Saturday, May 23, 2009

Misunderstood Mariners: William Bligh

April 28 marked the 220th anniversary of the famous mutiny on the HMS Bounty. William Bligh, commander of that ill-fated expedition, has become synonymous with the image of a cruel captain, an image reinforced by popular fiction, especially movies.

Bligh was an officer under Capt. James Cook on that explorer’s third and final voyage, and served aboard vessels engaged in some of the most important naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Before taking command of the Bounty, he left the navy for a brief period to work in the merchant service. The Bounty’s log showed him to be, if anything, more sparing of cruel punishment than a lot of his fellow captain’s of the day. He also took from Cook a concern for the health of his crew, including making sure the food onboard exceeded the standards of the day and that the crew got daily exercise.

Bligh was also an early reformer of watch standing systems to combat crew fatigue, splitting his crew into three instead of two watches. It was this third watch that required an extra officer to be in charge of it, which led to Bligh recruiting Fletcher Christian for the 1789 voyage during which the mutiny occurred.

Bligh gets little credit for his forward thinking, although even popular accounts of the mutiny acknowledge Bligh’s skill in bringing a small boatload of loyalists 3600 nautical miles to safety with only one casualty. It’s probably inevitable that today Bligh is considered the bad guy in the mutiny, what with Christian being portrayed on film by heroic leading men Erroll Flynn, Clark Gable, and Marlon Brando. The fact is, the 1984 film The Bounty, with Mel Gibson as Christian and Anthony Hopkins as Bligh, is probably the most accurate, with many scenes lifted right from the Bounty’s log.

Filed from the M/V Spirit of '98 in the Columbia River Gorge.

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