening, he gave orders to rush ashore to assist Captain Cook. But he was too late. The Hawaiians had murdered Captain Cook.

The voyage, however, was not over. With young William Bligh sailing master, the two vessels continued on exploring the Pacific as far as Sea of Japan, and after rounding South Africa returned to England with the sad news that Captain Cook was dead.

William Bligh was undoubtedly a master mariner. He was captain of a man-of-war during England’s war with France. Though some outstanding navigation he drove his war ship through two lines of enemy vessels, causing them to fire at him, and at the same time sinking their own ships across the way.

Beyond me, standing on my outrigger, is Bounty in her original anchoring spot 200 years earlier.

When he was given command of Bounty it was a most difficult task. Bounty had to overhauled to accommodate the breadfruit. Living conditions for the 45-man crew was cramped, and rations had to be carefully watched. For a crew, seamen were rounded up from gin mills and waterfront bars in London. Bligh’s only hope was the assistance of a qualified first mate. He thought he found the man in Fletcher Christian, a young man, well educated, from a rich family who had some experience, and could navigate.

The voyage to Tahiti was difficult. Unable to around the southern tip of South America, after fighting storms for 60 days, Bounty had to turn and make the run to Tahiti via the southern tip of Africa. They crew were rebellious from the start. For one thing, Bight forced each man to eat fermented cabbage. Scurvy had been a curse of seafarers in those days, and on the voyage with Captain Cook it was discovered scurvy came from the lack of vitamin C. Cabbage has vitamin C. Not one man aboard Bounty suffered from scurvy. Next, in London Bligh hired on a blind fiddler. Every afternoon at sea he had the fiddler play the violin and made the crew dance. The exercise he later testified in court kept the crew fit and in good humor.

I made it, from crew to stand-in for Marlon Brando

Also, in his logbook is it noted that during foul weather while attempting to round the tip of South America, he gave up his cabin to wet, exhausted crew members coming off watch.

The slow passage to Tahiti caused a delay in gathering young breadfruit saplings. While Bligh worked diligently charting the island, and at Matavia bay he calculated the corrected position of the planet Venus.

Tahiti was Captain Bligh’s downfall. The crew had found paradise, and the thought of returning to cold England did not set well with most of them. Christian was not much better. While Captain Bligh continued his duties as a responsible sea captain, Fletcher Christian found his delights on shore, neglecting his duties.

Obviously, Captain William Bligh was a competent and highly qualified officer. Some of the waters he charted in an open boat bear his name today and are still in use. As to the cause of the mutiny, it appears that biographers and movie scriptwriters failed to read what Bligh wrote about the mutiny.

Of the causes of his mutiny, Bligh wrote the following: “It is certainly true that no effect could take place without a Cause, but here it is equally certain that no cause could justify such an effect — It however may very naturally be asked what could be the reason for such a revolt, in answer to which I can only conjecture that they have Ideally assured themselves of a more happy life among the Otahitians than they could possibly have in England, which joined to some female connections has most likely been the leading cause of the whole business.”

To prove I could make it as a seaman, I had to climb to the top of the mast. Here I am looking up at the rigging, and very frightening.

As I mentioned, I was living in Tahiti in 1961 when MGM came to re-film “Mutiny” with Marlon Brando in the role of Fletcher Christian and Trevor Howard as the evil-minded Captain Bligh. Brando became, one could honestly say, the reincarnation of Fletcher Christian. Brando too was a mutineer on the set, and he, like Christian, loved Tahiti, so much so that after the movie was completed, he bought an island some 35 miles to the north. It became his private domain. He took up living on the island with his leading lady from “Mutiny,” Tarita Teripaia. Tarita gave birth to a son, Teihotu, and a daughter, Cheyenne. Christian had his private island too—Pitcairn.

My schooner was anchored in Moora when the two Brando children swam out to it everyday.

Later, when I had my own schooner, I retuned to Tahiti a number of times, and on occasion would see Brando, either going to or coming from his island. He had become grossly overweight and was very elusive. I usually anchored my schooner at Moorea, across from Tahiti. Kids would often swum out from shore. One was a pretty little girl, part Tahitian, about eight or nine. She was Cheyenne Brando, Marlon’s daughter.

Perhaps it was the Bounty curse, but one Easter Sunday morning not so long ago, the world learned that a deeply troubled, 25-year old Cheyenne had hanged herself at Brando’s other estate in Tahiti.

All the inaccuracies of these versions of William Bligh’s life make up our world of entertainment today, with the sole purpose to be inaccurate. They could not say what they wanted to say without invention. It’s a pity that one man had to suffer for the sake of art.

Author’s schooner under sail serves as the cover for his book.

Editor’s note; For more about Bounty and Marlon Brando in Tahiti, read Harold Stephens’ book, The Voyages of Schooner Third Sea, available online.

On October 29, 2012, the tall Ship Bounty sank off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, while attempting to transit through the forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy. Three of the 16 people on board were seriously injured, one crewmember died and the captain was never found.