After the Bounty: The 6500km longboat voyage of William Bligh

Robert Dodd’s painting of the Mutiny on the Bounty

Having spent time recently at Norfolk Island, the story of the Bounty and Fletcher Christian gets a lot of attention there despite the fact neither the ship nor its mutineers ever made it to the island, nor did the captain Fletcher overthrew, William Bligh. While the journey Christian and his conspirators made to start a new life on Pitcairn is fascinating, the most impressive achievement belongs to Bligh. His 6000km escape in a long boat is understated on Norfolk as the home of the descendants of the mutineers but also does not get the attention it deserves elsewhere, because of the negative impressions of him left in Hollywood film versions of the most famous mutiny in history.

Rob Mundle corrects the record in his book Bligh Master Mariner. The book covers Bligh’s entire career including his voyage with Cook when Cook was killed in Hawaii and the second mutiny when Macarthur and the Rum Corps overthrew him as governor of New South Wales in 1808. But the longboat journey two decades earlier is the most fascinating chapter and his single finest achievement. Lieutenant William Bligh and the Bounty set off from Spithead in 1787, shortly after the First Fleet also headed for the South Pacific. Bligh’s mission was different from Arthur Phillip’s. He was to head to Tahiti and take breadfruit plants for propagation in British colonies in the Caribbean. Fletcher Christian was his friend from Isle of Man days and had sailed with him on previous voyages.

The special cargo meant the already small Bounty (27.5m long) had to be re-designed to fit the plants with Bligh’s cabin severely reduced in size. More importantly there was no room for marines, a militia that might have protected the captain in the south seas. The modifications meant the ship was late leaving England and reached Cape Horn during the stormy season. After months trying to get into the Pacific, Bligh gave up and took the long way via the Cape of Good Hope.

The Bounty arrived in Tahiti in October 1788, the worst time of year for breadfruit propagation. The trees were in fruit which meant juveniles were not strong enough for transplanting. They had to wait four or five months for the wet season. Bligh struck a deal with Matavai Bay chief Tynah to collect the fruit while his men surrendered to the island’s charms. Many became indolent as they struck up relationships with Tahitian women and petty thieving was rife. A cyclone in December forced Bligh to move his ship to a safer anchorage.

As the departure date loomed, many sailors lamented the coming loss of their idyllic life. Deserters stole a cutter but were caught by islanders and put in irons. Many sailors contracted venereal disease and the ship’s surgeon was a busy man. Finally in April the Bounty was ready to sail with 1015 breadfruit plants aboard in 774 pots, 39 tubs and 24 boxes. They discovered the island of Aitutaki in the Cook Islands but after an initially friendly welcome, islanders became threatening. They headed towards Tofua in Tonga.

On the day before the mutiny, Bligh conducted an inquisition over stolen coconuts and accused Christian of the crime. At 6am the following morning, April 28, 1789, Christian was supposed to be officer-of-the-watch but instead was orchestrating piracy. He grabbed a cutlass and seized Bligh while he slept. Mutineers assailed the other officers and within minutes had control of the ship. Initially the 19 loyalists, mostly officers, were assigned to a 5m unseaworthy jollyboat while 25 mutineers remained on board. After Bligh complained, Christian allowed them to take the larger launch. They had bread, wine and rum plus a quadrant and compass for navigation but no firearms. The Bounty crew threw the breadfruit overboard and set off for Tahiti while the launch sailed to nearby Tofua, 50km away.

Bligh’s men spent four days on the island gathering meagre supplies. They were attacked by 200 islanders and sailor John Norton was killed, remarkably the only death in the entire survival mission. The rest crowded onto the boat and set sail for New Holland to find more supplies. The new settlement at Botany Bay was tantalisingly out of reach due to prevailing winds. Instead they set a course for the Dutch VOC settlement at Koupang on Timor – 6600km from Tofua. What followed in the next 47 days was one of the great all-time survival stories.

They almost came to grief on the first night as monster waves flooded the craft. Those not sailing were bailing water out while every time the launch surfed down a wave, there was the danger of nose-diving and submerging. The storm raged 48 hours while the saturated men suffered cold and fatigue. Bligh lifted spirits as he apportioned out a teaspoon of rum each day and there was further cheer on May 4 when they spotted the first of the Fijian islands, inspiring confidence in Bligh’s dead reckoning.

They narrowly avoided coral reefs and two large sailing canoes – deciding not to make contact or land without arms, given their Tofua troubles. Another storm allowed them to replenish rainwater supplies but they were in pain from forced confinement. “We were constantly wet, after a few hours sleep we could scarcely move,” Bligh wrote. They erected a “weather cloth” of canvas and rope to create a 25cm-high curtain that kept water out, possibly saving their lives in a huge storm that very night. The white-knuckle ride continued to the end.

Leaving Fiji, Bligh maintained course towards the Barrier Reef. Bad weather hampered progress and the men were constantly bailing – though this was a small pleasure as the only exercise they got outside rowing. They saw New Hebrides (Vanuatu) to the south after two weeks covering 2200km at 7.5km an hour. While this was an astonishing achievement,, Bligh had to cajole his crew out of their “miserable situation”. The men were on starvation rations but could not afford to go ashore to seek relief. They still had another 2200km of open ocean ahead to reach Cape York.

The misadventures kept coming. On day 16 they narrowly avoided a waterspout. On day 21 Bligh’s journal spoke of “constant rain and at times a deluge”. They were always bailing and “half-dead”. It rained all night and they had to “bail with all our might”. Bligh served a large allowance of rum at dawn in reward. The weather worsened in the following days and several waves threatened to overturn the boat. Bligh had to steer with great care “as the least error with the helm would immediately bring our destruction”. Yet they averaged 190km a day during the storms.

Finally the weather improved but Bligh cut the rations to 20g of bread for breakfast and dinner and none for supper. A day later matters improved when they caught a noddy by hand and its entrails were divided 18 ways using salt water for sauce. They caught a second with the added bonus of flying fish and squid in its belly. The presence of birds suggested land and they also saw tree branches in the water.

On May 27 they spotted land though the breakers pounding on the reef were a problem. It took them another day to find a channel through the reef (later called Bligh’s Boat Entrance, off modern day Lockhart River) and they were aided to shore by a strong current. Ironically it was the same day as the first landfall of the mutineers on Tubuai, 7000km away. Fletcher’s hopes this would be their perfect destination was dashed by an unfriendly welcome and they ended up even further distant at Pitcairn, though some remained in Tahiti.

Bligh and his men were on an off-shore island where they searched for food and water. They also repaired the rudder which separated from its hinge. On the anniversary of the restoration of Charles II Bligh called the island Restoration Island, now known as Maʼalpiku Island National Park. On May 31 they set sail again north-north-west towards Fair Cape just ahead of the arrival of spear-carrying islanders. At Fair Cape they landed on what became Sunday Islet to collect food while Bligh climbed a hill to chart the next course. After sleeping on the island they made a final push to Timor.

Converging currents put them in rough seas as they rounded the northern tip of New Holland. Horn and Thursday islands were the last landfall until the East Indies. High winds and heavy seas made for constant bailing in steep waves. Bligh noted his exhausted men struggled to stay awake. One bright spot was the first fish they caught on a line since Tofua. Each man was served 60g with the remainder saved for the following day.

On Day 41 they spotted the coast of Timor, a cause for elation. However they were still a long way from salvation. Bligh had no idea where the Dutch settlement was on the coast though he suspected it was in the south-west. They had to carefully examine every inlet for fear of missing it and there were days of searching the mountainous coastline in a hot hazy atmosphere making the task harder.

Less than 30km from the west coast they encountered the worst weather yet trapped in a deadly fast current. Torrents of white water poured over the boat which was in danger of being sucked under. They made it to shore where they met Malay men who used sign language to tell them the Dutch settlement was north-west. They convinced one to guide them to Koupang and the locals gave them cobs of corn and turtle meat.

On Day 47 they heard cannon fire and before day’s end they discovered two square-rigged vessels and a cutter at anchor. “Being refreshed we rowed again until half an hour before day,” Bligh wrote, “when I came to a grapnel off a small fort & town called Coupang”. Bligh rigged up a makeshift union jack which he hoisted as a flag of distress. “Soon after daybreak, a soldier hailed me to land, which I instantly did.” It was June 14, 1789.

The 6700km voyage was over and and all 18 aboard had survived. Bligh was greeted by an English captain Spikerman who lived in Koupang and eventually by the governor William Van Este who offered every assistance to the battered crew. Bligh caught the first ship back to England via Batavia (Jakarta) though it took many months for the others to leave and several died along the long way home.

Bligh was acquitted at the mandatory court martial and was overseas on a second breadfruit expedition while the Pandora and its unspeakably cruel captain Edward Edwards brought back the Tahiti mutineers for trial. Bligh’s absence permitted the calumny of his name at the trial and his reputation never fully recovered, despite sterling service in the Napoleonic Wars. The Navy rewarded him with his ill-fated governorship of New South Wales. He died aged 63 and was buried at St Mary’s Church Lambeth (now the Garden Museum). The gravestone calls him a celebrated navigator “who first transplanted the bread-fruit tree from Otaheite (Tahiti) to the West Indies” and who “bravely fought the battle of his country”.

The gravestone makes no mention of the mutiny perhaps understandably. But its omission means the longboat voyage is also absent. His legacy was as Mundle said, “an explorer in every sense, an exceptional marine surveyor, cartographer and navigator; a strong leader of men in battle, and above everything else, a bona fide master mariner”.

Media person of the year – Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

The year 2020 has been like no other in our lifetime, and I was tempted to give my end of year award to the coronavirus COV-SARS-2 and the new way of living and dying it spawned. But this award looks for human agency and no-one has had a more difficult task with the pandemic than the World Health Organisation and its Ethiopian director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Tedros and the WHO have faced unimaginable challenges with an inescapable political element hampered by a secretive China and an incompetent US president. But the organisation and its leader are the reason the 75 million cases and 1.7 million worldwide death toll have not been much higher as vaccines emerge in 2021.

When on December 31, 2019 people were wishing Dr Tedros a happy new year, he must felt uneasy. That day his organisation got the disquieting message of cases of pneumonia “of unknown etiology” (cause) in China. This was potentially the worst-case scenario Tedros was preparing for all his life. Tedros is not a medical doctor but got his doctorate in community health from the University of Nottingham for his 1990 research which found a sevenfold increase in malaria near dams in his home Tigray region.

When Tedros joined the Ethiopian health department in 1986 Tigray (now sadly embroiled in war once more) had just emerged from a devastating famine. His work led to a 20% reduction in AIDS and 70% reduction in malaria cases in that region. Visionary prime minister Meles Zenawi appointed Tedros health minister in 2005 when there were more Ethiopian doctors in Chicago than in Ethiopia. Tedros managed to reduce malaria by half in two years and he was appointed foreign minister in 2012.

In 2017 he was named the first African director of WHO with a priority of “health for all”. While there was opposition to his candidacy, with issues such as Ethiopian enabling of the nicotine industry, many saw his appointment as a turning point for the WHO. Throughout his career Tedros has stood for equity and access, as Time puts it, “the idea that all people, wherever they are and whatever their circumstances, have the right to quality health care”. Growing up he saw how preventable diseases took the lives of children including his younger brother. His experience in the DRC Ebola outbreak taught him unless the most vulnerable are not protected from infectious disease, none are protected.

The idea for a world health body is 200 years old. Increased international trade and travel in the 19th century led to global health catastrophes and cholera epidemics in 1830 and 1847 killed tens of thousands. The first International Sanitary Conference convened in Paris in 1851, the first attempt at international cooperation for disease prevention and control, though the cause of cholera remained unknown and political differences meant little was accomplished. In 1892 an International Sanitary Convention for cholera control was adopted and five years later a Convention addressed control of the plague. In 1919 the League of Nations established a Health Organisation and it was recognised again after World War II. In 1948, the WHO Constitution obtained enough signatures to bring it into force, strongly backed by the Americans who remain the top donor.

The WHO backed programs to eradicate smallpox, polio, AIDS, Ebola and others. But its biggest fear was dealing with an influenza pandemic, recognised since the 1918 flu pandemic killed 500 million people. The world dodged bullets in recent times with SARS, swine flu and then MERS and on the 100th anniversary of the flu pandemic in 2018, the WHO warned urbanisation, mass migration, global transport and trade, and overcrowding accelerated virus spreads “which ignore national borders, social class, economic status, and age.”

The WHO activated its Global Influenza Strategy after his China Country Office heard of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan on December 31, 2019. On January 1, WHO created an Incident Management Support Team which requested further information to assess the risk and by January 3, 44 patients were reported, 11 severely ill. China closed the Wuhan wet market for sanitation and disinfection.

On January 5, WHO notified member states about the new outbreak and on January 10 offered a “comprehensive package of guidance” for countries on how to detect and test potential cases warning of the risk of human-to-human transmission. US president Donald Trump later lied the WHO did not do so until April. Trump relied on a January 14 WHO tweet which reported “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” but WHO was already warning health leaders to look for signs of transmission, and to take precautions as if it was happening.

The mystery illness was given a name, novel coronavirus, after China shared its genetic sequence and “coronavirus” quickly became a household name though SARS-1 was also a coronavirus. On January 13 Thailand confirmed the first case outside China with a 61-year-old Wuhan tourist recovering in hospital. By January 20 the WHO confirmed there was human-to-human transmission in Wuhan.

On January 22 Tedros convened an emergency committee to assess whether the outbreak constituted a public health emergency of international concern. The virus had spread to Japan, South Korea, and the US. In China 17 people had died and authorities shut down transport around Wuhan quarantining 20 million people. The committee could not reach a consensus. Tedros said more information was required. “Make no mistake: This is an emergency in China,” he said. “But it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.”

Within days the WHO’s updated situation report said the risk was “very high in China, high at the regional level and high at the global level”. In a footnote, they admitted an error in previous communications which said the global risk was moderate. By January 30 Tedros said the fast-spreading strain was a global health emergency. “This vote is not a declaration of no confidence in China,” he said. “The WHO is concerned about what will happen if the virus spreads in countries with weak health systems and declaration is to help those countries.” The number of deaths rose to 213, all in China. Four days later it was 361 and many countries imposed Chinese travel bans. There was also the first death overseas in the Philippines but after meeting Chinese president Xi Jinping Tedros was not ready for measures that “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade”.

The WHO held a 300-scientist forum in mid February to set global research priorities into the newly named COVID-19 disease. “Equitable access – making sure we share data and reach those most in need, in particular in lower and middle-income countries, is fundamental to this work which must be guided by ethical considerations,” the chair of the forum said.

The WHO–China Joint Mission issued a report about the evolution of the outbreak. As of 20 February, 75,465 COVID-19 cases were reported in China and transmission was largely occurring in families. Most had mild symptoms and recovered but those over 60 with comorbidities were vulnerable. Bats appeared to be the virus reservoir, but intermediate host(s) had not been identified. It was transmitted “via droplets and fomites during close unprotected contact between an infector and infectee” with no pre-existing immunity in humans. Three-quarters of victims were in Wuhan and although it was a massive Chinese travel hub the cordon sanitaire imposed on January 23 had largely protected the rest of the country. Jinping put control of the outbreak as the government’s top priority and deployed 40,000 health care workers to support the Wuhan response. China applied big data and artificial intelligence to strengthen contact tracing and the management of priority populations.

The mission concluded China had “rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history” helped by “a deep commitment of the Chinese people to collective action in the face of this common threat.” Case numbers were declining but every Chinese province and city was “urgently escalating acute care beds and public health capacity”. It urged reassessment of restrictions on Chinese travel. However the disease was highly contagious, and the rest of the world was not as prepared as China.

March 3 was Tedros’s 55th birthday and the world was glued to his daily media conference on the growing threat. There were 3000 fatalities mostly in China but 61 other countries reported 8739 cases with 127 deaths. Tedros noted nine times more infections outside China than inside. “The epidemic in Korea, Italy and Iran and Japan are our greatest concern”, he said. Korea had half the total but good contact tracing was keeping it under control. “Understanding your epidemic is the first step to defeating it,” he said. The cost of surgical masks rose 600pc, and the price of gowns doubled amid widespread manipulation and new stocks going to the highest bidder.

On March 7 worldwide cases topped 100,000, a “sombre moment” said Tedros. Four days later stock markets plunged as he officially declared it a pandemic – the first caused by a coronavirus – with 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4291 deaths. The world was shocked as Italy went into national lockdown. The number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold in two weeks but with 90pc in just four countries (China, Korea, Iran and Italy) Tedros stressed it could be defeated. “If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilise their people, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission,” he said.

There were new guidelines for personal behaviour such as social distancing, regular handwashing and coughing into your elbow. Tedros warned this was not enough to extinguish the pandemic and governments needed to step up to “isolate, test, treat and trace”. “You cannot fight a fire blindfolded” he said. He recommended testing every case. “We cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected”.

By March 18 WHO announced its first vaccine trial as cases exceeded 200,000 and 8000 deaths. Argentina, Bahrain, Canada, France, Iran, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and Thailand confirmed their participation in the Solidarity Trial. “This large study is designed to generate the robust data we need to show which treatments are the most effective”, Tedros said. China had almost defeated the virus with no cases for the first time since December but the virus was increasing elsewhere at an alarming rate. It took three months to reach the first 100,000 cases but only 12 days to double that.

In April many countries followed Italy into lockdown and the WHO reported deaths had doubled in the previous week and would soon reach 50,000 globally, with the caseload heading towards one million. Tedros addressed the debate over masks. “WHO recommends the use of medical masks for sick people and those caring for them”, he said. “However, in these circumstances, masks are only effective when combined with other protective measures”.

US hospitals were not ready. PPE was in short supply, there was limited testing and Trump was downplaying the crisis. On April 8 Trump blamed the WHO for America’s poor response to the “Chinese virus” and warned he would stop funding it. Trump said the WHO had not supported his January 31 decision to limit travel from China. The WHO said restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies was “ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions.” The New York Times wrote Trump blamed the WHO for his own failures. “Public health experts said the president’s public denials of the virus’s dangers slowed the American response, which included delayed testing and a failure to stockpile protective gear,” it wrote.

While Australia questioned Trump’s claim the virus came from a Wuhan lab, it sponsored a motion with the EU at the World Health Assembly to establish an independent review of the virus, coordinated by the WHO. China opposed Australia’s calls, but ended up co-sponsoring the motion saying it was vastly different to Australia’s position. Australia strengthened the EU’s original motion to explicitly state the review should be “impartial, independent and comprehensive”, a move that led to massive revenge Chinese trade sanctions on Australia later in the year.

Tedros insisted the focus should be on fighting the virus. He said the US and USSR co-operated in the Cold War to eradicate smallpox. “Now the US and China should come together and fight this dangerous enemy,” he said. Tedros outlined five reasons why the WHO was needed: helping countries to prepare and respond, providing accurate information and busting dangerous myths, ensuring vital supplies reach health workers,  training and mobilising health workers, and leading the vaccine search.

By mid April the WHO said COVID-19 was 10 times deadlier than the 2009 flu pandemic and in some countries the number of cases was doubling every 3-4 days. It stressed early case-finding, testing, isolation and care, and contact tracing to stop transmission. Before lifting lockdowns countries needed to control transmission, ensure the health system tracked every case has been controlled, put in preventative measures and educate communities about the “new norm”. Many countries ignored this advice leading to second and third waves. At the end of the month Tedros convened an emergency committee meeting which agreed the pandemic still constituted a PHEIC. In April, 80,000 cases were reported each day. Cases topped three million globally, with 224,000 deaths.

On May 11 Tedros warned cases were surging again in Korea, China and Germany following the lifting of stay-at-home restrictions. While lockdowns slowed transmission and saved lives, Tedros acknowledged a serious socio-economic impact. “To protect lives and livelihoods, a slow, steady, lifting of lockdowns is key to stimulating economies, while also keeping a vigilant eye on the virus so control measures can be quickly implemented if an upswing in cases is identified”, he said.

The virus was hitting hard in Central and South America due to dense population and urban poverty. Five of the 10 countries with the highest number of COVID-19 cases at the start of June were Brazil, US, Peru, Chile and Mexico. Cases topped 200,000 in Africa by the middle of June. The WHO advised people to wear masks in public but said masks alone would not beat the virus. On June 18, 150,000 new cases were reported, the highest single daily total yet. Most were in the Americas, though large numbers came from South Asia and the Middle East. Tedros said the world was in a new and dangerous phase. “Many people are understandably fed up with being at home. Countries are eager to open up their societies and economies”, he said. “But the virus is still spreading fast, it’s still deadly, and most people are still susceptible.”

That number was beaten four days later with 183,000 new infections in 24 hours, bringing the total to 8.8 million cases worldwide, and 465,000 deaths. Tedros urged fundamental public health measures to limit spread:  finding and testing suspected cases, isolating and caring for the sick, tracing and quarantining contacts, and protecting health workers.

Into July the numbers climbed steeply. Cases doubled in six weeks reaching 12 million by July 10. It soared to 16 million cases and 640,000 deaths by month end, six months since the PHEIC was declared. In August Tedros brought the sobering news there was “no silver bullet and might never be”. The WHO noted the virus was disrupting services on other diseases, compounding reduced immunisation coverage, cancer screening and care, and mental health services while COVID-19 was also causing immense social, economic and political damage.

By end August the pandemic was eight months old. India reported 78,000 new COVID-19 cases, surpassing the US record two days straight. Tedros warned countries reopening economies to do so safely. “Opening up without control, is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “While this may seem an impossible balance, it can be done if countries are in control of transmission.” Many countries did not heed the advice leading to second and third waves.

By September 7 Tedros was looking to the future – and the next pandemic. He reminded the world health was not a luxury item for those who can afford it. “It’s a necessity, and a human right. Public health is the foundation of social, economic and political stability,” he said, calling on countries to invest in services to prevent, detect and respond to diseases. “Part of every country’s commitment to build back better must be to invest in public health, as an investment in a healthier and safer future. We are not just fighting a virus. We’re fighting for a healthier, safer, cleaner and more sustainable future.”

On September 28 global COVID-19 deaths passed one million. A few days later headlines were dominated Donald and Melania Trump contracting the disease, among the two million cases that week. When asked if Trump’s disregard for mask-wearing made it inevitable that he would contract COVID-19, WHO’s Irish Emergencies Executive Director Dr Mike Ryan wouldn’t comment on the risk management measures of any individual.“What we will reiterate, is that each and every individual and each and every citizen should be guided by the national guidance in their country.”

As the WHO estimated 10pc of the world’s population was infected, Tedros rejected herd immunity as “scientifically and ethically problematic”. “Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak,” he said. To obtain herd immunity from measles 95pc of the population must be vaccinated. However 90pc of the world remained susceptible to COVID and cases were rising again in the US and Europe. “Letting the virus circulate unchecked, means allowing unnecessary infections,” he said.

By October 15 Europe recorded seven million cases of COVID-19, jumping from six million in 10 days. Though the peak was twice as high as April , there were five times fewer deaths. That meant more younger people were contracting the virus. The emergency committee held its fifth meeting at end October where the global risk level remained “very high” and the PHEIC was retained until 2021. Global cases reached 44 million, with over 1.1 million dead.

While coordinating the virus response, the WHO has also been at the forefront of vaccine research. They were part of a multinational collaboration, with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, GAVI (Vaccine Alliance), the Gates Foundation, and governments which formed the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, to fund accelerated research and development, production, and globally-equitable access to COVID-19 tests, therapies, and licensing of vaccines in a “COVAX Pillar” program. The Pillar’s goals were to help license vaccines, influence equitable pricing, and provide equal access for two billion doses by end 2021 to protect healthcare workers and high risk people in low-to-middle income countries.

While the figures remain grim at the end of the year, attention is turning to the vaccines rollout in 2021. Tedros hailed the scientific community for setting “a new standard for vaccine development” and now the international community must set “a new standard for access”. “The urgency which vaccines have been developed must be matched by the same urgency to distribute them fairly”, he said warning of a risk the poorest will be “trampled in the stampede” to get innoculated. Five vaccines are approved at the time of writing (BBIBP-CorV and CoronaVac in China, Gam-COVID-Vac in Russia, Moderna in the US and Pfizer’s Tozinameran the most widespread in several countries including the US, Canada and the UK).

COVID-19 is not the only WHO’s health crisis and Joe Biden’s presidential win means the US will continue to fund their vital work. But no WHO leader has ever had to deal with anything on the scale of COVID-19. Tedros was not faultless but he has steered a difficult diplomatic and medial course with honour and courage keeping the world informed honestly all the way. Tedros says his focus remains on the COVID-19 “end game” — ensuring all countries enjoy the same access to vaccines. He is a deserving recipient of my media person of the year 2020.

Previous recipients

2009 Mark Scott

2010 Julian Assange

2011 Alan Rusbridger and Nick Davies

2012 Brian Leveson

2013 Edward Snowden

2014 Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Basher Mohamed

2015 Clementine Ford

2016 David Bowie

2017 Daphne Caruana Galizia

2018 Donald Trump

2019 Greta Thunberg

On John Mitchel

John Purroy Mitchel was New York’s youngest ever mayor. Mitchel was mayor from 1914 to 1917 and was just 34 when he got the job and with it the title of “The Boy Mayor of New York”. The boy mayor died bizarrely just a year after losing office when as an World War I Army Air service cadet, he forgot to fasten his airplane seatbelt and plummeted 150 meters to the ground. Mitchel Field air base in Long Island was named in his honour adding to his family’s illustrious legend.

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John Purroy Mitchel’s grandfather was John Mitchel, a complex and hugely influential Irish patriot known also for his time in Australia and the US. Mitchel was an Ulster Presbyterian, a lawyer, and a fiery and passionate journalist, who wrote about the artificial famine that was devastating Ireland in the late 1840s. Mitchel laid the blame squarely on British economic policies.

In the nationalist newspaper The Nation, Mitchel wrote that the famine was not a natural disaster but a deliberate attempt to exterminate the Irish peasantry. In his view, British politicians were using famine to clear Ireland’s ‘surplus population’ from the land in order to use it to feed Britain’s growing industrial population. Britain he said, was obsessed by the pursuit of profit and the callous doctrines of political economy, and blind to the sufferings of the Irish people.

His radical writing caused immense debate even among Mitchel’s own fellow Young Irelanders. The Nation’s editor Charles Gavan Duffy censured his writing and Mitchel left to found his own paper “The United Irishman”. Free to write whatever he wanted, Mitchel did not mince his words. He announced the purpose of the paper was to wage “Holy War to sweep this Island clear of the English name and nation.” The violent revolutionary tone caused a sensation. British authorities immediately saw it as seditious and Mitchel was a marked man.

Mitchel got away with producing 16 incendiary issues in a similar vein. But on 22 April 1848, Westminster passed a bill specifically with Mitchel in mind, the Treason Felony Act 1848, which remains law in England and Wales today. Barely a month later he was arrested under the newly minted Treason Felony Act (an act which remains in force today) and sent to Dublin’s Newgate prison. R v Mitchel was the first case tried under the law. The packed jury found him guilty. The judge sentenced him to 14 years transportation. Mitchel’s dignified bearing and the severity of the sentence won him considerable sympathy from nationalists, and contributed to the Young Irelanders’ decision to mount an unsuccessful “cabbage patch” rebellion in July 1848.

Mitchel had left the cabbage patch by then. He was transported from Cobh and spent the first year of his exile on the prison hulk Dromedary off the coast of Bermuda. Mitchel noted with sardonic delight the name of the British Bermudan base: Ireland Island. But Bermuda’s humidity was unlike Ireland’s and played havoc with Mitchel’s asthma. He was sent on to Cape Town aboard the Neptune in 1849. There he enjoyed the discomfit of his British captors who were not allowed to land their convict stock on South African soil. After several months, the Neptune set sail for Tasmania.

Mitchel documented his time in Bermuda, South Africa and Australia in his most famous work, the “Jail Journal”. On 6 April 1850, the long journey across the roaring forties neared its end as a delighted Mitchel could see the “mountainous southern coast of Van Diemen’s Land”. They docked at Hobart a day later. Mitchel was a VIP prisoner and allowed a “ticket of leave” to live at Bothwell with his old school friend who had also been transported a year earlier. Through Martin, he met other transported dissident Young Irelanders including Thomas Francis Meagher and William Smith O’Brien who all congregated around Lake Sorell, a theme explored in Christopher Koch’s roman a clef Out of Ireland centred on the remarkable escape of Irish ‘gentleman-convict’ Robert Devereux who went from Bermuda to the US via Tasmania.

The real Mitchel was joined by his wife and family at Nant Cottage in Bothwell in the centre of the island. There they ran sheep and reminisced the old times in Ireland but Mitchel had too revolutionary a mind to settle for being a Tasmanian gentleman. In 1853 he donned a series of disguises and smuggled himself as a Catholic priest on board the Emma, a brig bound for Sydney. After an agonising week in hiding in Sydney, he boarded the Orkney Lass bound for Honolulu. After three weeks they landed at Tahiti. There he transferred to the US ship Julia Ann where he was reunited with his wife and family. Finally on board an American vessel, Mitchel was able to drop his disguise. At 7pm on the 13th September 1853, he wrote “my Jail Journal ends, and my out-of-jail Journal begins”.

He arrived in New York to a hero’s welcome and lost little time in getting back to journalism. In the weekly Citizen, he serialised his Jail Journal. He dabbled in intrigue with the Russian ambassador during the Crimean War asking him to aid the Irish independence cause. But his blind spot would prove to be his racism. Mitchel believed blacks were racially inferior and were better off as plantation slaves than living in barbarism in Africa.

As the 1850s progressed, he grew to detest the abolitionist cause. He moved to Tennessee and bought a farm while supplementing his income with lecture tours. In 1859 he set sail for France and was there when war broke out in the States. His two sons joined the Confederate Army and Mitchel returned to be with them. Mitchel himself served with an ambulance corps and became editor of the Richmond Daily Enquirer. But as the war went badly, he became increasingly disillusioned with confederate president, Jefferson Davis.

After the war, Mitchel went back to New York and then France where he tried to rouse another army to invade Ireland. When that failed, Mitchel turned back to journalism in New York as well as writing Irish history. In 1875 he finally returned to Ireland as an old and ill man to contest a by-election in Tipperary. Although easily elected, Parliament declared him ineligible as an undischarged felon. Mitchel stood again and won convincingly. But Mitchel spared Britain a constitutional crisis. He died, aged 59, on 20 March 1875 and was buried in his parents’ grave in the Unitarian cemetery in Newry, Co Down. His New York fire marshal son James fathered John Purroy Mitchel which takes us back to where we started. The Mitchel flame lived on in the boy mayor. Shame about the seatbelt.

A return to Norfolk Island

I’m just back from my third visit to Norfolk Island and the remote Pacific outpost continues to enchant. I wrote in detail about my first trip there in October 2019 and then about a boat trip to Phillip Island when I came back for Christmas a couple of months later. Since then we have all lived through an eventful era and there were many times in 2020 that I thought my November trip would not happen. As it turned out due to changed COVID conditions, Air New Zealand had to extend my visit from seven to 13 days and it gave me all the more time to appreciate Norfolk’s many charms including the view from Queen Elizabeth Lookout over the only golf course in a world heritage area, and the outlying islands of Nepean and Phillip (furtherest away).

The golf course is part of the Kingston and Arthur Vale World Heritage Area and the view slightly west from the same location show the beautiful buildings of convict-era Kingston at Slaughter Bay. This was where the British first landed on March 6, 1788, barely six weeks after landing in Sydney, making Norfolk Island Australia’s second oldest colonial settlement by a considerable margin.

It was also just 14 years after Captain James Cook first sighted the island on his second voyage of discovery in 1774. Cook landed at Dunstable Bay on the north side of the island and a party made their way to the highest point at Mount Pitt. Cook thought the wonderful Norfolk pines would make ideal masts for ships while the New Zealand flax plant growing freely would also make good sailcloth, both of which Britain had to import from Russia. This knowledge made the admiralty order First Fleet commander Arthur Phillip send a contingent to Norfolk in 1788.

But when Phillip’s protege, Philip Gidley King, landed on the island with his new mini-colony, he found signs they were not the first humans here. In 1793 he wrote to naturalist and Cook’s former sailing companion Sir Joseph Banks that he found a banana tree and canoe “when I first landed a feasible proof of the Island being formerly inhabited”. There were also stone tools and the Polynesian rat which survived in Norfolk’s rich undergrowth. The Polynesians had brought flax to the island arriving by ocean-going canoes. Today an archaeological site behind Emily Bay shows the Polynesian settlement site buried in the sand-dunes. This was once a small village which existed from a thousand to 650 years ago. They arrived by ocean-going canoes and Emily Bay was an attractive site with canoe access, a protective reef, flat land close to the shore and plenty of fresh water and fish. The reason for their disappearance is not known.

Emily Bay remains an attractive spot for modern visitors for much the same reasons as the Polynesians. A magnificent lone pine guards the eastern approach to the bay, as it has done since King’s time and the reef is home to abundant coral and many colourful fish.

The British were unsuccessful in using either the pines or the flax for naval hardware but the island settled into a penal colony providing a foodbasket for starving Sydney with the fruit of its rich soil. By the early 19th century, the colonists concentrated on Sydney and Tasmania and the need for Norfolk Island, far away from any shipping lanes, dissipated. The settlement closed down in 1814 and the buildings were destroyed. Norfolk’s surviving convict heritage is from the second British settlement which restarted in 1824 as a deliberately harsh punishment site for the “doubly damned”, the worst among the convicted.

Norfolk’s reputation of terror comes from this period with a succession of cruel tyrants in charge of the island including James Morriset, Foster “Flogger” Fyans and Joseph Childs. Their abysmal treatment of prisoners and liberal use of the lash led to a number of failed rebellions including the “Cooking Pot” uprising of 1846 when convict William “Jackey Jackey” Westwood led a spontaneous riot against Childs’ inhumane regime. Fellow inmate Martin Cash wrote Westwood had been “flogged, goaded and tantalised until he was reduced to a lunatic and a savage”. The riot was sparked by the sudden removal of convict billies and kettles which the prisoners had made. Angry prisoners armed with staves and bludgeons stormed the barracks stores to retrieve the kettles. It took 20 minutes for soldiers with fixed bayonets and muskets to restore order though four men, including Irish free overseer Stephen Smith died. “Jacky killed Smith with a single blow of the cudgel on which the gang again returned to the lumber yard”, wrote Cash. Westwood spattered the brains of a watchman and killed a constable with an axe. Though he killed three of the four, Westwood was just one of 12 prisoners hanged on October 13 for the mutiny. Childs ordered them buried in a mass grave outside the cemetery known as Murderers Mound.

While the British influence on Norfolk Island is unmistakable, there is a surprising American angle among the colonial facades. From the early 1800s onwards, Norfolk was regularly visited by whaling ships and later residents took to whaling themselves as a means of occupation. The United States dominated the industry and American visitors were commonplace, adding to the island’s prosperity through trade. They also left behind the tradition of Thanksgiving Day celebrated on the third Wednesday in November each year. The scene below is on Thanksgiving Eve when locals and visitors gather in the grounds of the old Kingston Jail for the Taste of Norfolk Festival.

By the 1850s Britain was tiring of its Australian transportation experiment, particularly after the Victorian gold rush made the antipodes less a deterrent. In 1847, Secretary of State to the Colonies Sir William Denison informed the Governor of New South Wales the penal settlement on Norfolk Island would close. By October 1854 only 119 convicts remained on the island and the last convicts left a year later. In 1856 a new set of colonisers came. They were the descendants of Bounty Mutiny which took place in 1789, a year after as the First Fleet’s arrival in Australia. Today you can find many mentions of the Bounty in Norfolk Island as well as its chief mutineer Fletcher Christian, though the Bounty’s commander William Bligh is less prominent. Surprisingly neither Christian nor Bligh, nor the Bounty ever visited the island. While Bligh made a remarkable escape via longboat 3000km to Timor, Christian led his mutineers and their Tahitian wives to the even more remote island of Pitcairn. In 1856 almost 200 Pitcairners left their island to begin a new life at Kingston pier.

The new arrivals took the big houses on Military Row (later renamed Quality Row) and spread out across the island grazing and growing crops as below at Arthur’s Vale. But many preferred the life of whaling and the island drifted in penury until the 20th century when Australia made more concerted efforts to increase its governance.

In the late 19th century the British allowed more settlers onto the island at the Melanesian Mission at St Barnabas Church. From 1865 the mission farm became profitable and the island became a benevolent church dictatorship surviving on free labour, “field hands for the Lord”. The Mota language, adopted from the New Hebrides mission, was a lingua franca for education and worship. English church rituals were transplanted but the increased reliance on English staff stymied an independent indigenous church.

The Mission has long ceased but Pitcairners demands continue to this day. After losing self government status in 2015, Norfolk Island has been reduced to a regional council. A recent audit report showed the parlous state of the council’s finances. Council’s operating result before capital items deteriorated in 2019/20 to a deficit of $1.8 million while revenue dropped by $1.7 million for 2019/20, primarily due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on tourism. Council’s percentage of outstanding rates and charges of 18% for 2019/20 did not meet the industry benchmark of less than 10% and is forecast to significantly worsen in 2020/21.

Norfolk Island is almost entirely dependent on its tourist income which suffered dramatically during the first few months of the pandemic. The island had only one confirmed Covid case and gradually reopened borders first with Queensland and then NSW. Visitors enjoy the wonderful scenery and the unique wildlife such as the beautiful Norfolk Island green parrot. The green parrot was a common forest bird before 1788 but after extensive clearing of trees and introduction of feral predators, fewer than 50 individuals remained by the 1970s. Though land clearing ceased, competition for nesting sites with introduced species such as rosellas and common starlings is fierce, and predation from rats and cats remains a threat. The population is responding well to recovery activities and we saw several birds in the National Park. Parks Australia is trying to establish them outside the national park through predator-proof nest sites, restoring habitat and controlling rats, cats and rosellas. There is also a trial translocation of parrots to Phillip Island to further secure the species’ range.

Norfolk Island is also home to migratory seabirds such as the bar-tailed godwit. These are remarkable long distance fliers with the aerodynamic build of a “jet fighter”. Recently a godwit was tracked flying more than 12,000km from Alaska to New Zealand, setting a new world record for avian non-stop flight. Norfolk Island is an important stop on their flyway between Siberia and New Zealand.

Even if you haven’t the energy of a godwit, you can still enjoy the beauty and serenity of Norfolk Island. This small slice of paradise has entranced humans for 800 years or more and is likely to cast its spell for many a generation yet.