A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Was Captain Bligh really the jerk he's been made out to be?

November 25, 2008

Dear Straight Dope:

Because of the movie versions of Mutiny on the Bounty, the name of Captain Bligh has become synonymous with any tyrannical asshole that happens to be in a position of authority. (We've all worked for somebody like that during our careers, haven't we?) But if Bligh was so awful, which he apparently was, why didn't the Royal Navy reprimand him and punish him for his behavior? Or was that type of behavior expected of British naval officers of the time?  And why in the world did they give him a promotion afterward, thus rewarding him for his behavior on the Bounty? If this man drove nearly his entire crew and some of his officers to throw his ass off the ship because of his tyranny, what made those in power think a promotion would be good for anybody? Also: any ideas on why Bligh was such an asshole? Supposedly his father hit him in the face with an axe when he was a little boy. And finally: are any of his descendants around today?

Guest contributor Matt Craver replies:

Before we get to your core question — was Captain William Bligh a standard-issue jerk, or a jerk in a class by himself? — it's worth mentioning the high-stress conditions under which the notorious voyage took place. When Bligh sailed His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty into the South Pacific in 1787 (his mission was to retrieve breadfruit trees from Tahiti), it was only the fifth time that an English ship had entered those waters. There were no European settlements between the west coast of the Americas and what is today Indonesia; the islands of the Pacific were poorly known, and the majority of the ocean was literally uncharted. So one might forgive commander and crew alike for acting a bit jumpy.

Now, was Bligh’s behavior on this trip truly as horrible as it's been depicted in the movies — specifically, in the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty starring Charles Laughton as Bligh opposite Clark Gable as lead mutineer Fletcher Christian? Given the way Hollywood tended to operate in those days, almost any “heavy” set against Gable would necessarily have been portrayed as an unambiguously black-hearted villain, but the makers of the film apparently made no attempt at all to base their Bligh on the historical one. The onscreen Bligh is an ugly, raving sadist who orders one man flogged beyond death and has another keelhauled — i.e., dragged through the water and under the keel of the ship. This latter episode is an especially egregious break with history: as Cecil has noted, keelhauling was a Dutch practice, and there’s no documentary evidence it was ever done on a ship of the Royal Navy.

That said, a British naval vessel of the 18th century was hardly a pleasant workplace for the average seaman. Discipline at the time was incredibly harsh by today’s standards, and flogging did, in fact, play a significant role. Regulations for formal process in handing out this punishment were flagrantly and openly ignored, and officers would order floggings at a whim. On board HMS Hermione, for instance, the last man up into the rigging for a tack change and the last man down were routinely flogged for lollygagging. Sentences of 500 or even 1,000 lashes with the cat-o’-nine-tails were occasionally handed out by courts-martial for supposedly non-capital offenses, though few men lived through either. Another twist was sentencing a man to be "flogged through the fleet," where the unfortunate victim was rowed from ship to ship, receiving lashes at each.

By these standards, Bligh’s disciplinary habits were not especially harsh. In fact, one could arguably call his discipline relatively light for the day. A reflection of this can be seen in the division of mutineers and loyalists. That “nearly his entire crew” participated in the mutiny is a completely false impression created by fiction. Of the 44 men on the Bounty, only 18 joined Fletcher Christian; 4 more men who wished to get into the lifeboat into which Bligh and the other loyalists were set had to be forcibly restrained on board the ship. On return to England, every surviving member of the Bounty's officers and crew was given a chance to officially register any complaints they might have had against Bligh, and none did. Apparently Bligh was more likely to scold or berate a man when other captains might have resorted to physical discipline — and this, ironically enough, may have been part of the cause of the mutiny, as Christian in particular was subject to what one biographer calls “foul-mouthed nagging” from Bligh.

Why was this? Well, though Bligh may not have been the worst boss ever, neither was he particularly a good one. In today’s office, he would be considered an unpleasantly picky micromanager. Bligh was, it so happened, a brilliant navigator — Captain James Cook personally selected Bligh to perform navigation duties on his third voyage to the South Pacific — and Christian’s responsibilities on the Bounty, it so happened, included assisting in navigation of the ship. Bligh meddled in Christian's work constantly and belittled his efforts enough that Christian evidently considered his treatment “intolerable.” Unlike today’s office worker, a warrant officer in the Georgian-era Royal Navy couldn’t try suggesting that his boss back off a bit. Christian’s options were limited to living with the unending criticism, desertion, or mutiny. Ultimately he went with number three.

Bligh's brilliance as a navigator was confirmed after the mutiny. Most stories and movies ignore Bligh and his loyal crewmen after the Bounty sails over the horizon. What Bligh did next is still considered a legendary feat of seamanship. He directed a voyage of over 3,600 miles in a small, overloaded open boat with no maps or compass, arriving at the island of Timor in 47 days. One man was killed when the boat's crew came under attack, but none was lost to starvation or disease.

When Bligh did return to England, he was, as you point out, far from reprimanded for his behavior. Some books make much of the fact that he faced a court-martial, but this carried no sense of suggested wrongdoing — in the Royal Navy, any commanding officer who loses a ship faces one. Even the captains of British ships lost in the Falklands War faced courts-martial on their return, despite the entire world's having seen what had happened. Bligh, in any case, was quickly acquitted of responsibility for the loss of the Bounty.

In understanding this, it's vitally important to understand that the 18th-century Royal Navy was on an almost permanent war footing, and no lapse of discipline was tolerated. Mutineers were automatically in the wrong. If you participated in one, the best you could hope for would be to demonstrate that you were coerced into it or held against your will — and even that might only get you hanged and buried honorably rather than having your head spitted on a pike. In short, the admiralty saw no fault in Bligh’s behavior.

In fact, Bligh soon enough became a national hero. He was received at a levee by King George III, and (as you mention) promoted. Almost directly after his acquittal he was elevated from lieutenant to commander and was given a 14-gun sloop, HMS Falcon. A mere month later he was promoted to the rank of post-captain. (What distinguished a post-captain from a “regular” captain was that post-captain was a permanent rank, where captain was a position. Once you became a post-captain, you held the rank until you died, resigned, or were promoted to rear admiral.) In assigning Bligh this rank, the navy waived a customary three-year service period; at the time, this was a sure sign of favor in both the admiralty and at the royal court. Bligh’s greatest difficulty on his return, it seems, wasn’t justifying his behavior in light of the mutiny, but rather explaining to Sir Joseph Banks, his patron and the sponsor of the Bounty’s mission, what had happened to those breadfruit trees.

He must have made an acceptable accounting of himself, as at Banks's urging Bligh was sent on a second voyage to Tahiti in 1791 to obtain some more. The Bounty had been a small and undermanned ship; now Bligh was given command of a large, newly built vessel, HMS Providence, and a full complement of officers and crew. This time the trees arrived safely in England.

Later Bligh was made governor of New South Wales, Australia, where he provoked another mutiny, apparently due to his blunt and acerbic efforts to impose regular discipline on the rowdy soldiers of the colony; again he was acquitted of responsibility. He ended his career as Vice-Admiral of the Blue, the seventh-highest ranking officer in the Royal Navy.

I can’t definitively rule out any assaults on the young Bligh by his parents, but the truth of the axe story you mention is very much in doubt. The best biography of Bligh says that “next to nothing” is known about Bligh’s childhood. Bligh’s father was in Royal Customs at the important port of Plymouth, a lucrative and prestigious posting. At age seven Bligh was taken under the wing of Navy officers as a future midshipman, and by age 16 he was at sea, putting in the necessary years in service to enable later promotion. Beyond these facts, Bligh's early years are mostly lost to history.

As for descendants, the Australian newspaper the Gold Coast Bulletin claims to have used online genealogical records to establish that the current premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh, is a direct descendant of William Bligh.

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Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

References

Anonymous, An Account of the Mutinous Seizure of the Bounty (Genesis Publications, 1987; facsimile reprints of two anonymous accounts printed in London by Robert Turner, 1790, and by E. Bentley, 1792)

Kennedy, Gavin, Captain Bligh, The Man and his Mutinies (Duckworth, 1989)

Mackaness, George, The Life of Vice-Admiral William Bligh (Farrar & Rinehart, 1931)

Regen, Geoffrey, The Brassey’s Book of Naval Blunders (Brassey’s, 2000)

Roquemore, Joseph, History Goes to the Movies (Doubleday, 1999)

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