The Blighted Captain Bligh

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Oh, Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood                  

                                           “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” The Animals, 1964



Captain William Bligh was terribly misunderstood, but I’ll get to that in a minute. But first, I want to stress that Captain William Bligh was really good at sailing. Remarkably brilliant, actually. He was a diligent cartographer and many of his maps were still in use until satellite technology came along. As a navigator, he was second to none, having learned much of what he knew under the tutelage of Captain James Cook. Captain Cook was and still is a big deal around this part of the globe.

As a testament to his superb sailing skills, look no further than the details of Bligh’s performance after he and eighteen loyal crew members were set adrift in a 23 foot boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The little boat was severely overcrowded even with the 18 crew members; there were other loyalists who would have gone with him if there had been space. Thinking they had handed Bligh a death sentence by pushing their little launch off from the Bounty with only food for one week, four swords, and a sextant, Fletcher Christian and his band of mutineers thought they had seen the last of Captain William Bligh.

But Bligh was in a league of his own as a captain and the voyage he made in the little launch is still considered incredible. He managed to keep his crew alive except for one man who was stoned to death by hostile natives in an encounter on the island of Tofua. It’s a miracle they didn’t kill each other because everyone blamed someone else in the little boat for the mutiny. Somehow, Bligh made the meager food supplies last and managed to sail from memory for 3,600 miles to Timor in the East Indies. The voyage in the little open boat took two months.

Sadly, history and Hollywood paint a different picture of Captain Bligh. Yes, it is true that he was the subject of three mutinies during his career, but it wasn’t due to ineptitude as a sailor. One mutiny involved the Royal Navy and the way it handled pay and prize money. Nobody’s perfect, and frankly, he just wasn’t a “people person.” He could be the poster child for a modern-day HR team giving classes on staff management. Here is the poster caption: “This Is Captain Bligh. Do Not Be Captain Bligh!” Nobody ever accused Bligh of being charismatic.

A little digging reveals that Bligh really did care about his crew on the Bounty and he always held his men to very high standards. He learned from Captain Cook that a diet that included sauerkraut and vinegar was good for warding off scurvy and he made sure that this was served to his crew. He insisted that his ships be kept very clean because he was looking out for the health of the men under his command. In order to give the men longer periods of uninterrupted sleep, he broken the watch periods into three shifts instead of two, so they had shorter watch shifts and longer off-duty shifts. Bligh was a severe disciplinarian. It is true that he could give one heck of a tongue-lashing, but he didn’t keelhaul his crew, nor did he flog his sailors as much as other captains. Bligh thought that a disciplined crew would yield the most successful voyage and that would be best for everyone. Too bad he was unable to get the sailors’ cooperation without humiliating and belittling them publicly. In today’s parlance, it would be said that Captain Bligh created a toxic workplace. But he “meant well.” His personality just rubbed people the wrong way and he could be rather abusive in his language.

I’m not trying to make excuses for Captain Bligh, but it also must be kept in mind that the crew had been living the island life on Tahiti for several months and were probably not all that enthusiastic about being back onboard the Bounty away from the Tahitian women, good food, and plentiful drink. So they were probably fairly cranky from the get-go, so when Bligh belittled them, they were not having it. They missed their island life and probably wanted to go back to Tahiti in the worst sort of way. It is well documented that Fletcher Christian left behind his young Tahitian love, Mauatua, and wanted to go back to her.


The crew had a hard time leaving the island lifestyle behind.


Bligh actually went on the serve as governor of New South Wales in Australia. He was sent to clean up a lot of corruption, including the corrupt rum trade. There he ran afoul of the New South Wales Corporation, was deposed, sent back to London, and was succeeded by Lachlan Macquarie. Back in London, all charges ever made against Bligh were dropped and those who levied the charges against him were punished. Bligh was forever loyal to the Royal Navy. He served with distinction and continued to be promoted. In 1814, he was actually made Vice Admiral of the Blue. William Bligh passed away in 1817. There are several places around the world named for him and there are four species of evergreen tropical shrubs and trees named in his honor with the genus called Blighia. There is no doubt that William Bligh was not a saint, but it is also true that he was not the monster some would have us believe.

This monument in Sydney was unveiled in 1987. It “seeks to restore the proper image of a much maligned and gallant man.”


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