When I was a kid, my cousin used Captain Bligh’s name whenever we pretended we were pirates. According to my cousin, no buccaneer or sailor on the Seven Seas was meaner or sneakier than this terrible man. Of course, he got his ideas from watching Charles Laughton in “Mutiny on the Bounty”, a wonderful old black-and-white picture that contrasts Clark Gable’s bare-chested nobility with Laughton’s debased and evil Captain Bligh. The picture and source made it clear the sailors that took over the H.M.S. Bounty were mutineers in name only: their actions were caused by the barbarous treatment of Captain Bligh and taken only to save their own lives. That’s a thrilling, romantic idea, but is it fact or fiction? The difference, Caroline Alexander explains, is much more compelling as well as complex.
The fact is, the battle for the Bounty was created by two social climbers, Peter Heywood and William Bligh. Both men joined the navy as teenagers in order to build personal fortunes, one of the few legal ways in that culture a man could rise in rank and wealth. Bligh rose through the Navy’s ranks through years of hard work before he was offered command of the Bounty. Peter Heywood secured his berth through his family’s connections, (including Bligh’s father-in-law and Fletcher Christian). For whatever reasons, when the rebellion occurred, Heywood and Bligh ended up on opposite sides. Bligh and the loyal half of the crew were put off at sea in a 23 foot boat while Heywood remained with Fletcher Christian and the mutineers in the Bounty. Over the next 47 days, Bligh and his remaining crew covered more than 4,100 miles of the ocean in an open boat, fighting hunger, thirst, cannibals and stormy seas. Meanwhile, the mutineers sailed to Tahiti and divided into two groups again. This time, Fletcher Christian and the core mutineers sailed on to Pitcairn Island while Heywood remained in Tahiti.
Bligh returned to Europe and was initially hailed as a brilliant sailor, innocent of blame in the mutiny. Another ship, the HMS Pandora, captured Peter Heywood and his companions and returned them as prisoners. Peter’s family got him legal help and used their influence to circulate the rumor that the rebellion should be blamed on its victim, Bligh. The mutinous crew captured in Tahiti were all convicted and sentenced to hang but the two mutineers with lawyers were pardoned. The mutineers without lawyers or influence were hung. Heywood got a promotion along with his pardon and returned to his career in the Navy. Bligh survived other voyages and rebellions and lived to watch his name get dragged through the mud. Even as he became a rear admiral, he rarely received command of another ship.
Caroline Alexander is too smart to take even these truths at face value. Her research shows Bligh as neither tyrant nor martyr, but a man so anxious to avoid failure, he obsessed over details and continually criticized of his subordinates’ job performance. (Blight was less physically abusive than many other British Captains). In the end, Caroline Alexander’s The Bounty is less a search for truth about the rebellion than an investigation into the conspiracy that obscured it. At sea, William Bligh was a capable officer but against a collective of political operators, neither he nor the truth stood a chance.