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”.

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