The Museum of Garden History in Lambeth, South London, is based in the deconsecrated church of St Marys at Lambeth. The church was originally due to be demolished but was spared when it was discovered that two noted 17th Century Royal Gardeners and botanists, John Tradescant and his son, also called John, were buried in the churchyard. This inspired John and Rosemary Nicholson to have the church converted into the world’s first museum dedicated to the history of gardening.

The churchyard’s most famous resident, however, is none other than Vice-Admiral William Bligh:

Bligh was a local man, the terraced house in which he lived with his wife Elizabeth is a short distance away. A blue plaque marks the house, drawing attention to the event for which he is inevitably and perhaps unfortunately best remembered:

The mutiny aboard the armed vessel HMS Bounty is one of the most infamous episodes in the history of the Royal Navy and has been the subject of innumerable books and films – most of which are hopelessly inaccurate, with the 1962 movie starring Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando as probably the worst offender.

William Bligh – who held the rank of Lieutenant at the time of the 1789 mutiny – was certainly not the sadistic bully of popular imagination. Like his mentor James Cook, Bligh took very seriously the welfare of his men on long and difficult sea voyages. Far from being a tyrant, he was if anything too lax and in an era of brutal discipline at sea, tended to avoid floggings, only ordering them in circumstances where other captains might well have ordered hangings (such as when three men tried to desert at Tahiti).

Tasked with transporting breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies (for the admittedly-ignoble purpose of providing a cheap source of food for the slaves there), Bligh and his crew endured a long and difficult voyage to Tahiti, lengthened to ten months after a failed attempt to round Cape Horn, which forced them to sail east across the Atlantic and Indian Ocean in order to reach the Pacific. The delay meant a stopover of five months at Tahiti to wait for the breadfruit plants to ripen.

During the stay at Tahiti Bligh allowed the men to live ashore, which actually went against the common naval practice of the day whereby men returning from a lengthy voyage could be compulsorarily transferred to another ship without the opportunity of even setting foot on land. Unfortunately the men spent the stay enjoying the company of the beautiful and uninhibited women of Tahiti and were less than enthusiastic when the time came to resume the voyage.

The mutiny – led by Bligh’s friend and former shipmate Fletcher Christian – broke out shortly after the Bounty sailed from Tahiti. Bligh was overpowered, tied up and bundled into the ship’s longboat. Eighteen men joined him of their own volition, a further four who remained loyal were detained in the Bounty by the mutineers because they were needed to help work the ship.

Cast adrift with very little food and water, no charts or compass and only a sextant and a pocket watch to navigate with, the position of Bligh and his men must have seemed all but hopeless. In fact they were to successfully undertake one of the most remarkable voyages in the annals of the sea.

Making first for Tofua, an island in the Tongan archipelago thirty nautical miles away, they were attacked by natives and one man was killed. Bligh then decided to sail for the then-Portuguese colony of Timor, over 3600 nautical miles away, a journey that would require them to navigate the treacherous Torres Strait. The voyage took 47 days and the privation Bligh and his men must have endured in the cramped 23-foot open boat can be but imagined. No further lives were lost on the voyage, but it took its toll on the men and an 18th Century colony in distant waters was probably not the best of places for recuperation. Five men died before the group could be repatriated to England.

Meanwhile Christian and his fellow mutineers returned to Tahiti, loaded up with women and after landing 16 men, including the four loyalists, sailed off in the hope of evading the long arm of the Navy. They came across the uninhabited Pitcairn Island by accident – it was wrongly marked on the Royal Navy’s charts, and for this reason they decided to settle there. Their descendants live there to this day.

Most of the men who had remained on Tahiti were later rounded up by Captain Edward Edwards of HMS Pandora, who had been ordered to retrieve the Bounty and bring the mutineers to justice. Making no attempt to distinguish between mutineers and loyalists, and (despite being aware that four men had remained loyal to Bligh), the atrocious Edwards confined the men in irons to a deckhouse (dubbed Pandora’s Box by its inmates) then left them to drown after running his ship aground in the Torres Straits (which Bligh had successfully negotiated without charts and compass). Fortunately they were freed by a compassionate crewman at the last minute, though they were weighed down with their chains and four of them still drowned. The four loyal men were among the survivors and on reaching England they were cleared by Bligh’s testimony. Three of the mutineers were hanged.

The questions as to the cause of the mutiny continue to the present day. Moving on from the myths perpetuated by Hollywood, one of the milder accusations thrown at Bligh is that he was a poor man-manager. It is true that Bligh did not suffer fools gladly, and tearing his subordinates off a strip in front of the crew was certainly not good management practice. It is also said that – in modern parlance – he was prone to micromanage. But if people repeatedly fail to carry out what is asked of them to a satisfactory standard, what other choice is there? Were Bligh’s officers up to the job?

Before the voyage of the Bounty, Bligh’s application for promotion to Commander was turned down by the Admiralty. This meant he could not recruit commissioned officers to his senior staff and had to make do with NCOs, including Christian. These men probably lacked the qualifications and experience for the Bounty’s tough assignment.

The main problem was the breakdown of discipline at Tahiti. Can Bligh, albeit the expedition’s commander, be blamed for this, or were the odds stacked against him?

Not only did Bligh’s senior staff fail to set a good example ashore – Christian “married” one of the local women – but there was no contingent of Marines aboard to maintain order. Bounty was too small for them to be accommodated. In truth, she was unfit for purpose. So the blame for the mutiny can really be pinned on the Admiralty who not only refused Bligh promotion, but handed him an inadequate ship for the voyage.

Bligh and Edwards were court-martialled for the loss of their ships, a standard practice at the time. Both men were acquitted.

Bligh’s naval career was not adversely affected by the Bounty debacle, and he subsequently attained the rank of Vice Admiral. However he remained dogged by controversy and while Governor of the then-British colony of New South Wales, he was deposed by rebels and kept under house arrest for two years.

© Christopher Seddon 2008


Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author