H.M.S. Bounty

A thousand leagues away, on another Pacific Paradise, H.M.S. Bounty was lying at anchor in Matavai Bay. She was there to collect breadfruit plants and to transport them to the West Indies. English plantation owners, supported by Sir Joseph Banks, and by George III, himself, saw breadfruit as a source of cheap food for slaves who, inconveniently, required to be fed. The produce of a couple of trees, it was thought, could feed a slave for a whole year at a cost of nothing at all.

Bounty was under the command of William Bligh, aged 34. Bligh first went to sea at the age of 15, became a fully-fledged midshipman within five years and, at the age of 21, was appointed Master on the Resolution, the flagship on Captain James Cook's third voyage, the principal object of which was to seek a North-West passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

During the two and a half years that Bligh sailed with the great captain, in unknown regions of the Pacific and amidst the ice-packs above Alaska, he matched Cook in many respects and even bettered him in some. He was a highly-qualified nautical astronomer, an excellent navigator and hydrographer, a dedicated scientific researcher and a splendid cartographer. His drawings of plants, animals and birds were not only accurate but demonstrated a fine, sensitive line.

But Bligh's relations with his shipmates were far from cordial. They remembered him as a man whose aesthetic face and 'woman's complexion' were counterpointed with piercing blue eyes, thin lips and a countenance that 'ever reflected a blazing ambition'. His powers of observation were remarkable but this made him all the more resentful of the inaccuracies which he found in all reports but his own and Cook's. His criticism of all around him was prolific, his praise miserly. At the least hint of criticism of himself, Bligh was said to seethe with spite.

By the time he was appointed to command the Bounty , the roots of Bligh's character were set. His maritime skills, his courage and probity were undoubted, but along with those qualities went a pathological superiority complex, a foul temper and an excruciatingly cruel tongue.

William Bligh

For nearly two centuries it has suited the cause of drama to portray Bligh as a callous disciplinarian. In fact, he was not a harsh man on the standards of that day. In a period when, on Norfolk Island, sentences of up to 300 lashes were common, Bligh rarely ordered more than a dozen or two. Tales of his having keel-hauled crew or denied them water in favour of the breadfruit plants, are patently untrue.

But to his egregious lack of 'people skills', Bligh was blind. Recently it has become fashionable to whitewash this fatal flaw in his nature, but history bears witness to his constant treatment of his subordinates as knaves and fools.

One exception, in the first few years of their association, was Bligh's 24-years-old Master's Mate Fletcher Christian, who was the product of a rich and powerful dynasty. Christian's birthplace, Moorland Close, in Cumbria, was described by the locals as having 'dog kennels better than most people's houses'. His father was brought up in the stupendous 42 bedroom manor of Ewanrigg, Cumberland, and before that the Christian family had been prominent on the Isle of Man for probably 1000 years, ever since the Vikings conquered it.

He was as used as was his captain to the unquestioning respect of others. Bligh had his impeccable record as a navigator and scientist; Christian had a heritage of twenty five generations of unbroken aristocracy. But these convictions were not yet on collision course.

Norfolk Island History in Detail

Early Days
The 'Bounty' Connection
Seeds of Mutiny
The Open Boat Journey
Starvation on Norfolk
Fate of the Bounty Mutineers
The Noble Savages
Second Settlement
Hell in Paradise
Pitcairn to Norfolk