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Adversity brought out the best in Bligh

How many skippers have been called a "Capt. Bligh" by a crewmember after having made some gruff demand on the water? Probably quite a few.

The mutiny has been depicted in film (with Charles Laughton as Bligh) and in works of art.

Maybe the Bligh comeback was made affectionately - then again, maybe it wasn't. And you don't have to be a man to be a Capt. Bligh. In fact, 2010 is the year "Bligh" became an equal-opportunity pejorative.

In January, U.S Navy brass removed Capt. Holly Graff from command of the missile cruiser USS Cowpens for "cruelty and maltreatment" of the ship's crew. The following headline on a story about the incident appeared in Time magazine: "The Rise and Fall of a Female Captain Bligh."
"Horrible Holly," as she was known among her crew, "creates an environment of fear and hostility ... [and] frequently humiliates and belittles watchstanders by screaming at them with profanities in front of the Combat Information Center and bridge-watch teams," one sailor told Naval investigators.
Horrible Holly will probably fade away, but Capt. Bligh is destined to live forever in the English lexicon as synonymous with tyrannical behavior, having been imprinted upon popular culture by Charles Laughton's over-the-top portrayal of Bligh in the 1935 film "Mutiny on the Bounty." Later depictions, such as Anthony Hopkins' more nuanced Bligh in the 1984 adaptation "Bounty," have had seemingly little impact on the modern imagination. In fact, Laughton's performance inspired the parody of Bligh in the "Wettest Stories Ever Told" episode of "The Simpsons" television cartoon series.
The Talisker Bounty Boat, if it proves nothing else, may at least help to remind us that Lt. William Bligh of the Royal Navy was more than a tyrant. He became a heroic figure in Bounty's 23-foot launch, the craft in which he and 18 members of the crew sailed approximately 3,700 nautical miles (various sources cite different mileages) after the rest of the crew mutinied April 28, 1789. He accomplished the seemingly impossible and saved the lives of his men.
In all, more than 100 books have been written about the Bounty mutiny. Many of today's history buffs and sailors get their first glimpse into the better aspects of Bligh's nature by reading the description of the 47-day open-boat voyage in "Men Against the Sea," part of the 1932 Bounty trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall.
"Never, perhaps, in the history of the sea has a captain performed a feat more remarkable than Mr. Bligh's, in navigating a small, open and unarmed boat, but 23-feet long and so heavily laden that she was in constant danger of foundering - from the Friendly Islands to Timor, a distance of 3,600 miles, through groups of islands inhabited [by] ferocious savages and across a vast uncharted ocean," the authors write.
Bounty was on an expedition to collect breadfruit seedlings from the islands of the Pacific and deliver them to British possessions in the Caribbean. The breadfruit plants were to be transplanted and grown as a food source for slaves. Bounty was bound for the Caribbean with its botanical cargo when the mutineers struck.

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Examinations of Bligh's record show that he was not particularly severe for a naval commander of his time. All British captains flogged those who violated navy rules and they hanged those guilty of heinous violations. Bligh used these punishments sparingly. Instead, he employed an acid tongue to berate those who broke rules or failed to live up to his high standards. Today's respectful and humane treatment of military personnel would have seemed laughable in the 18th century, when so many ship's crews were populated with hardened men scoured from British slums and prisons.
Despite Bligh's biting tongue and bad temper, the biggest cause of the mutiny may well have been the mission itself. Bounty had anchored at Tahiti for five months while the crew collected more than 1,000 breadfruit plants, and her crew had become habituated to life in paradise and Tahiti's accommodating women. The mutineers were loath to return to Britain, let alone under renewed navy discipline; that was Bligh's contention in the narrative he published after his return to England, and it rings true.
Once the mutineers set Bligh and his men adrift, it was obvious to all that they couldn't go to the nearest islands, which were known for natives that practiced cannibalism. The fear of hostile islanders was reasonable. Early in the voyage, one of the crew was stoned to death by natives after Bligh stopped at the island of Tofua to forage. The rest of the shore party barely escaped and Bligh resolved to make no more stops until Australia before continuing on to Dutch colonies at Timor or Batavia.
The islands along the route might as well not have existed. The impossibility of seeking refuge among the native populations was reinforced off Fiji, where the starving and exhausted men on the boat were forced to row for their lives to escape a pursuing war canoe.
The boat was a sturdy vessel used for kedging (setting and retrieving the ship's anchors). With 18 men aboard, she sat low in the water, with just 9 inches of freeboard. Bligh was a splendid navigator, having been trained by Capt. James Cook, for whom he had served as sailing master. Although Bligh had a sextant and a couple of pocket watches, the mutineers allowed him to take no charts.

Scant provisions
As for food, Bligh's inventory of provisions included 150 pounds of hard bread, 32 pounds of salt pork, six quarts of rum, six bottles of wine and 28 gallons of water. At the island of Tofua, where one of the boat's crew was killed, the Bounty men managed to bring aboard coconuts and breadfruit before relations with the islanders turned ugly. During the ensuing attack, some of the original provisions were lost.
"Our supper, breakfast and dinner consisted of a quarter of a pint of cocoa-nut milk, and the meat, which did not exceed 2 ounces to each person: it was received very contentedly, but we suffered great drought. I dared not to land, as we had no arms, and were less capable to defend ourselves than we were at Tofua," Bligh wrote in his later narrative. The men fished and caught birds to augment their diet, and once inside Australia's Great Barrier Reef they were able to go ashore and gather bird eggs and oysters. Nevertheless, the crew starved throughout most of the voyage.
Despite pleading from the men, Bligh refused to deviate from his rationing system. Remarkably, when they arrived at the Dutch colony at Timor, the men still had rations for 11 more days.
Exposure to sun and cold, cramped conditions and constant bailing added their own measure of misery to the lives of the men. Bligh's narrative, based on the log he kept while under way, described men driven to the edge of death. Here is Bligh's description of May 23, which featured yet another night of squalls:
"The misery we suffered this day exceeded the preceding. The night was dreadful. The sea flew over us with great force and kept us bailing with horror and anxiety. At dawn of day I found everyone in a most distressed condition, and I now began to fear that another such night would put an end to the lives of several who seemed no longer able to support such sufferings. Everyone complained of severe pains in their bones; but these were alleviated, in some degree, by an allowance of two tea-spoonfuls of rum; after drinking which, having wrung our clothes, and taken our breakfast of bread and water, we became a little refreshed."

Bligh the bestseller
The publication of Bligh's narrative in 1790 became the equivalent of a bestseller today. Bligh was a national hero, but his reputation suffered once some of the mutineers were returned to England for trial and their families spread tales of his alleged tyranny. The naval establishment, however, never wavered in its support of Bligh, and an official inquiry acquitted him of wrongdoing in connection with the loss of his ship to mutineers. He was given a second ship, HMS Providence, and completed the breadfruit mission originally assigned to Bounty, delivering 2,126 breadfruit plants to islands in the Caribbean. In places like Jamaica, breadfruit is still eaten today.
Bligh was promoted and given several more commands, fighting commendably against Napoleon's navy, but for all his successes, his men persisted in calling him "that Bounty bastard" behind his back. And he was to suffer yet another mutiny. In 1805, Bligh, the disciplinarian, was appointed to the governorship of New South Wales in Australia, with orders to stop corrupt practices there. An event called the Rum Rebellion ensued and this new band of mutineers arrested and effectively imprisoned Bligh for two years.
Bligh was again cleared of wrongdoing and his principal New South Wales nemesis was brought to justice. Bligh was promoted to the exalted rank of "vice-admiral of the blue," but he never received another significant command. He died in retirement in 1817.
During Bligh's career, hundreds of British naval captains plied the oceans, enforcing the same service regulations with the same standard punishments. Many went far beyond Bligh's moderate application of the lash and developed reputations as floggers. The navy had to face other mutinies, but they were general mutinies involving several ships. The mutiny on Bounty was a rare event. Having had two mutinies directed against him distinguishes Bligh in history.

A management perspective
There is a business book on Attila the Hun, a bona fide tyrant. It's titled the "Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun," but because of the mixed results during Bligh's career, no such modern management tome has been dedicated to the captain of HMS Bounty. Yet that doesn't mean no one has analyzed Bligh as a manager.
Capt. Robert L. Webb is a lifelong sailor, now retired, who volunteers with the Charleston (S.C.) Sea Scouts. Webb is a man with some interesting credentials as a mariner, having rafted down the Amazon in 1963 and single-handedly sailed a dugout canoe 5,000 miles from Panama to Hawaii in 1970. Webb and his wife later spent 10 years cruising the Pacific quite conventionally aboard his 50-foot ketch, Hunky Dory.
Along the way, Webb developed a philosophy on management and leadership, which he has published on his Web site ( One of his examples is William Bligh. He describes Bligh's normal leadership style as controlling and meddlesome - a micromanager. He says Bounty was awash in competing interests and Bligh's management style was unable to unite the men in the common cause.
Bligh, Webb concludes, was an exceptional leader in exceptional circumstances and an unexceptional one otherwise, being unable to build a team without coercion or inspiring loyalty from his subordinates. "It was a matter of survival then. In the lifeboat, they had a common goal," says Webb in an interview with Soundings. "When everyone has a common goal, they work together. There is a different attitude. People will unite behind the leader who can achieve that goal. If not united, they tend to work against each other. Bligh was a super navigator and super leader in the lifeboat, but you might say he had a difficult time getting along with people in normal circumstances."

See related stories:

- Why Bligh still stands tall

- The Bounty Boat skipper and crew

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.