Tuesday, 27 January 2009

William Bligh-The Mutiny on Board H.M.S. Bounty

3,600 Mile Voyage in an Open Boat

Just finished reading William Bligh's account of the mutiny on the Bounty. This is of course a famous episode in maritime history, one immortalised by Hollywood on more than one occasion (1916, 1935 with Clark Gable, 1962 with the legendary Brando and 1984 with Gibson/Hopkins). Although Hollywood tends to over-dramatise events and romanticis
e its characters, the narrative itself is nothing short of breath-taking.

The story goes as follows: In December 1787 William Bligh, a former companion of Captain Cook, set out with his crew on The Bounty from Spithead for Tahiti, where they were to procure bread fruit trees which they hoped to introduce them to the colonies in the West Indies. Their initial intention was to round Cape Horn into the Pacific and sail to Tahiti from there. However, strong winds in the area prevented them from making any progress, and after persevering for a whole month off the southern tip of South America, it was decided that they sail to Tahiti by heading in the opposite direction, south of Africa, through the Indian Ocean and from there to the Pacific.

This approach was more successful, and in October 1788 they reached 'Otaheite' as Tahiti was known at the time. The ship and crew spent five months there, collecting
a total of 1,015 breadfruit plants. Most of the crew lived ashore and became accustomed to local life. Many of the men formed relationships with local women and became 'embedded' in life there. Master's Mate and Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian married Maimiti, a Tahitian woman. Some men even had themselves tattooed in native fashion.

All this led to disaster. The ship departed from Tahiti on 4 April 1789, and on the 28th of the same month a mutiny broke out near the Friendly Islands (known as Tonga Islands today), 1,300 miles west of Tahiti. Bligh's cabin was invaded during the night by some of the crew, who forced him and 18 of the crew who remained loyal to him into a launch, an 23-foot open boat with a sail. They were given limited supplies of water, bread, meat and rum. Strict rationing of these supplies was necessary if they were to survive the journey. Bligh issued only a quarter of a pint of water per day, plus an ounce of bread (which was getting increasingly mouldy). They first stopped at the island of Tofoa in order to gather further supplies, where natives attacked them and killed John Norton, who was stoned to death. Bligh decided that they had to make the journey to Timor by making as few stops for supplies as possible.

In a remarkable feat of seamanship and navigation,Bligh led the boat on a 47-day voyage to Timor in the Dutch East Indies, equipped only with a sextant and a pocket watch, with no charts or compass. He recorded the distance as 3,618 nautical miles (6710 km). He was chased by cannibals in what is now known as Bligh Water, Fiji, and passed through the difficult Torres Strait along the way, and landed in Kupang, Timor on June 14. Shortly after the launch reached Timor, the cook and botanist died. Three other crewmen died in the coming months.Lieutenant Bligh returned to Britain and reported the mutiny to the Admiralty on 15 March 1790.

This is an amazing example of human ability, endurance and determination. The odds were firmly stacked against Bligh and his companions. Bligh managed to navigate his way precisely where he wanted to, armed with only basic tools. Through inclement weather, malnutrition and the threat from native canoes, he managed to deliver his men to safety. After days of heavy rain, the men could no more bear to wear the soaked clothes. They took them off, washed them in sea water and wrung them, something that gave them temporary reilief. The hardships of the journey were too much for some who died in Kupang and Timor. The majority, however, were able to reach Britain safely. Bligh's account is not only valuable for the details of the impossible journey to Timor. It is also filled with good detail on life in Tahiti, the local customs and life, depicted lovingly by Bligh, who had also formed connections to local chiefs and their families.

Apart from being a useful source for the historian, Bligh's account is also a fascinating tale.

Below is the trailer for the 1962 film. I laughed at the "Tahiti...a land that has always represented escape from civilization". How pre-political correctness. Enjoy.