11. William Bligh became the symbol of tyranny in the 1930s
William Bligh and the mutiny on his ship, His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty, were all but forgotten outside the circle of naval buffs by the 1930s. Then World War I veterans Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall published their romanticized trilogy of novels relating the tale. Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea, and Pitcairn’s Island all became best-sellers, and were combined in the screenplay for the MGM film, Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935. Charles Laughton portrayed Captain Bligh, and Clark Gable had the role of Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutineers. As had the novel, the film depicted Bligh as a deranged tyrant, almost unspeakably cruel to his men. Fond of punishments such as flogging and keelhauling, and of starving his crew, Bligh symbolized the tyranny of unrestricted authority. His name became synonymous with cruelty.
It was wholly undeserved. Bligh’s logs and those of others who testified when he was court-martialed for losing Bounty depicted an officer concerned for the welfare and health of his crew. Following his court-martial he was sent on a second mission to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to Jamaica, in command of a larger vessel. During his absence powerful Manx families of the mutineers attacked his character, creating the myth of Bligh as an unrepentant tyrant. In two films subsequent to the 1935 version of the story, he was again portrayed as a mentally unstable Captain prone to violent attacks on his officers and men. Despite this enduring reputation, he served in the Royal Navy with distinction, earning the praise of Lord Nelson following the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Eventually he retired as a Vice Admiral. History continues to villainize him 200 years later.