Monday, May 1, 2017

The Fruit of Thy Bounty

Whether from the popular novels or numerous major Hollywood motion pictures, most people have at least heard of “The Mutiny on the Bounty”. The story told in most of these books and films is of a kind-hearted, fun-loving, proper English gentleman named Fletcher Christian who is driven to righteous rebellion by his dishonest, cruel and tyrannical captain, William Bligh. However, the story most know from the movies, while highly entertaining, is an almost totally false one and tends to lead people in the wrong direction. There is a great lesson to be learned from the most famous mutiny in naval history but it is not the one that the most famous film version (1935) stressed so heavily. In fact, of the major motion pictures made about the mutiny in 1935, 1962 and 1984, only the 1984 version, titled simply as “The Bounty” and starring Anthony Hopkins and a young Mel Gibson, is anywhere close to being even-handed in its approach to history. Though not perfect, it was the most accurate and yet it was the classic 1935 version (starring Clark Gable and Charles Loughton), the least accurate and most heavy-handed, which won the most awards, made the most money and became most cemented in the popular imagination.

Lt. William Bligh
The basic facts are that the Bounty, commanded by Lieutenant William Bligh, set sail from England on December 23, 1787 with orders to travel to Tahiti by way of Cape Horn at the bottom of South America, pick up breadfruit plants there and then transport them to Jamaica where they could be cultivated as a cost-effective food source for the slaves on the sugar plantations there and the other British West Indies. The voyage was authorized by King George III at the insistence of the very influential Sir Joseph Banks. However, Bligh and his ship were held in port for a long time and by the time they reached Cape Horn they had missed the only period of favorable weather. Despite their arduous efforts, the ship could make no headway and finally Bligh ordered a course change to head for Tahiti by way of the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean. During the voyage, he put his friend Fletcher Christian, formerly the Master’s Mate, in the position of second-in-command with the rank of acting second lieutenant. By the time they reached Tahiti and collected their plants, they were woefully behind schedule and the ship, already far too small for such a mission, was crammed full of plants to make amends for their late arrival. However, on the way back toward the Indian Ocean, Fletcher Christian led a mutiny, taking the ship and setting Bligh and his loyal sailors adrift in a small open boat in the middle of the South Pacific.

For years, the popular perception has been that Bligh was a vicious monster, who cheated his sailors of food, starved them of water, flogged them half to death over even the slightest infraction and that the noble, young Christian finally could stand no more of this mistreatment and rebelled. The truth, however, is completely different. In fact, Bligh rarely had anyone flogged at all as historical records clearly show. The accounts of his alleged dishonesty stem from one version of events, told years after the fact, by the Boatswain’s Mate who had himself been a mutineer, only narrowly escaped execution, and who was writing a version of events that would mitigate his guilt. In fact, Bligh was obsessive in his care for his crew, adamant about cleanliness and exercise, disapproving of strong drink and licentious behavior. Actual historians have had to admit that Bligh was not cruel but that he was given to outbursts of anger in his speech and so criticize the insulting and demeaning way he verbally abused his underlings when he found them unsatisfactory.

Fletcher Christian
Obviously, the defense that, “he said mean things that hurt my feelings” does not quite hold up against people who committed the most serious crime of all for any navy in the world. It also tends not to impress anyone who has ever been in the military and can recall how drill instructors routinely speak to those in their charge. In truth, what happened was that a number of the sailors were intoxicated by their time in Tahiti, a place with a nice climate, plentiful fresh food and abundant half-naked women who were perfectly willing to let the Englishmen have their way with them. This, combined with the proud, touchy character of Christian, a man who came from a prominent family which had fallen on hard times and thus tended to think that he was constantly not being treated with sufficient respect, prompted the ultimate act of mutiny. It was only much later that Bligh came to be painted as the villain thanks to the efforts of Fletcher Christian’s brother, Edward Christian, an ambitious, young lawyer, who went to extreme lengths, while Bligh was away on another mission and unable to defend himself, to portray Christian as the righteous rebel and Bligh as the villainous tyrant.

The idea that Bligh was cruel and barbaric is utter nonsense. He had hoped to complete his voyage without any acts of corporal punishment and, as it happened, only ever had four men flogged during his entire time as captain. The propaganda campaign launched by Edward Christian was obviously fairly effective and he enlisted the help of very powerful people in this, notably the abolitionists of the anti-slavery societies. Obviously, slavery had nothing to do with the issue at hand but Bligh, a naval officer simply following the orders given to him, was portrayed as complicit in the guilt of the slavers by importing a new food crop specifically for slaves and the tales of his, entirely false, constant flogging of his crew, could easily be compared with the harsh task master whipping his slaves. Of course, Bligh did no such thing and the sailors of the Bounty were not slaves but were entirely volunteers but facts such as those were left out as inconvenient to the narrative being sold that Bligh was of a kind with a brutal, West Indies slave owner, driving his men forward with constant beatings. Hollywood took this version of events and ran with it, cementing it in the popular imagination as well as claiming a moral victory for the mutineers by stating that the Royal Navy was so appalled by the distasteful actions of Bligh that they shunned him and Royal Navy sailors were never treated badly again.

Again, this is entirely false. Bligh was hailed as a hero when he returned, was quickly vindicated of the loss of his ship, promoted to captain, given a new vessel to complete his original mission, fought with distinction in the Napoleonic Wars, became a friend of the legendary Lord Nelson and ended his naval career as a Vice-Admiral of the Blue. As far as corporal punishment goes, the mutiny had no effect on how sailors were treated in the Royal Navy whatsoever and flogging remained a legal form of punishment until 1879. If anything, simply looking at the facts might have caused Royal Navy officers to conclude that Bligh had been too lenient and caused them to flog their sailors all the more to avoid the fate which befell him. Nonetheless, while the lessons drawn by the apologists of the mutineers are totally false, there is a real lesson to be gained from this dramatic historical event and one which has broader applications. That lesson is found in the very different fates which befell Bligh and his loyalists on one side and Christian and the mutineers on the other.

After the mutiny, the two sides which parted company faced grossly uneven odds. Bligh had 18 loyalists crammed into a 23-foot long open boat, abandoned in the middle of the South Pacific with barely enough food and water for about a week. The nearest islands were inhabited by cannibals and the only outposts of western civilization were months away and they had not a single chart. On the other hand, Christian and the mutineers had a ship full of provisions and the means to go anywhere they pleased. By any measure, it was the loyal men who faced all but certain death. The mutineers, after stopping in at Tahiti to pick up some women and a few Tahitian men to work for them and help sail the ship, eventually settled on Pitcairn Island, remote from any fear of discovery by the authorities, with a pleasant enough climate and plenty of food and water. Nonetheless, in spite of all this, Bligh and his miserable little boat had one vital strength that Christian and his mutineers lacked which was discipline. They had an officer with the King’s commission to lead them, an authority they respected and rules they were bound to follow. The mutineers, on the other hand, had broken this bond and this would have an impact on them.

Arrival in Coupang, Timor
In probably the most fantastic naval feat of survival in history, Bligh took his little craft 3,618 miles across the Pacific to Timor in the Dutch East Indies without losing a single man to the sea or privation. From there, they were able to obtain passage to the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope and from there another ship back to England. Of the 19 men who went in the open boat, 13 lived to reach England, 4 died in the Dutch East Indies, 1 died on the way from Batavia to Cape Town and 1 was killed by the native islanders of Tofua (today part of the Kingdom of Tonga) when the launch tried to stop for water. Bligh had taken his men the entire way with only a compass and a pocket watch, no sextant and no charts of any kind, navigating entirely from memory. The mutineers who settled on Pitcairn, however, did not lead an idyllic life in the absence of a higher authority and in the ‘state of nature’. On the contrary, they soon began to fight among themselves. They fought over the women, the Tahitian men fought against the mutineers who saw themselves as their superiors and ultimately they all killed each other until only a single man, the mutineer John Adams was left with the women and children.

What happened to this small group of individuals is no different, in principle, to what has happened to many countries around the world and illustrates why so many revolutions end up eating their own tail. Even in the religious sphere you can see something similar. When Martin Luther started the Protestant movement, he assumed that his teachings would be the only alternative to the Catholic establishment. However, after rejecting the authority of the Pope, no one could regard Luther himself as having any special authority and what was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander. Protestantism divided further and continued to divide because of what Luther did in rejecting the authority of the Pope and embracing private judgment and a personal, individual interpretation of the Bible. If he could reject the Pope, others could reject him in the same way. It is no coincidence that monarchies, even if one only looks at particular dynasties, tended to last for centuries but once the authority of those dynasties was overthrown, the republican regimes that replaced them tended to last for mere decades or even less before being overthrown and replaced themselves again and again.

Bl. Emperor Charles of Austria
In Russia, for example, the Romanov dynasty ruled for about 304 years. Yet, once the Romanov Czar was overthrown, the Kerensky regime lasted only a few months before being replaced by the Soviet tyranny which lasted only a matter of decades before collapsing and being replaced by the current Russian Federation. The Capet dynasty in the Kingdom of France ruled for over 300 years and for centuries longer through junior branches of the dynasty until the French Revolution. Since that time, aside from the short-lived restorations of the old monarchy, France has had two empires and five republics, none of which lasted even close to one century. The House of Habsburg ruled Austria for over 600 years from 1282 to 1918. Since their overthrow, there has been the short-lived Republic of German-Austria, the First Austrian Republic, the Federal State of Austria, the period of union with Nazi Germany and now (after a period of Allied occupation) the current Republic of Austria. The Chinese, to give a non-European example, had an imperial, monarchical system that lasted for thousands of years, most dynasties lasting numerous centuries and yet within one century of its collapse has had the original Republic of China, a period of fragmentation and rule by warlords, a period of rivalry between nationalist, communist and Japanese-sponsored republics and today there still remains two Chinese republican governments which, officially, each claim to be the legitimate government of the whole of China.

Peoples can, and have, endured oppressive and incompetent government for great periods of time. Human beings are remarkable in their ability to adapt to their situation provided there is stability which gives them the time to adapt as they need to. Good order, proper discipline or, for countries, stability is a precious thing and once it is lost, it is extremely hard to put back. Whether it is mutineers in the Royal Navy or French revolutionaries, that is a lesson that history has taught us time and time again.


  1. I read about the Mutiny when I was a kid. It's tragic how Bligh's reputation was destroyed.

    1. Well it wasn't destroyed when he was alive, so in the final analysis, it didn't really hurt him much. He still rose to be Vice Admiral in the Queens Navy, and would be safely six-feet under for 118 years before the infamous film came out.

    2. It may not have been destroyed but it was certainly badly damaged. Edward Christian's whole campaign wasn't just so some future American filmmakers would have something to go by. He had a purpose and he had an effect.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...