BLIGH: MASTER MARINER

Reviewed by: BILL EVERSHED

Who remembers ‘Crusoes’ and ‘Blighs’?  Required: HM Ships’ boats and deserted islands; preferably in the West Indies, East Indies or Far East but the Western Isles will do at a pinch. ‘Crusoes’ were 30-hour overnight Banyans; and ‘Blighs’ were 54-hour overnight sea passages.

So what do you know about the real Bligh?  He was a tyrant and his crew mutinied. No, not a tyrant; sharp-tongued, but more a carrot-man than a stick-man; certainly no tyrant. Forget all that Hollywood myth. But yes, certainly some of his crew mutinied. When was this? About 1750?  No; later, 1789. Anything else? They cast him adrift in a ship’s boat.  How big was the boat? About the size of a cutter, 32’? No, the Bounty was only 90’, her launch was just 23’ so 4’ smaller than a modern ship’s whaler. How many loyal men went with him?  About 10? No, 18. More would have joined him if there’d been room.  And how far did he sail? About 200, maybe 300, miles? No: rather more.

Look, here’s the deal. You can take a pusser’s 3-in-1 whaler; provision her as much as you wish but I suggest you include a baler, select your own crew, using only sails and oars, leave from Portsmouth, call where you wish, Plymouth, Falmouth, the Azores if you can find them, and sail to Norfolk, Virginia.  You can have a quadrant and a compass but no chronometer  and no charts. Make your own log-line and lead-line. This is a voyage which you do from memory. No motoring and no radio except in an emergency, in which case you will fail the test.  Are you up for this?

So Bligh was a highly skilled navigator? And a leader? Yes, indeed. He had been Captain Cook’s Sailing Master and had witnessed his murder. He knew the Pacific well and his orders were to gather breadfruit from Tahiti and take it to the West Indies to plant there as a nutritious food for the slaves. Oh dear; so we’re back in Non-PC times. Yes, but in 1788 the ladies of Tahiti were also living in far from modern PC times.  And therein lay the cause of the whole problem.

Every CO or No1 knows that a Ship’s Company needs a couple of days at sea to shake down after a 6 week leave period, and, for those who remember them, even longer after a 3-week SMP in Hong Kong or Simonstown.  Imagine how the Bounty’s crew felt, almost all of whom had acquired a tyo in Tahiti, when finally ordered to sail after 23 weeks in this paradise.

And my usual page 59 test?  Tells how the Bounty was considered by some, even at the time, to be far too small for the task: Only 24 ABs and 21 others. No Lieutenant: No Marines. So Bligh had to sail 3,600 miles with his men in his open boat, island hopping to some extent, then via NE Australia to Timor in the Dutch East Indies. And there acquired a small armed schooner, which he named HMS Resource, and set sail for England. He arrived in 1790 but only 12 of his loyal crew of 18 later survived to return to their native land.

What became of the mutineers? Well, they sailed the Bounty to Pitcairn Island and then scuttled her. Not quite; they first sailed back to Tahiti where some stayed but others, led by Fletcher Christian, did sail with some Tahitians to Pitcairn where they remained undiscovered for some 20 years.

But surely some of the mutineers were recovered and brought back to England for trial, weren’t they? What happened to them? What happened to Bligh? Was he court-martialled for the loss of the Bounty? Was he married? Did he have a family? Did he ever go back to the South Seas? Was he also ever in action in the Napoleonic Wars?  How long did he serve in the Navy?  What happened to him in the end?

Look, I think you’d be well advised to read this book for yourself: it’s a cracking good read, especially for those who have a taste for Nelson’s Navy, or who need reminding what factors trigger a mutiny, or who thrive on the challenges of long-distance sailing. Alas, like Bligh, no maps so bring your own atlas!

You will surely then remember this ‘Crusoe’ and this ‘Bligh’!