Mutiny And The Ordeal Of Captain Bligh

Fortune both grants favor and revokes it. Plutarch, wise in the ways of such things, puts this prescient little speech into the mouth of Aemilius Paullus, who was addressing a group of intemperate young men:

Is it fitting for a mortal man to become bold when he enjoys success, or proud because he has conquered a nation or a city or a kingdom?  Or should he instead contemplate this reversal of fortune, which provides for any man who wages war an instructive example of our common vulnerability and teaches us that nothing is stable and secure? What sort of moment is it for mortals to be confident, when their victory over other men obliges them to be most afraid of fortune, and when a happy man can be reduced to dejection by his knowledge that destiny follows a circular course, coming to different men at different times?…Can you then believe that our own affairs enjoy any lasting protection from the vicissitudes of fortune? Young men, will you not then abandon your hollow insolence and let go of your pride…and instead look towards the future with humility, always watchful of the moment when the divine will at last exacts from each of you retribution for your present prosperity?[1]

Falls from Fortune’s grace can come with distressing speed. Captain William Bligh, a respected officer of the British Navy and merchant service, discovered for himself just how cruel such reversals can be. Awarded the captaincy of H.M.S. Bounty in 1787, he and his crew sailed for Tahiti on a mission to collect breadfruit trees for agricultural use in the Caribbean. After ten months at sea on a voyage that exceeded 27,000 miles, the Bounty finally reached the South Seas. Much has been written on the character of Bligh and his style of command; while not the tyrannical monster he has been made out to be, he certainly was a product of the British maritime service’s severe disciplinary culture.


William Bligh:  a complex and controversial figure

A competent and meticulous mariner, he nevertheless lacked a measure of joviality that might have softened his harsher edges. Deaf to the music of mildness, his coldness and detachment prevented him from extending to his crew those incidental touches of magnanimity that might have done much to relieve the tedium of a long sea voyage. Tensions multiplied, and Bligh’s appointment with the laughing mistress Fortune was not long in coming. He later related how he was seized by the mutineers:

Just before sun-rising, while I was yet asleep, Mr. [Fletcher] Christian…came into my cabin, and seizing me, tied my hands with a cord behind my back, threatening me with instant death if I spoke…I was hauled out of bed, and forced on deck in my shirt, suffering great pain from the tightness with which they had tied my hands.[2]

For Bligh and the crew members loyal to him, things were about to become much worse. He and eighteen other men were cast adrift in a leaky open boat only twenty-three feet in length, and which was so overloaded that it was in constant danger of being swamped. One errant wave of sufficient size might have spelled the end for them. For provisions, they were permitted only the barest of essentials: some salt pork, bread, wine, rum, water, and a few cutlasses.

Most significantly, they were given no charts or navigational equipment; the mutineers permitted them only a compass and an old quadrant. In the enormity of the Pacific Ocean, to try to navigate by such primitive reckonings was a colossal handicap, something within the capabilities of only the most talented navigator. But Bligh, who had served under Captain Cook, one of Britain’s ablest explorers, was up to the task.


The plan was to head for the closest known friendly location: the island of Timor, which was a daunting 3,600 miles distant. Bligh’s crew, exposed to the torments of wave, sun, and starvation, had hardly one chance in a hundred. Trying to locate an island three thousand miles away by dead reckoning on the open sea was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. To this difficulty was added the fact that the men could not make landfall for rest or provisions during the journey; the islands were populated by fierce cannibals, hostile to all outsiders, even other Polynesians. One of Bligh’s crew was killed by natives as they tried to land on the island of Tofua.


It is unlikely that Bligh, even had he possessed the philosophic temperament to reflect on the rapidity of his fall from power, would have had much opportunity to brood over the desperation of his situation. The day-to-day struggle for survival supplanted all other considerations. It is ironic—how strange and variable is Fate!—that the personal qualities that so disadvantaged him as captain of the Bounty now proved to be invaluable in preserving his and his men’s lives. Survival in the boat now called for parsimony, iron discipline, seamanship, and the ability to block out the true desperation of the situation; these were qualities that Bligh possessed in abundance. So men’s faults in one setting may be virtues in another.

He instituted a strict rationing policy from which he never deviated; he occupied his men’s minds so as to prevent despair from taking hold of them; and he developed a creative method of ensuring fairness in the allotment of rations. In his published account of the ordeal, Bligh emerges as something of a mother hen to his men, apportioning out teaspoons of rum, bread, and raw bird flesh with soothing regularity. Under his tutelage, his men remained British seamen, rather than a starving collection of skeletons. Baked by the unrelenting sun, buffeted by waves and storms, and denied food and water, they maintained their cohesion and discipline in the face of the most miserable conditions imaginable.

“The sea flew over us with great force, and kept us bailing with horror and anxiety,” he later wrote. Incredibly, Bligh even managed to record topographic data along the way regarding the islands, currents, depths, and wind conditions he encountered en route. And he lost not one single man. It was a feat of incredible resourcefulness and willpower, never equaled in the turbulent annals of maritime history. He and his men reached Timor, in a state of near collapse. Bligh comments on the event in his usual deadpan manner:

Thus, through the assistance of Divine Providence, we surmounted the difficulties and distresses of a most perilous voyage, and arrived safe in a hospitable port, where every necessary and comfort were administered to us with a most liberal hand.[3]

One day, we may be a captain, controlling our destiny. The next day, we may find ourselves adrift on the open sea with scarcely a prayer. Plutarch reminds us of this truth:

Perhaps…there exists a divinity whose role it is to diminish our prosperity, whenever it  becomes exceedingly great, and add complexity to a mortal’s life, so that it is not unmixed with evils or left altogether free from misfortune, so that instead, as Homer says, they seem to fare best whose fortunes tip the scales now in one direction, now in the other.[4]

I have come to accept the truth of this view. It is well for us to remain suspicious of Fortune and her wily ways. She never really bestows her blessings on us without some condition of future repayment in kind. The wise and prudent man will accept the blessings of life without undue exuberance or frivolity; for he remains keenly aware that what is certain today may dissolve into the swirling fog of memory tomorrow. He will, like Bligh, learn to bear these calamities with a grim determination that never permits the indulgence of self-pity. All that remain for us are the virtues that contribute to our endurance of these cruel vagaries.

[1] Scott-Kilvert, Ian et al., The Rise of Rome: Twelve Lives by Plutarch, London:  The Penguin Group (2013), p. 571.

[2] Bligh, William, The Mutiny On Board H.M.S. Bounty, New York:  Airmont Publishing Co. (1965), p. 117.

[3] Id., p. 172.

[4] Scott-Kilvert, supra, p. 578.

Read More: Every Man Has A Breaking Point

36 thoughts on “Mutiny And The Ordeal Of Captain Bligh”

      1. There were four other films about this amazing tale as well, and while I quite admired Brando’s inspired performance in the 1962 version, the one you’ve pointed out is apparently the most true-to-life. Bligh gets painted as a monster in the others, when it seems he was less harsh than many of his contemporaries, and the mutiny may have had more to do with the comforts the crew become accustomed to while in Tahiti than their captain’s alleged cruelty.
        In any case his subsequent voyage with the loyalists was universally acclaimed and makes another excellent topic for an article here. How inspiring is the strength and tenacity of these men! We seem so pathetic these days in comparison.

        1. Agreed. Adding to the pathos of the situation was that Bligh and Fletcher Christian knew each other’s families in civilian life and were on good terms.
          It may have just been bad luck on Bligh’s part, in that just the right mix of dissatisfaction, irritation, and desire to be with native women in Tahiti set them all aflame.
          On the other hand, it is clear that Bligh had a problem with tact and diplomacy. Many years later, after the mutiny, he was the focus of another mutiny in Australia (called the Rum Revolt, I believe).

        2. The movie makers built a larger than life replica of the Bounty to use in making that movie. I had to be larger than life to fit cameras and tall men. That ship sailed the world for years after it was used for the film and was lost at sea a few years ago in a hurricane. Just a bit of trivia.

    1. All but one died in a property dispute on Pitcarne Island. Their children lived, though, and their descendants make up the island’s population today.

  1. Much of this is true. Every time I felt like I had it made, things would happen that have me literally curled up in a corner wondering what the fuck happened.
    That whole thing, thinking you got it in the bag, and then being smacked down rapidly by fate, it must be built in. Or perhaps complacency, hubris, and pride have such a reaction built in.
    I stopped falling into this trap and things improved greatly. In a way, it’s like game in an LTR: You NEVER Let it down. There’s no train arriving at the station and everybody going “Hooraaay!” or crossing the finish line and living “happily ever after”.
    That stuff’s for fairy tales.

    1. As if fate is a struggle that never ends. It presents a constant opportunity to rise above the odds and become a hero. It certainly makes for atrophy and a boring story if people got the cat in the bag.
      Once you stop struggling you stop living. Once you stop struggling you start weakening. You keep on chugging until your body lays in a grave rotting or you are sent up in smoke to the heavens as your body is burned.

        1. Fun fact: liquor was prohibited in the American Navy by secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels in 1914. Formerly, alcohol was part of a sailors pay, a tradition that lives on in the British Royal Navy. Old Josephus promised to make up for the loss by providing as coffee. Bitter sailors named their new beverage “Cup of Joe” in his honor.

        2. One might note here that Winston Churchill pointed out that the British Empire was founded on rum, sodomy, and the lash.

    1. It was a leadership fail on the part of the entire Royal Navy.
      Bligh went from hero to zero afterwards when the whole Royal Navy mutinied at one time over the entire world … a miracle of labor organization. The brass had zero warning of this. They couldn’t execute every last seaman, so the Royal Navy instituted reforms instead, and stopped treating seamen like disposable slaves.

  2. My personality is similar … I have a successful career at a young age but I’m totally tone deaf to the needs of others and I’m not good at office politics. I envy the ability of men who have the personality charisma to engage and placate the masses.
    In this day and age a man must become Patrick Bateman to thrive in the corporate world … You need the dominance of a man coupled with the social niceties and political correctness of a woman.
    Merit matters, but you can’t depend on it alone. Oh and being a rebel … Don’t.

    1. You need the dominance of a man coupled with the social niceties and political correctness of a woman.

      What you need is political savvy, negotiating skills and a healthy dose of discretion, to fight the right battles in the right way.

  3. Can’t believe I hadn’t heard this story before. Great stuff, and too true.
    This is why it’s important to maintain the integrity of your character and accumulate wisdom, because it’s the only defense you have against fortune, and no defense is perfect.

    1. I think having wisdom matters, character not so much. The masses, as Le Bon pointed out, are feminine and respect status and physicality over character. Virtue is its own reward, but do not expect it to grant you favors in the material universe.
      Reluctantly, I’ve accepted that people don’t give a shit about how virtuous or honest you are … It’s how you make them FEEL (like women). Make them laugh or feel better about themselves and people will go to war for you, even if you are caught lying and cheating.
      One of my co-workers skips days of work. Yes I said SKIPS. How does he get away with it? My boss loves him.

      1. Hmmm, I think you misunderstood what I said somewhat. Having character doesn’t necessarily mean that you are virtuous or honest, or the like, it’s the mask you choose to wear.
        Louis XIV for instance, talked about how you mustn’t undermine the character you bear. The mask he chose to wear of course was of the sun king, around whom everything orbited, and so he maintained this frame even as he was dying.
        Wearing a mask and then manipulating that for show, as you say, influences the emotions of those around you and thus gives you control over them. Your task is to not undermine this manufactured image.
        …Or it could potentially work against you, as in this case, so you would need the wisdom and foresight to adjust.

        1. I think ‘character’ would be the wrong word then; I would argue ‘persona’ is a better fit for what you describe.
          To be successful one must wear a mask. But I don’t respect men who only wear masks … Real men see through that veneer and can assess one another on honest terms.
          I know many men who, when faced with the slightest adversity lose it completely. Character is that which cannot be subtracted or multiplied by other people or external conditions.

  4. One of my favourite stories in this vein, is that of Croesus. He
    thought himself the happiest of men, and was initially offended when the
    Athenian sage, Solon, refused to consider him such until he had died
    well. Solon reasoned that you should call no man blessed until he has died well, since earthly happiness is always in peril. Croesus dismissed him as
    a fool, and, thinking himself blessed, went to great expense to try to
    “trick” the gods into advising him about going to war with the Persians.
    After sending treasure and gifts to all the nearby oracles until he
    found those that could answer a question to which only he knew the
    answer, he made huge gifts to the oracles that had answered correctly,
    further asking them whether he should go to war with the Persians. All the oracles
    replied that he should ally himself with the strongest of the Greek
    armies, for he would surely succeed in destroying a vast empire if he
    made his move.
    Little did he suspect that that the “vast empire”
    would be his own. After Cyrus won the war and captured Croesus, he tied
    him to a stake and was going to burn him alive. Croesus began bitterly
    crying aloud that Solon was right, and Cyrus, curious what he
    was blubbering about, sent his interpreters to ask. Having heard
    Croesus’ tale, they came back and told Cyrus while the pyre was being
    lit. The tale caused Cyrus to reflect that he was also a mortal
    man and, though now seemingly happy and victorious, could perhaps one
    day find himself in Croesus’ position. He therefore gave orders to remove Croesus
    from the pyre, but it was too late and the fire was past the point
    where they could put it out or easily get to Croesus. But Croesus
    guessed at what Cyrus’ intentions were, and seeing that Cyrus’ men could
    not free him, he burst into tears and called upon Apollo (who was the
    god of the oracles he had consulted), beseeching him that if ever he had
    presented a pleasing gift to Apollo, the god might come and save him
    somehow. Then the story has a beautiful line, even more beautiful in
    the Greek, so I’ll include both here:
    ἐκ δὲ αἰθρίης τε καὶ
    νημεμίης συνδραμεῖν ἐξαπίνης νέφεα καὶ χειμῶνά τε καταρραγῆναι καὶ ὗσαι
    ὗδατι λαβροτάτῳ, κατασβεσθῆναί τε τὴν πυρήν.
    “From the clear sky
    and still air, suddenly clouds and stormy gales came together and burst
    out with violent gushing; it began to rain in so furious a downpour, as
    to quench the very pyre.”
    For those familiar with the cultural
    context, the passage puts a smile on one’s face. In the first place, I
    once did a comparison of many of the Pagan vs. Biblical heroes, and
    found that the central virtue is the same, though the emphasis is
    different: for the Pagans, the undoing of the hero is hubris; for the
    Israelites, humility is itself the path to divine exaltation. The
    martial heroes of Christian culture, after Biblical times, manage to
    blend both in a wonderful way, Sir Gawain being the example par excellence (in
    his exploits with the Green Knight), in my humble opinion.
    Beyond this, a man was supposed to die
    well and valorously, in both cultures. The examples that Solon gives to
    Croesus of men who are truly blessed, are men who died in feats of
    bravery or virtue. To die a slave, on a pyre, was wretched. More
    wretched still was to die in incontinence. The pagans and Christians
    saw the release of fluids from the body as related in all cases to
    weakness: blood leaving the body threatened death; urine and feces
    signalled the corruption of our mortal state in filth and death which
    necessitated eating and digesting; semen signified the softness of
    pleasures and the need to keep the race from dying out; tears were
    womanly. The ideal was continence, still around in our expressions like “keep it together.” Often pagan and Christian tales, such as we see here, or in
    the description of St. Nearchos’ sorrow at being separated from his
    bosom friend, St. Polyeuktos, use the image of gushing waters and
    violent eruptions to bring out this sense of incontinence, losing
    control and being weakened.
    To see Croesus weeping on a pyre,
    then, was to see Croesus as humiliated as a man could possibly be. His
    hubris was well and entirely paid for; and so even the heavens, and
    Apollo, moved by his humiliation, seem to weep and lose their
    self-control. So it is that these lines underscore the whole meaning of
    Croesus’ life and of the moral of his story: Croesus’ problem was that
    he had not learned to maintain that detachment from goods and success,
    which can keep a man clear-headed and still even when he is enjoying
    these things; this hubris brought the vengeance of the gods upon him.
    But in a supreme reversal, when Croesus’ incontinence brings him back to
    reality and cleanses the hubris from him, even the heavens – whose
    property is to be clear and still – are moved and become “incontinent”
    in forgiveness. It is a Pagan tale, but a Christian would find deep
    meaning in it, too.
    Indeed, that attitude of being able to
    continently enjoy good things, being detached enough to go without them,
    even sometimes choosing to go without them in order to remain
    well-practiced in doing without, has become important to me since I read
    St. Augustine’s thoughts on the topic:
    “Thus have perfect souls
    used necessary earthly goods through this habit of continence – so
    that, by continence, they are not bound by earthly goods, and so that,
    by the same continence, they may have the power not to use earthly goods
    when there is no need for them, or when there is need not to have
    them. Nor doth any man use earthly goods well, save who hath
    power also not to use them. Indeed, many can more easily abstain
    entirely from using them, than can practice temperance in using them the
    right way! But still, no one can use earthly goods in the right way,
    save for that man who can also continently not
    use them. From this habit Paul also said, “I know both to abound, and to
    suffer want.” Indeed, to suffer want is something that can befall any
    man; but to know *how* to
    suffer want is the part of great men. So, also, who is not able to enjoy
    But to know how to enjoy abundance wisely, is not the property of men in
    general, but only of those, whom abundance
    corrupts not.” – St. Augustine, “On the Good of Marriage,” chapter 25

      1. Thanks my friend; you give us plenty to work with, so it’s fairly easy to have a thoughtful reply to a substantive article.
        I think you meant it as a compliment, that I should be sent to my almost certain death in a raft with Captain Bligh. Thanks! I think you should come with us, too, and then we can all learn how to suffer want together, like great men would.

  5. If you are a man no one will ever help you or give a damn about you. You are born screaming into a cold world that revolves around women. You are just a drone to be used and thrown away. The quicker a man learns this the better it is for him

  6. Saddest part is that even though the amazing feats of this man will go down in history. His progeny would become left wing Marxists with short hair: search Anna Bligh. Run such a dysfunctional government that nearly no one from the party is left reflected. That’s what having a good name attached to you can do and that’s how you destroy it.

  7. “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat these two impostors just the same”
    You know that this current spat of feminism is a fraud because they have no examples of wisdom a la Paullus or Plutarch. Their “canon” is fantasy; we’re to believe that no women is capable of failure or any flaw…nothing bad is ever allowed to happen. Yet, history, as we all know, is a man’s story, or more appropriately, his struggle. In many ways feminist’s reluctance to disregard such truth is just pathetic, not to mention, plain old stupid since learning from mistakes many times produced by nothing more than mere fate is when we learn and grow the most.

  8. I would call it dangerous to chalk up Bligh’s experience to fortune. After he got mutinied, he again lost control of his men on assignment in the american colonies. He just wasn’t much of a leader. This is also a good example of the Peter Principle; being good at a thing doesn’t make you fit for the role of leader. Bligh was obviously an exceptional navigator and would probably have had a stellar career had he stuck to that role. ….instead he will forever be remembered in tandem with the word “mutiny”.

  9. Ask not for ease. But for the ,potential,capability and opportunity to grow. Indeed for not the dearth of obstacles but rather the capability to overcome them

  10. It actually wasn’t the only mutiny Bligh faced in his life, not even the most important. He was later made Governor of New South Wales and was overthrown by a sort of coup by the local officers. If nothing else he was a bit accident prone.

  11. Hi Quintus, ego sum felicis to have read such an article. I rarely comment on articles, exceptions making the ones that trely stand out for something worth notable. The only weapon we are to bare against an upcoming missfortune is our wisdom, wisdom to have paciente, to closely review the problem, to attack it’s every single known and unknown variable in any way and to pray and ask Providence be on our side.
    This kind of article truely sticks on the minds of those who have had miss-fortunes and have encountered situations in which their control was questioned.
    Inspiring work and like the bibliography, obivously you’ve done some homework.

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