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In defence of Captain William Bligh

I have no burning desire to return to the court-room nor to become Bligh’s defence counsel, but the rekindling of interest in the man leads me to question some of the comments recently posted on FB by my friend, Marg Muir. Bligh is one of those ‘misunderstood’ and poorly portrayed characters. Politically naive and given to a particularly ‘salty’ if not outright vulgar style of language (he had spent a few years ‘before the mast’) none of the films from Hollywood have got him quite right. Although I personally enjoyed them all, I particularly enjoyed Hopkins’ portrayal, for no better reason than I enjoy everything Hopkins does. And he was a very good Bligh. Gibson, well, I’m not permitted an opinion within earshot of ‘she who must be obeyed’!

Many trees have been sacrificed in discoursing on Bligh, and I see there are a couple of new ones that will find their way to my library ‘ere long. Of the three major episodes of ‘mutiny’ or rebellion involving WB, the following warrant further thought:

HMS Bounty: The Admiralty got that wrong. WB was the only commissioned officer. Another lieutenant and a couple of tough marines might have prevented the subsequent mutiny – and deprived history and Hollywood of a rattling good yarn. Christian was a friend who betrayed trust and was probably over-promoted. Even pre-Bounty, he had a reputation for enjoying ladies’ favours. On taking command of Bounty, WB divided the crew into three watches instead of two. The implications of that are fairly obvious; the men work four hours on and eight off. That was humane and unusual management.

Purcell, the chippie, was insubordinate from the start. WB was lenient with him, to his later cost. He could have hanged that man, or had him flogged. In fact, he ordered only seven floggings in sixteen months. Fewer that Nelson and fewer even than Cook. Remember too, that Cook personally selected WB for his third voyage. In the languid and licentious conditions of Tahiti, he effectively gave the crew six months’ shore leave. He could have gone exploring and charting. Peter Hayward, mate of the watch, was disrated for sleeping and three deserters were flogged. Christian didn’t have a warm and fuzzy relationship with the King’s daughter. He spread himself about quite generously, in fact. And such behaviour was considered quite acceptable in that Pacific paradise. WB tolerated it, which tends to dispel the suggestion that WB and FC had a homosexual relationship, which turned sour.

As well as Bounty’s log and WB’s journal, there are other primary sources which defence counsel would adduce in evidence to assist the maligned skipper. And that from a mutineer; boatswain’s mate Morrison. It was recovered and agrees with Bligh in every particular.   Morrison’s journal was re-written with inventions, publication being halted by Sir Joseph Banks, who many years later recommended WB for appointment as Governor of NSW. More of that later, but Joe Banks was no fool. It was re-written to suit the trial of the mutineers, but by the time of their trial WB was back at sea and unable to challenge the more inventive allegations made against him. There is no recording there of excessive floggings, cruelty or unjust punishment by WB. Nor is there in the journal of mutineer Peter Heywood. Nor in the notes within John Adams’ bible later recovered from Pitcairn.

Surgeon Duggan, he who drank himself to death, kept notes of the patients treated for VD (now of course STD’s) and those treated included Christian and Heywood. Not Bligh. He might not have attended Dale Carnegie’s Management Development Program, was not a graduate of Harvard Business School. He had a temper, and a choice of language to make the Devil blush, but he remained celibate. That might be thought unusual in a sailor in the late 18th century – or even today.

The films all deal with the coconut episode. Someone in Christian’s watch stole WB’s nuts. View that in context of life in the Navy. This was not trivia; this was theft and that was a big ‘no-no’. The men of the RN punished their own for that. It was a criminal offence. What did Bligh do? He described Christian as a ‘damned hound’ and the men of his watch ‘scoundrels’. He flogged none. Hardly the stuff of mutiny. To make amends, Bligh invited Christian to dine with him that evening. He was snubbed and Christian – his friend and next in command – got drunk. The mutiny involved less than 50% of the crew. The others remained loyal. Is this indicative of a monster? Is this evidence of a captain despised by his entire crew? Or is it evidence of a disaffected crew, who were unprofessional, sometimes lazy, incompetent, disobedient, and wanted only to return to the joys of the 18-30 Club Pacifica lifestyle they had so recently enjoyed?

On return to England WB endured a court martial. Every commanding officer must if he ‘loses’ the ship he is responsible for. That is automatic in the Royal Navy and WB had waited a long time for his. The result? He was ‘honourably acquitted’, returned to duty, and promoted. This in spite of an orchestrated campaign to blacken his character and reputation by the families of Christian and Heywood, which included specifically a pamphlet, the minutes of the court martial of William Muspratt, a tailor and seaman who, I was surprised to learn, was able to engage learned counsel for his defence – who paid for that?  The minutes contained an ‘appendix’ written by Fletcher’s ‘big brother’, Eddie Christian, a Cambridge law professor, who knew a good deal of crime but little of the sea and ships, which has formed the basis for much of what Hollywood has given the world and which has proved enduring, for WB and his reputation.

HMS Warrior: More evidence here of his temper, intolerance of incompetence, perceived or real, and his strong language. The board dismissed Bligh’s charge against one of his lieutenants of neglect of duty, and he then had to face a second court martial by reason of that officer’s allegations of insulting language and ill-treatment; he was accused of ‘unofficer-like behaviour’. He probably called the foppish young man, ‘a rascal, a knave, a jackass’ or something equally scathing.  A lieutenant charged with such by his captain and facing a certain involuntary career change would have strong motive for countering with such allegations. The charges were found ‘part-proved’ and Bligh was reprimanded, while the court giggled behind their collective hands. Hardly the punishment of a cruel, tyrannical bully.  By then he had distinguished himself at Camperdown and Copenhagen, singled out for particular approbation by no less an officer than Nelson. Not one always given to lavishing praise on junior officers – unless supportive of his own performance. That cannot support the contention that their lordships at The Admiralty wanted to keep him off a quarter-deck. When in command of HMS Director during the mutinies of 1797, WB stood by his crew and was later commended by both sides of the ‘industrial dispute’ for his handling of the situation. Perhaps he was maturing. Perhaps not.

Sydney: effectively Bligh’s last command and given because he was seen as a ‘hard man’, and the scene of one of his more famous battles. For over twenty years, the NSW Corps had pretty well had the run of the place. A corrupt, self-serving bunch of officers and NCO’s who had created a very profitable business, a private fiefdom if you will, called Sydney Town, the major currency of which was rum. Not the only one; these clever chaps traded in various commodities with the skill of a rogue trader at Barings Bank.

Bligh’s mission from The Admiralty, and he hesitated accepting it for some time – was to put an end to the racketeering. Yes, he quickly demonstrated how efficient farming could be made profitable, by acquiring several grants of land, some 1,350 acres in total (I’ve never felt comfortable in dealing with hectares) and set about reforming the colony.  A charge of hypocrisy could reasonably be leveled against him, but he was never charged with that.  Inevitably his manner led him into conflict with the rich and influential citizens and officers of the town. Those reforms were proper and necessary, and Bligh was probably not best-suited to bring them into being. But he well knew what he would be taking on and advised the Colonial Office that his reforms would be ‘resisted’. No less a person than Bob Stewart, aka Viscount Castlereagh – and a very capable politician – authorised and instructed him to proceed.

The objective was to counter the power and influence of the monopolistic Major Johnston, John Macarthur and their ‘associates’.  Some years of confrontation, litigation and conflict inevitably ensued, with WB typically adopting the moral high ground, dismissing from sinecures the friends and associates of Macarthur, Johnston et al. The former, owning half of the colony, and with a mind to acquire the remainder, was never going to sit back quietly and enjoy a tipple while gazing peacefully at his sheep. Although he certainly enjoyed a tipple – he was probably Australia’s first drunk driver – and fond of dueling and not above a bit of blackmail, or destroying critical evidence; he was never a compliant, submissive chap. Indeed, he could be described as a successful entrepreneur, becoming the founder of Australia’s incredible wool and lamb industries.

The ‘Rum Rebellion’ – the phrase coined by a teetotal Quaker, by the name of Howitt – has stuck. In reality it was another mutiny. The overthrow of lawful authority by vindictive vested interest and it resulted in Bligh’s eventual demise. Johnston was cashiered and kicked out of the regiment; Macarthur resigned his commission to avoid a posting to Norfolk Island – now a sought-after vacation destination but not viewed in that way at the time.

The image of Bligh hiding under his bed at the time of his unlawful arrest is almost certainly a fiction, drawn within hours of the event, possibly by Captain Thomas Laycock or at his direction; propaganda directed at depicting Bligh as a coward. He had many faults but cowardice was not one of them. That much we know as fact. 

My submission therefore, is that William Bligh was not the cruel monster portrayed in a succession of films. He was ‘misunderstood’ because he never really understood or indeed had never acquired what we now call management skills. History should not place him in the dock; the chap who was responsible for doing so, in my submission, was Edward Christian, of Downing College, Cambridge.

But then history is a wonderful thing.

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