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 William Bligh: Good or bad? 
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Post William Bligh: Good or bad?
I personally don't know much about William Bligh - only through films; and I know some of the book threads have included him, but I thought him worthy of debate in a dedicated thread.

Incidentally came across this lecture about him on the National Archives site, and a very reasonable price, too -- oh, to live a bit nearer The Smoke!!

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Fri Sep 30, 2005 1:19 pm
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I like Bligh. He certainly wasn't perfect but I don't think he deserves all the bad press he got and continues to get.

On my first visit to London, I made my "pilgrimage" to Bligh's tomb in Lambeth. Funny thing, I haven't gone to "visit" Nelson or Collingwood (yet). LOL! Yes, call me a Bligh fan!

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Fri Sep 30, 2005 10:04 pm
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Post William Bligh
I have mixed feelings about Bligh. IMO, he was not a devil. Stern, very inflexible, but not the tyrant painted in some of the movies. I admire a number of things about him but not his temper. I do find his life fascinating and have read several books about the mutiny and Bligh's life.

One movie that gives a more realistic picture of Bligh is "The Bounty" (1984) starring Anthony Hopkins as Bligh. I remember reading a criticism of the movie at the time that speculated that the low box office sales were partially due to the more human Bligh. The critic felt that there needed to be more contrast between the good of Christian (Mel Gibson) and the evil of Bligh.

In addition to the Toohey book mentioned, "The Bounty" by Caroline Alexander is a very factual account.

I liked Charity's comment about him being "charmed and cursed" at the same time (in the Charmed Lives thread).

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Fri Sep 30, 2005 11:20 pm
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Bligh was a cool and resolute man in a crisis but did not adapt well to the boredom of peacetime or blockade--or waiting for breadfruit seedlings to mature. Don't forget that he was a senior commissioned officer of an armed service in wartime. Ships under his command played important roles in two of the British navies victories of the FRAN Wars, at Camperdown and Copenhagen. The attempts to round Cape Horn in the Bounty and the voyage from Tahiti to Timor were practically the equivalent of combat in their requirements, and he performed superbly in both cases. He was obviously a gifted navigator.

Bligh was also involved in no less than three mutinies. On the Bounty voyage, Bligh was only a lieutenant, the only commissioned officer on his ship. He had had his choice of officers and Christian (who was a master's mate) was, I believe one of those whom he had chosen; obviously, he had made a bad decision in that case. It has been suggested that the Admiralty contributed to the Bounty incident by trying to do the expedition on the cheap. Bligh was an obvious choice for the job, and could have been promoted to commander, even in peacetime; if Bounty had then been rated as a "sloop," Bligh would have been entitled to at least one lieutenant and to a small contingent of marines to support his authority. On the other hand, if he had had a wider range of diplomatic or personnel management skills, he would not have needed that kind of support. The second mutiny in which he was involved was the general one in the North Sea fleet at the Nore in the summer of 1797. Only a handful of crews did not mutiny, and the worst one can say about Bligh at that time is that he was no Adam Duncan in terms of the respect and devotion he inspired among his subordinates. The third mutiny, in New South Wales, was the result of his attempt to crack down on some illicit practices. Again, however, one might reasonably say that a more diplomatic and flexible person in such a remote situation would have anticiated opposition and lined up support before making his move.

Bligh was also involved in a set of court-martials with one of his lieutenants, over his use of profanity and the supposed theft of a cheese, while in command of HBMS Warrior on the Brest blockade.

It is perhaps indicative of Bligh's personality and reputation that while he was not passed over for promotion to admiral nor forced onto the retired list as a rear-admiral without distinction of squadron, he was never employed as a general officer at sea despite his achievements as a subordinate combat commander.


Sun Oct 02, 2005 2:45 am
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Post Re: William Bligh
timoneer wrote:
I have mixed feelings about Bligh. IMO, he was not a devil. Stern, very inflexible, but not the tyrant painted in some of the movies. I admire a number of things about him but not his temper. I do find his life fascinating and have read several books about the mutiny and Bligh's life.

I don't know that he was all that much more stern than other officers of his time. I think part of that impression is due to the smear campaign that was started by the Christian and Heywood families while Bligh was off on the second breadfruit expedition.

What puts Bligh's life in perspective, for me, is an examination of other mutinies and the fates of other officers who carried naval discipline too far. Hugh Pigot and the Hermione come immediately to mind. Even one of Nelson's own band of brothers, Thomas Troubridge, had to deal with a mutiny on Culloden.

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Sun Oct 02, 2005 8:55 am
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With regard to my comment about Bligh being "stern," I agree with Susan that he was much, much closer to a typical captain of that time than someone like Pigot, thank goodness.

It took an untypical human being (like Collingwood) to rise above the system and look at the sailor as a person whose skills where critical to the defense of the nation and of his ship. Collingwood was not unique with such views but his example helped other officers under him to develop better management skills. I like to think of him as planting these ideas in his fleet officers' minds just as he planted acorns in his walks.

This is not unusual even in modern businesses. If the "boss" has great people skills, those under him with similar skills tend to get promoted. If the "boss" is more the "I'm always right, just do it my way without question" kind of person, than those with that attitude tend to get promoted. In time, company management at all levels tends to swing towards the boss' management style. Collingwood's long periods at sea setting a good example might be just as important to the RN as other aspects of his commands.

If we could actually talk to Bligh today, I wonder if his personality determined his command style or did the actions of his superiors over time determine that style. I suspect a little of each.

Bligh seems to me to be a victim of circumstances more than a harsh officer. If the Bounty had arrived at Tahiti at the correct time of the year to collect the breadfruit immediately, the crew may never had mutinied in the first place. [Given the choice between the island’s lifestyle and average RN discipline, I might be tempted to mutiny even today. :D] Having other commissioned officers present, some marines, etc. may also have canceled the mutiny. I think these were more important factors than Bligh's personality or command style. If Bligh had been truly brutal, he would have probably been treated like Pigot!

Any smear campaign by the Christian and Heywood families would certainly be limited to condemning Bligh. They certainly could not condemn the RN nor it's mission for the Bounty!

The mutiny on the Hermione was certainly extreme. The mutinies at Spithead and the Nore were unusual events also. I have sometimes wondered if brief, ineffective, "events" on ships were not much more common than reported. Assuming no official court martial was needed, what captain would want to advertise such events under his command?

Even if a particular captain was isolated, the other officers should have been able to sense the mood of the men and taken action to lower the tension in the ship before something drastic happened. This may have happened many times during a command. Beating back and forth in front of a French port for months on end certainly was not the choice of many capains nor of their men but it certainly would have had its effect. Other circumstances beyond the officer’s control, like a sea battle or a storm, may have dissipated the tension and fused the crew again.

Has anyone read of a general study of mutinies of the period rather than just examinations of the few spectacular ones?


Don


Last edited by timoneer on Sun Oct 02, 2005 10:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Sun Oct 02, 2005 12:04 pm
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Post Re: William Bligh
timoneer wrote:
One movie that gives a more realistic picture of Bligh is "The Bounty" (1984) starring Anthony Hopkins as Bligh. I remember reading a criticism of the movie at the time that speculated that the low box office sales were partially due to the more human Bligh. The critic felt that there needed to be more contrast between the good of Christian (Mel Gibson) and the evil of Bligh.

This is the only Bounty related movie I can watch these days without having the urge to jump up and down in frustration.

One thing that's always bothered me about the movies in general is how Bligh is portrayed as a much older man than he was. When the Bounty sailed, Bligh was only 33. It makes me wonder how the perception of Bligh would change if he was played by someone who was acutally more of his age.

On Edit: I checked the IMDB for the relative ages of the actors when their respective movies were released. To my surprise, Charles Laughton was the closest in age (~36...he seemed older than that!), followed by Anthony Hopkins (~47) and Trevor Howard (~49).

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Sun Oct 02, 2005 9:54 pm
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The Spithead mutiny was in the tradition of pay strikes within the British navy--refusals to sail until back pay to which seamen were entitled had been paid. IIRC, Byron's squadron to reinforce Howe in 1778 was delayed by this kind of incident. N.A.M. Rodger mentions one in which the captain was mildy reprimanded--the Admiralty took the view that he should have foreseeen it and notified the port admiral. The Spithead mutiny spread not only to many ships but to encompass a variety of issues not only of general rates of pay but of other types of treatment and compensation as well, plus the behavior of a few specific officers. The seamen insisted that they would sail and fight if there were an emergency, but would not leave on a routine cruise. The government's response can be summarized in modern terms: They sent a respected retired admiral to investigate, he reported that the grievances were justified and ought to be rectified, the Admiralty recommended that, and Parliament quickly passed the necessary legislation. The officer problems were separate although concurrent, and did not require Parliamentary action. Throughout most of the 18th century, officers had been expected to know how to get efficient performance from their crews without causing mutinies, and the officers in question were reassigned or relieved and perhaps never re-employed.

The Nore mutiny took place after the Spithead incident and after the Spithead grievances had been settled with changes in pay and other regulations that applied to the entire Navy. It was politically and socially radical, much more like the French Revolution than like a pay strike.

Although individual cases of maltreatment by officers were cited during both the Spithead and the Nore "mutinies," such complaints were mostly opportunistic. It is possible that some of the officers involved might later have been the object of mutinies on individual ships like the Hermione incident, but probably many of them would have continued as cases of exasperated crews but at less than a mutinous level. In the Nore case, where all but two ships mutinied, there must have been a range of officer behavior and crew attitudes, from something just below the loyalty to Duncan on HBMS Venerable to, perhaps, something not far short of an incipient Hermione. It's hard to tell where Bligh's Director was on this continuum.


Mon Oct 03, 2005 7:43 pm
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timoneer wrote:
I have sometimes wondered if brief, ineffective, "events" on ships were not much more common than reported. Assuming no official court martial was needed, what captain would want to advertise such events under his command?

Has anyone read of a general study of mutinies of the period rather than just examinations of the few spectacular ones?


Susan, I was looking for something else when I noticed the following in your bibliography here and wondered what you thought of it. I looked up the description on Amazon and noticed it covered mutinies from George I to modern day.

Does the author state any general opinions about mutinies, especially in the Age of Sail? I am not so much interested in modern mutinies unless the conclusions of the author apply across the whole period of study. Does this book only study the famous and significant mutinies or does the author comment on the more common occurrences that may not make the newspapers?

Guttridge, Leonard F. 1992. Mutiny: A History of Naval Insurrection. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press

Don


Sun Oct 09, 2005 5:36 am
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timoneer wrote:
Does the author state any general opinions about mutinies, especially in the Age of Sail? I am not so much interested in modern mutinies unless the conclusions of the author apply across the whole period of study. Does this book only study the famous and significant mutinies or does the author comment on the more common occurrences that may not make the newspapers?

Hi Don,

It's been a while since I read this book, so I can't remember all the details. The first 8 chapters (and part of 9) cover the AoS (Bounty, Spithead, Nore, Hermione, Somers). I don't know how famous the more modern examples are. The author examines each incident and the (apparent) reasons for them and does make his conclusions by looking at them as a whole.

Maybe not one to buy if you are specifically interested in the AoS, but certainly worth looking over.

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Sun Oct 09, 2005 6:34 am
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susan wrote:
It's been a while since I read this book, so I can't remember all the details. The first 8 chapters (and part of 9) cover the AoS (Bounty, Spithead, Nore, Hermione, Somers). I don't know how famous the more modern examples are. The author examines each incident and the (apparent) reasons for them and does make his conclusions by looking at them as a whole.

Maybe not one to buy if you are specifically interested in the AoS, but certainly worth looking over.[/size]


Thanks, Susan. I look in the local library or try an ILL.

Don


Sun Oct 09, 2005 6:55 am
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Post Re: William Bligh: Good or bad?
Two of Captain Bligh's medals are up for auction this week:
http://www.noble.com.au/auctions/lot/?id=279709

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Tue Jul 26, 2011 9:13 pm
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Post Re: William Bligh: Good or bad?
Alison wrote:
Two of Captain Bligh's medals are up for auction this week:
http://www.noble.com.au/auctions/lot/?id=279709

Nice medal. I wonder who it was sold to? That's something I'd like to see go to a museum.

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Post Re: William Bligh: Good or bad?
Off on a tangent,what does LOL mean?,i notice in Susans reply.
Dave


Fri Jul 29, 2011 2:55 pm
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Post Re: William Bligh: Good or bad?
Hi Dave,

LOL = laughing out loud

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