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Fletcher Christian and ‘Breadfruit Bligh’ – legendary adversaries

Posted in Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Plants, Ships on Monday, 28 November 2011

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This edited article about Captain Bligh originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 864 published on  5 August  1978.

Bounty's  mutineers, picture, image, illustration

Mutineers from the Bounty land on Pitcairn Island, by Severino Baraldi

It must have seemed to 17th-century sailors when they dropped anchor at the Pacific island of Tahiti that the bread-fruit tree was God’s special gift to mankind.

For centuries men had prospered or suffered, grown rich or died, on the results of the annual harvest, just to have enough bread, their staple diet, for everyone to eat. Now, on this sun-blessed island, bread actually grew on trees – and required no greater bother before eating than the act of picking and baking it.

“It grows,” wrote an explorer, “on the boughs of the trees like apples; it is as big as a penny-loaf when wheat is at five shillings the bushel; it is of a round shape . . . The natives bake it in an oven, which scorcheth the rind and makes it black, but they scrape off the outside black crust, and there remains a tender thin crust; and the inside is soft, tender and white, like the crumb of a penny-loaf . . .”

Enterprising people soon realised that if the bread-fruit tree was not growing on other islands which were as sunny as Tahiti, it could be made to do so. If, for instance, it could be introduced to the West Indies, the bread could be used as a cheap and easy way to feed the planters’ slaves.

So, in the year 1788, the instructions given by the Admiralty to Captain William Bligh, a veteran of Captain James Cook’s epic voyage around the world, were explicit, if unusual. He was to sail to Tahiti, collect a thousand young bread-fruit trees, and plant them in the West Indies.

From that day the captain was to be known by only one name by the Jack Tars of the Royal Navy. He was, to all and sundry, “Bread-Fruit Bligh”.

Bligh’s ship, as all the world was one day to know after that disastrous voyage, was the Bounty, and she carried a crew of 44. She had to follow the then only possible westerly course to the Pacific – across the Atlantic and around the perilous, storm-lashed Cape Horn at the foot of South America. And like many a ship before her, she failed to make it.

For nine days Bligh kept his little ship headed into the furious wind. In all that time the Bounty was tossed like a cork until her crew was sick and exhausted. At last, Bligh gave up the unequal combat and, turning his ship, decided to cross the South Atlantic and arrive at Tahiti from the west.

A glance at the globe reveals the magnitude of the task. By the end of the next six months – the time it took to reach Tahiti via South Africa and Australia, the Bounty had covered 43,000 kilometres. Small wonder that the lovely island, covered with a warm blue sky and peopled by friendly, brown-skinned natives, seemed like paradise to the sailors, who were heartily sick of the sight of the ocean.

For the next six months the crew picked bread-fruit seeds, planted them in pots and, while waiting for them to grow into small plants, enjoyed themselves as never before in their lives. As the day of departure drew near, they became more and more apprehensive. Much has since been made of Bread-Fruit Bligh’s method of discipline – or lack of it. He was accused of being a hot-tempered man who ruled his crew harshly, but much the same could be said about most of the naval captains of his day. Harsh methods were sometimes necessary to keep discipline on long and often arduous voyages.

Whatever the cause, when the time came to leave, the men did not want to go, and no doubt they were made even more resentful by Bligh’s uncompromising manner.

Most resentful of all was the second-in-command, Fletcher Christian. He, particularly, liked the good life in Tahiti after the hell of the long sea voyage and, he complained, Bligh treated him like a dog.

Somehow, early in April, 1789, the angry Bligh got these moody, recalitrant men back on to the Bounty, together with their hundreds of potted plants. The sails filled in the wind and the good life on the island paradise slipped out of sight beyond the blue horizon.

Superficially the ship seemed to settle down to the humdrum routine of life at sea. But under the surface anger and discontent were seething.

As the first light of dawn filtered through his cabin on 28th April, 1789, Bligh was wakened by a rough hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see his bunk surrounded by Fletcher Christian carrying a cutlass and three other members of the crew armed with muskets and bayonets.

“What is the meaning of this outrage, Mr. Christian?” Bligh roared.

“Tie his hands behind his back and take him on deck,” Christian said, ignoring the question. The most famous sea mutiny in naval history was thus begun.

Bligh was forced to watch as the ship’s launch was hoisted out over the side. The mutineers ordered all those not on their side into this open boat. Then Bligh was obliged to join them.

For provisions they were given 70 kg of bread and a little wine and rum. Roaring with laughter, the mutineers threw, at the last moment, some pieces of pork and four cutlasses into the 23-foot (7m) long launch, which was now crammed with 18 men. Then they cast it adrift, alone on an endless ocean.

There was no doubt in the castaways’ minds where the mutineers were going. The Bounty, predictably, sailed straight back to Tahiti. Later, some of the mutineers sailed to Pitcairn Island, where their descendants still live.

Meanwhile, Bligh and the castaways set about making one of the most extraordinary voyages of all time. In their open boat, desperately short of food, they sailed 3,618 miles (over 5,800 kilometres) with only a quadrant and compass to aid them, and no maps, charts, clock or sextant. Finally, they came to Timor, in modern Indonesia, from where they sailed home on merchant ships. On his return to England, Bligh found himself a hero.

But his adventures and misfortunes were far from over. At first all went well. He sailed back to the South Seas again to collect bread-fruit, this time without provoking a mutiny among his men.

Then, at the battle of Camperdown, he captained a 64-gun ship, the Director, and helped to defeat the Dutch. But that very year he was involved in another mutiny, albeit in a minor role.

This was the mutiny of the fleet at the Nore, to try to improve living conditions for sailors. Bligh showed great bravery in this dangerous situation, but found himself being sent ashore by his men in yet another small boat.

Then it happened again, this time in far-off Australia. The choice of Bligh as captain-general and governor of New South Wales proved to be a bad one. His civilian and military advisers resented his harsh ways and lashing tongue. In January, 1808, his third and last mutiny broke out, when he was forcibly deposed by an army officer and kept in prison for two long and bitter years.

Bligh was finally released and returned to England, where he became an admiral. He died in 1817 – by which time the little bread-fruit tree plants he had taken to the West Indies had matured in to fully-grown trees.

It proved, however, a disastrous experiment. The West Indies settlers did not like bread-fruit at all – a fact which has ensured that Bread-Fruit Bligh’s name is far more famous for his mutinous crew than for his services to horticulture.

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