William Bligh. Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935 and 1962
The Bounty, 1984
William Bligh has been portrayed in film (by Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard, and Anthony Hopkins) as a tyrannical and sadistic brute, relishing savage punishments of officers and crew while on a voyage to the South Seas. In film his methods and madness led otherwise loyal British seamen to remove him as Captain, thus ensuring their own fate as hunted outlaws and pirates, but driven by the love of freedom to do no less.
While this makes a dramatic story more dramatic still, it is an inaccurate depiction of a capable naval officer and superb navigator. Bligh demonstrated his leadership skills by crossing over 4,000 miles in a poorly supplied, badly overladen open boat with the loss of only one man, who was killed by the natives of Tofua.
William Bligh was the only commissioned officer aboard HMS Bounty when it was dispatched to Tahiti to obtain breadfruit plants, the other officers all holding warrants instead. Another character in the film which was falsely portrayed was Fletcher Christian. He was not a Lieutenant as presented in film, he was a Master’s Mate, whom Bligh elevated to Acting Lieutenant. Bligh and Christian had sailed together earlier, and they were well acquainted with each other.
Bligh had previously visited Tahiti in the company of Captain James Cook and was aware of the lassitude which could affect sailors on a long voyage. He took great steps to ensure that his crew was well fed, had lime and lemon juice to prevent scurvy, was liberal with spirits, and openly rewarded exemplary conduct (such as promoting Christian). According to testimony at his court-martial by loyal crew members, the use of corporal punishment aboard Bounty was less frequent than that ordered by most Captains of the day, and when it was applied it was usually far more lenient than was the norm.
According to witnesses, no sailor aboard Bounty was keelhauled (abolished in the British navy in 1720) and the only death during the voyage of the Bounty up to the time of the mutiny was that of the surgeon, who many believe acted in drunkenness while in Tahiti. The relative health of the crew is testimony of Bligh’s concern for their welfare. The real cause of the mutiny is open to speculation but the mutineer’s immediate return to Tahiti to obtain women is an indication. Bligh returned to England to a hero’s welcome and after exoneration by the British Admiralty, he was sent on a second voyage to Tahiti to obtain breadfruit with a larger ship and crew, an indication of the Admiralty’s faith in his abilities. His reputation as a tyrant began when the family of Fletcher Christian and of Bounty midshipman Peter Heywood conducted a smear campaign against him, intent upon improving public opinion of their own relatives.