A Narrative of the Mutiny, on Board His Majesty’s Ship Bounty; and the Subsequent Voyage of Part of the Crew, in the Ship's Boat, from Tofua, One of the Friendly Islands, to Timor, a Dutch Settlemen
First edition. William Bligh (1754-1817), descended from an army and navy family at Tinten in Cornwall and an ‘able seaman’ even at the young age of 8, ‘gained his lieutenant’s passing certificate on 1 May 1776. Bligh must have shown distinct ability in these postings, for in March 1776, preparing for his third voyage of exploration to the Pacific Ocean, Captain James Cook chose the still quite junior officer as master of the Resolution. For three years Bligh oversaw the working of the ship, and assisted in the navigation and charting of this immense voyage (1776-80), which explored the islands and coastlines of the northern Pacific Ocean, and which saw Cook killed at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, in February 1779’ (ODNB).
After a promotion to lieutenant, service on several line-of-battle ships in the North Sea and the Mediterranean, and trading voyages to the West Indies, ‘[i]n mid-1787, as a consequence of Sir Joseph Banks’s patronage [who would in 1805 procure a governorship of the New South Wales colony for him], Bligh received the command of the Bounty, then being fitted to transport breadfruit and other plants from the islands of the central Pacific Ocean and from south-east Asia to the West Indies. This proposed plant transfer was part of an elaborate scheme to increase British trade with Asia: the mechanization of the spinning and weaving industry then beginning was creating the capacity for greatly expanded production; cotton goods might be manufactured in England, and exported to India and, especially, China; the growth of this trade would both give East India Company ships outward cargoes, and lessen the need for the British to find silver with which to purchase Chinese goods; for greater production of cotton goods, more raw supplies were needed; if plantation owners might feed slaves more cheaply, then large-scale cotton cultivation might become feasible in the West Indies; the breadfruit and other fruits and vegetables which grew in great abundance in the eastern tropics might become cheap staples for the slaves’ (loc. cit.).
The Bounty set off in December of 1787, reached Tahiti in October of the following year, loaded 1,000 young breadfruit plants and set sail again when the famous mutiny took place. Bligh was set adrift by the mutineers in the ship’s 23-foot-long launch, and undertook one of the most remarkable open-boat voyages, which also produced important cartographical and survey data: ‘[e]veryone knows that the Bounty’s crew, led by Fletcher Christian, mutinied and set Bligh and eighteen loyal crewmen adrift in a 23-foot launch shortly after the ship had left Tahiti in April 1789. In their small boat Bligh and his companions made a remarkable journey of more than three and a half thousand miles from Tofoa to Timor in six weeks over largely uncharted waters. What is not so well known is that in the course of this hazardous journey Bligh took the opportunity to chart and name parts of the unknown north-east coast of New Holland as he passed along it – an extraordinary feat of seamanship’ (Wantrup, p. 128).
A Narrative of the Mutiny is Bligh’s own account of the mutiny on the Bounty, written and published within months of his return to England. Bligh was anxious to ensure that his version of events was widely publicised and the Narrative ‘gives Bligh’s first, and lasting, opinion of what caused the mutiny. This issue was of great importance to Bligh, for on it turned his career and public image. As he was manifestly not the harsh disciplinarian flogger of the kind usually regarded as the main cause of a mutiny (such as Captain [Hugh] Pigot of HMS Hermione), and as Bligh never accepted that his personal manner – as a foul-mouthed nagger – could provoke anybody to mutiny, he was left with little option but to find an explanation in the character and conduct of the mutineers. He found such an explanation in the charms of Tahitian women: he, Bligh, did not cause the men to mutiny; they mutinied for their own evil and pathetic ends’ (Gavin Kennedy, Captain Bligh: The Man and his Mutinies (London, 1989), p. 183).
In the Narrative, Bligh explains it thus: ‘[t]he women at Otaheite are handsome, mild and chearful in their manners and conversation, possessed of great sensibility, and have sufficient delicacy to make them admired and beloved. The chiefs were so much attached to our people, that they rather encouraged their stay among them than otherwise, and even made them promises of large possessions. Under these, and many other attendant circumstances, equally desirable, it is now perhaps not so much to be wondered at, though scarcely possible to have been foreseen, that a set of sailors most of them void of connections, should be led away; especially when, in addition to such powerful inducements, they imagined it in their power to fix themselves in the midst of plenty, on the finest island in the world, where they need not labour and where the allurements of dissipation are beyond anything that can be conceived’ (pp. 9-10).