The Bounty Adventure Pt. 2/6: England to the Cape of Good Hope

Text from Mutiny and Romance in the South Seas: A Companion to the Bounty Adventure by Sven Wahlroos.

After long delays, first because of the Admiralty’s tardiness in sending Bligh his sailing orders and then because of contrary winds, the Bounty finally got under way on Sunday, December 23, 1787.

The atmosphere on board was permeated by excitement and anticipation among the crew, all of them volunteers. And of course there was a touch of melancholy, and even apprehension, among some of them; who could say when – or if – they would return? But there was nothing like an old shanty to keep such thoughts away. To quote from Alexander McKee’s H.M.S. Bounty (1962):

As the men walked the capstan bars round, and the dripping anchor ropes came inboard, the half-blind Irish fiddler, Michael Byrne, struck up the traditional air, “Drops of Brandy,” and the men hummed the words to themselves.

And Johnny shall have a new bonnet
And Johnny shall go to the fair,
And Johnny shall have a blue ribbon
To tie up his bonny brown hair.
And why should I not love Johnny
And why should not Johnny love me,
And why should I not love Johnny
As well as another bodie.

The weather was stormy. On the very first afternoon a seaman fell from a yard while unfurling the main t-gallant, but miraculously he managed to grab a stay and break his fall. On Christmas Eve it blew a full gale. By Christmas Day, however, the storm had abated somewhat and Christmas was celebrated with an extra issue of rum in addition to beef and plum pudding.

On Boxing Day the wind increased to full storm and on December 27 the stern windows collapsed under the weight of gale-driven water. The main cabin was flooded and the water broke an azimuth compass. Bligh could barely save the all-important chronometer and other instruments. There was a great deal of damage to the ship, but as far as the crew was concerned the greatest disaster was probably that seven full hogsheads of beer, lashed together on deck, had broken loose and gone overboard. In addition, two casks of rum had split and their contents were lost in the bilge.

The Christmas season was rough on the crew of the Bounty, but it paled by comparison with what awaited them at Cape Horn.

***

The Bounty was sailing the Atlantic on a south-south-westerly course for Cape Horn. She stopped at Santa Cruz harbor, Tenerife, for five days to water and take on additional supplies; among these were several casks of “very good wine” (Madeira). Despite the additional provisions, Bligh cut the ship’s company’s allowance of bread by one third, justifying his decision by the fact that he planned to sail directly for Tahiti without stopping.

Bligh’s character was an interesting mixture of highly admiral qualities and pernicious flaws. Certainly he was a man of great courage. He was also one of the finest navigators in maritime history and a superb cartographer. He was a man of boundless energy, had a strong sense of duty, and was totally dedicated to his profession. He was diligent and conscientious in the extreme and took every opportunity to add to the knowledge of the seas he traversed and the places he visited. There is no finer testimony to his qualities as a seaman than the fact that Captain Cook had selected him as sailing master of the Resolution on his third voyage.

But Bligh had a disastrous flaw in his character. Although in most respects he showed evidence of superior foresight, he had no understanding of the impact his frequent emotional outbursts and insulting accusations had on other people. He could call someone, even an officer, an “infernal scoundrel” or a “contemptible thief” or an “incompetent mongrel” or a “cowardly rascal” in front of the whole ship’s company, yet a short while later behave as if nothing had happened.

Language in the British Navy was rough. Swearing and cursing were common, even expected, so that was not the problem. The problem was that Bligh was a petty faultfinder who had a special knack of humiliating those with whom he found fault. Yet throughout his life he never realized this fact about himself. Long after the Bounty mutiny, in 1805, he was court-martialed for “oppression and abusive language,” found guilty, and reprimanded. We can only imagine what it would have taken, in the harsh and authoritarian British Navy, for a post captain to be court-martialed for abusive language.

Another problem, seldom mentioned in the Bounty literature, was Bligh’s appearance. He was short, chubby, and small-featured, his lips were of the “Cupid’s bow” variety, his skin is variously described as pallid or like ivory or marble, his hair was short and curly, and his eyes were clear blue. The total impression was that of a doll. Additionally, Bligh’s habit of wild gesticulation was unusual among the normally reserved British officer class. Yet, neither his appearance nor any of his mannerisms might have given him trouble if he had stayed calm. But his frequent and uncontrolled outbursts of temper, often over petty matters, made him look ridiculous rather than installing respect.

Bligh admired and imitated his mentor, Captain James Cook. However, although Cook frequently lost his temper and was also petty at times, he always commanded the respect of those around him because of his commanding presence. Perhaps the most important difference between the two men was pointed out by David Howarth in his book Tahiti: A Paradise Lost (1938); “Cook looked for and brought out the best in men; Bligh looked for and brought out the worst.”

Bligh’s lack of understanding of his impact on others, his pettiness, and his very appearance must be taken into account in any serious attempt to explain the eventual mutiny.

***

The ceremonies connected with crossing the equator stem back at least to the early 1500s. The custom seems to have originated on French ships (the oldest preserved account is dated 1529) but spread rapidly to other nations and survives in good health to this day. It was certainly firmly entrenched in the British Navy by the time HMS Bounty crossed the Line on her way to Cape Horn on February 7, 1788. Such ceremonies were often cruel procedures, but on the Bounty the event seems to have been all fun. Bligh would not allow the customary ducking (he considered it brutal), but the men were properly tarred and then shaved with a piece of iron hoop. The officers had to pay forfeits of rum to the men (Bligh agreed to reimburse them) and there was a great deal of dancing to the fiddle of Michael Bryne, the almost blind seaman Bligh had signed on just for that purpose.

Undoubtedly all of the crew enjoyed the mildness of the horse latitudes after the cold storms they had just been through. And in his Narrative Bligh portrays the voyage to the Horn as a totally happy one. But the boatswain’s mate, James Morrison, (who also wrote a narrative of the voyage) does not agree that all was well. In fact, according to Morrison, the now famous cheese incident had already taken place.

This incident was related to the fact that Bligh was not only captain of the ship but also purser. The Admiralty apparently expected him to make a profit from this position; they had reduced his salary precisely because he could make an extra income by being purser. To ensure everything would be fair, however, all supplies were to be opened in the presence of the whole ship’s company. One day when a casket of cheese was opened, two cheeses were found to be missing. Instead of blaming this on the supplier (the suppliers were notoriously dishonest) and noting the fact in the log, Bligh for some inscrutable reason asserted that someone on board had stolen the cheeses. When a seaman named Hillbrant then ventured to say that the cheeses had been sent to Bligh’s own residence on the orders of John Samuel, the ship’s clerk and Bligh’s personal servant, the captain flew into a rage and threatened to flog Hillbrant or anyone else making such allegations. . . .

***

Three significant events occurred on the Bounty in March 1788: Bligh promoted Christian to acting lieutenant, able-bodied seaman Matthew Quintal was flogged, and the attempt to round the Horn had an inauspicious start in heavy gales off Tierra del Fuego.

The subject of punishment on board is important because so much of the popular Bounty literature – and four of the five motion pictures – have portrayed Bligh as a cruel commander, a monster who took pleasure in having his men flogged. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Royal Navy of two hundred years ago was indeed a cruel institution, much more so than the Army. In fact, one of the most feared punishments in the Army was to be transferred to the Navy. Not only were seamen flogged mercilessly for minor infractions, but, as described by Scott Claver in his Under the Lash (1954), individual commanders actually designed their own instruments of torture to keep crews in line.

Floggings of one hundred lashes or more were not unusual. In fact, as late as 1807, George III saw fit to intervene in Navy affairs by setting an upper limit of one thousand lashes! Bligh is not known to ever have punished any member of his crew with more than four dozen lashes – and that was for desertion (for which the sentence was often death by hanging).

The frequently reviled Bligh was actually not as harsh a commander as the widely respected Cook. In the seventeen months that Bligh was in command of the Bounty, he ordered eleven floggings with a total of 229 lashes. Cook flogged at the rate of once or twice a week. (Even when we take into account that Cook had a larger crew, it is still clear that he flogged more frequently than Bligh.)

The two dozen lashes that Matthew Quintal had to endure on March 11, 1788, were for “insolence and mutinous behavior” toward the sailing master, John Fryer. Many captains of the time would have given Quintal an even stiffer punishment.

There are some Bounty researchers who feel that the mutiny, far from being caused by Bligh’s cruelty, was partially due to his softness when it came to corporal punishment. To what extent such an allegation is valid is always debatable. What is not debatable is that, as far as corporal punishment is concerned, Bligh was less harsh than most of the Navy commanders of his time. It was not his physical cruelty but, rather, his humiliating tongue – in an era when a man’s honor was more important than his life – that contributed heavily to the most famous mutiny of all time.

***

The Bounty was engaged in a desperate attempt to round Cape Horn against prevailing westerly gales. A letter written from Cape Town by midshipman Peter Heywood gives some idea of what it must have been like:

During the 29 days we were beating off the Cape, we had to encounter the most violent storms that I suppose were ever experienced. Is suppose there never were seas, in any part of the known world, to compare with those we met for height, and length of swell; the oldest seamen on board never saw anything equal to them, yet Mr. Peckover (our gunner) was all three voyages with Captain Cook.

A less duty-conscious captain than Bligh would have given up much sooner. When Bligh finally did give up, it was primarily because he simply did not have enough men left to work the rigging. He wrote:

Having maturely considered all circumstances, I determined to bear away for the Cape of Good Hope; and at five o’clock on the evening of the 22d [of April 1788], the wind then blowing strong at W, I ordered the helm to be put aweather, to the great joy of every person on board. Our sick list at this time had increased to eight . . .

One of the eight was the ship’s surgeon, Dr. Huggan; the others were seamen. Since there were only thirteen able-bodied seamen to man the rigging in the first place, this would have left only six men to handle the sails which were so weighted down by snow and ice and so stiff that it was well-nigh impossible to haul them up to be furled. The men were exhausted and weakened and their hands fo bleeding, Bligh, in fact, had no choice but to give up.

To Be Continued. Courtesy of Pacific Union College.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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