MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY: THE TRUE STORY
A Review of our April Talk - by Mike Chitty
On 8th April, Derek Arnold began his talk by asking the audience what they knew about the Bounty. And where had they got their information from? His mission, he explained, was to get across the fact that Hollywood had 'got it wrong'! William Bligh - who was in fact a Lieutenant rather than 'Captain' - was by no means the cruel rascal portrayed in films.
The Bounty - which was a merchant navy vessel on charter, so not 'HMS' - had set sail under Bligh's command to find the famed 'breadfruit plant' in the South Pacific, and take saplings to the West Indies to provide a food supply for the slaves. Bligh had been chosen because he was known to be a good navigator, cartographer and man manager. Fletcher Christian - whom Derek said was 'a foppish minor aristocrat', not a Naval man - was taken on to help with some of the more mundane duties, but otherwise Bligh had little support on board. His navigator was 'barely adequate' and his surgeon was 'inept'.
After an arduous voyage across the Atlantic (twice) and via Cape Town, where Bligh allowed his crew to have a rest, the Bounty eventually reached Tahiti. Only one man had died, and only one had been flogged (and that was not on the orders of Bligh himself). Having arrived in Tahiti, Bligh gave his men free time, which was almost unprecedented in the Navy. The local ladies were very attractive, and after six months there the crew were reluctant to leave! Two days out to sea, the men had an attack of 'homesickness in reverse'. They overpowered Bligh and his friends, and put them into a longboat.
Bligh could not understand. 'Why do you treat me thus, after all I've done for you?'. Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers took the Bounty back to Tahiti, but - suddenly realising the enormity of what they had done - they then sailed on to Pitcairn Island where they set fire to the ship and it sank.
Derek told us that, in preparing his talk, he had studied the transcripts of the official Naval inquiry into the incident. He had also visited Pitcairn Island. He had found the population there, descended from the mutineers and a few Polynesian natives, to be in-bred and with a very limited vocabulary. One man was called 'Fletcher Thursday October Christian'.
Bligh, meanwhile, had managed to navigate his way to Fiji, and then on to Timor - 4,000 miles away from where he had been cast off! He looked after his men, to the extent that not one of them suffered from scurvy. After three years away, he arrived back in England in 1790.
In the Hollywood films, Bligh is hauled before a court martial for losing his ship. In reality, said Derek, the Admiralty admitted that it was their fault, promoted him to Captain, and gave him another ship, on which he returned to the South Pacific and collected the breadfruit saplings as originally intended. He later fought at Copenhagen, rose to the rank of Vice Admiral, and became the first governor of New South Wales.
Derek's message was that 'the most maligned man in history' was in fact a hero not a villain. By the end of his talk, we all agreed with him!