Posts Tagged ‘William Bligh’

The Adventures of William Bligh

Posted in General, On This Day on April 28th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

April 28, 1789:  Captain Bligh’s First Mutiny

Of course, you know about the mutiny on the Bounty.  Hollywood won’t let you forget it.  There have been three versions of the Fletcher Christian’s revolt against Captain Bligh (At least in English; there was also an Australian version.)  In 1935, handsome noble Clark Gable leads a revolt against the cruel and thieving Charles Laughton.  Then, in 1962 sensitive Marlon Brando ousts the sadistic Trevor Howard.  Finally, in 1984 party animal Mel Gibson overthrows bourgeois killjoy Anthony Hopkins–and, yes, this is the most historically accurate version, although I can’t help but call it “Fast Times at Bounty High.”  In fact, the next production is overdue.  This one will probably depict Renee Zellweger mutinying against Meryl Streep.

After the Bounty was seized by the mutineers, Bligh and 18 loyal crew members were cast adrift in an open boat.  Of course, they were expected to die but Bligh, however deficient his charisma, was a superb navigator.  He determined that the nearest European outpost was the Dutch colony at Timor, so he set sail for it–a mere 3600 miles away.  And 47 days later he and his crew were there.  The etiquette of the British Navy did require a formal inquiry into the mutiny.  Had Bligh been a raving sadist, the Admiralty still might have exonerated him; but by a pleasant coincidence he actually deserved to be found innocent.  Besides–navigating the Pacific in an open boat–he was such a brilliant sailor, who cared if he was a charmless drip.

William Bligh continued his naval career, achieving successes and promotions.  Lord Nelson personally commended him for his heroism at the battle of Copenhagen in 1801.  By 1806, the Bounty incident was a mere anecdote in an otherwise laudable record.  The British penal colony of New South Wales–alias Australia–needed a governor and the stalwart, efficient Bligh seemed the perfect choice. 

Since Britain was somewhat preoccupied with Napoleon, the Australian colony had been left virtually autonomous.  With a scarcity of money, the unofficial currency of Australia was rum.  And that was one of the more decorous aspects of the colony.  Corruption was rampant.  The prison guards–the New South Wales Corps– were themselves criminal,  “recruited” from army gaols, and their officers the rejects from reputable regiments.  The Corps soon was dominating and ruling the colony.  What the Corps did not own outright, it extorted a cut.  Of course, the officers got the choice tracts of lands, establishing themselves as the colony’s aristocracy and they very much acted the part.  Convicts worked as serfs on the officers’ estates.  The colony was less than 20 years old but the Corps was thoroughly entrenched.

This was the situation when Bligh arrived as governor.  His predecessors had either succumbed to bribes or the languor, but Bligh intended to make New South Wales into a proper British colony.  He tried curtailing the trading of rum, which happened to be a major business of the Corps; he tried breaking the Corps’ monopolies and he tried firing the most conspicuously corrupt officers in the Corps.  In theory, Governor Bligh had every right to do so.  However, the only military or police force in the colony happened to the Corps–and for some reason, it wasn’t cooperating.  Bligh was powerless and he never had the charm to negotiate a compromise.  All he really could do was to annoy the Corps.  He didn’t last two years. 

On January 26, 1808 William Bligh faced his second mutiny.  He was overthrown by the Corps which declared martial law over the colony.  The mutineers offered to let Bligh return to England but he refused, insisting that he was the rightful governor and would not abandon his post.  He even attempt to incite a popular uprising to reinstate him; of course, popularity was never his skill.  So, at his own insistence, Bligh remained in Australia until his officially designated successor arrived.  That was in 1810.  The new governor also had a way with dealing with the New South Wales Corp; he brought along his own regiment of troops.  Under these circumstances, the Corps accepted reassignment back to Britain.  However, many of its officers resigned their commissions to enjoy their baronial estates in the colony.  Their descendants remain the creme of Australian society.

As for Bligh, he was exonerated by another official board of inquiry.  Ironically, he would be assigned to a post in Ireland.  But of all places, somehow he didn’t cause a mutiny there.