The Bounty Adventure 5/6: Loyalists Adrift

BOUNTY MUTINY. Captain William Bligh with 18 loyal men cast adrift by the mutinous crew aboard the HMS "Bounty" led by Fletcher Christian: line engraving, 1812.

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

During the events of the mutiny on the Bounty, three boats were launched: first the jolly boat which was found to be rotten through with worms and would certainly have sunk, then the cutter which also leaked and simply would not hold the large number of loyalists who preferred to go with Bligh, and finally the launch. . .

When Bligh had been forced into the launch together with eighteen loyalists, the freeboard remaining was less than the length of a man’s hand. The boat was designed for a maximum of fifteen men and for short distances, not for nineteen men with belongings and supplies and destined to sail close to four thousand miles.

Eighteen men had joined Bligh in the Bounty’s launch, most of them not from any personal loyalty but from their loyalty to the Crown and the wish to have a chance to return to England. On board the Bounty remained the seven loyalists who had not found room in the overcrowded launch, and Christian with seventeen mutineers (eleven of whom had played an active role in the mutiny).

What was the mood in the launch? With keen psychological insight, Rolf Du Rietz has described what it must have been (Du Rietz, 1965):

When the Bounty had disappeared below the horizon, Mr. Bligh, in the launch, found himself watched by eighteen pairs of eyes, all of which presumably being almost as expressive as words would have been. And the look of the eyes expressed to him something like this: “You damned idiot, you went too far! And now we all have to suffer for it! Count yourself lucky that we are not throwing you overboard!”

This may have been one of the few times in Bligh’s life when his inability to understand his impact on other people was a blessing for him rather than a curse.

The launch had very little in terms of provisions or water on board. This was not because Christian wished that the men would perish. It is clear from the accounts that the general assumption on board the Bounty–-as well as in the launch–-was that Bligh would sail to the nearby Tongan islands, specifically Tongatabu, and there wait for an English ship. If that had not been the case, the mutineers would not have shouted sarcastically: “You will not need any arms where you are going; you will be among friends” when Bligh asked for muskets. (The sarcasm was in reference to Bligh’s order that the shore parties on Nomuka not use their arms when dealing with the “Friendly Islanders.”) Nor would the mutineers have objected to Purcell, the carpenter, taking his tools along, and have feared he would build a ship with them, if they had thought the launch would head for Timor. The fact is that the launch had full provisions for only five days, but that was more than enough to reach Tongatabu.

As to navigational equipment, Christian had given Bligh his personal sextant, and there was a compass, a quadrant, and tables used for determining latitude and longitude, in addition to a time-keeper, on board. Without detracting from Bligh’s extraordinary achievement on the open-boat voyage that lay ahead, it should be mentioned that Fryer could probably have performed the same feat, and probably some of the other men on board also.

Bligh set course for the island of Tofua, thirty miles distant, an active volcano, as it is to this day. He hoped to obtain provisions there since what he had on board the ship’s launch was totally inadequate for nineteen men on a long voyage. He finally found a cave in the steep cliffs that marked the shore and sent out provisioning parties. (This cave was “rediscovered” and identified by Bengt Danielsson in 1985).

The stores obtained were meager and the natives who gathered in increasing numbers grew more hostile by the hour, partly because Bligh had made the incredible blunder of telling them that he had been shipwrecked. The natives could see that the men were practically defenseless, having only four cutlasses between them.

They attacked on May 2, 1789, and the men barely made it to the boat. The natives tried to haul it to the shore. At this point, with magnificent bravery, quartermaster John Norton jumped out of the boat and ran up the beach to unfasten the line. He was killed in the attempt, while the rest of the boat’s complement escaped miraculously – by throwing out pieces of clothing which the natives in the faster pursuing canoes stopped to pick up.

And then followed the most famous open-boat voyage in maritime history: 3,618 nautical miles by Bligh’s makeshift log from Tofua to Timor in a 23-foot launch with no more freeboard than the length of a man’s hand, without charts, with meager provisions, and with the constant threat of imminent death.

For much of the voyage the weather was cold and stormy with copious rain and with high seas breaking over the stern, making it necessary for the men to constantly bail for their lives. The slightest inattention by the helmsman would have meant immediate disaster for them all. In the end, however, the rain weather may have saved them, because they clearly did not have enough water on board at the outset to last through the voyage, even when minutely rationed.

On this voyage, the men in the launch became the first Europeans to ever sail through the Fiji islands. Bligh marked all the islands they passed, trying to chart them and give their positions as best he could; so well did he succeed that his chart of “Bligh Islands,” as he called them, could be used for navigation today.

Bligh had heard from some Tongans that the Fijians were cannibals, so he did not dare to land on any of the lush, inviting islands. On one occasion, however, the launch was pursued by Fijians in fast sailing canoes and almost overtaken. A. B. Brewster in The Hill Tribes of Fiji (1922), has described what it must have been like:

From her bosom (the Pacific) rises the chain of the Yasawa Islands, whose jagged and fantastic forms are silhouetted against the northern sky, and beyond, looming on the far horizon, is Vanua Levu or the Geat Land, the second in size of the group. A broad passage separates the Yasawas from Vanua Levu, marked on the southern side by Alewa Kalou, the Round Island of the Admiralty charts, through which the main ocean is reached. Captain Bligh, in his famous boat voyage in 1789, after the mutiny of the Bounty, escaped by it into the open sea, when he was chased by canoes from Waia, one of the Yasawa Islands. On its high volcanic peaks were always sentinels watching for canoes or other craft in distress. Such were lawful prey, “those with salt water in their eyes,” being doomed by the ancient law to the bamboo knives, the heated stone ovens and the cannibal maw. With what pangs must those weary, sea-worn refugees from the Bounty have looked upon the cooling brooks falling in cascades over the volcanic cliffs, and the glossy, green groves of breadfruit, coco-nuts and bananas of the fair and fertile isles by which they passed. We can see by Bligh’s charts how close they were to some of them, yet from the savage nature of the inhabitants they dared not land. Often and often, as I took my evening walk to the edge of the precipitous cliffs to watch the setting sun as it dipped away beyond the Yasawas, have I thought of that brave voyage of nearly 4,000 miles in the Bounty’s boats.

Death by starvation was a constant threat, the ration, served twice daily, being only one twenty-fifth of a pound of bread and a gill (quarter pint) of water with occasional additions of half an ounce of port and a teaspoonful of rum. Although a fish line was always out, no fish was ever caught. Towards the end of the month, the launch reached the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. When the men, more dead than alive, finally staggered ashore on a sandy islet which Bligh called Restoration Island, many of them could neither stand nor walk. And they still had 1,300 miles to sail in order to reach Timor. . . .

To Be Continued. Courtesy of Pacific Union College.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply