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This is a story of a man who, when in command of his ships and when everything went prosperously with him, was so overbearing and cruel that some of his men, in desperation at the treatment they received, mutinied against him. But the story shows another side of his character in adversity, which it is impossible not to admire.
In 1787, Captain Bligh was sent from England to Otaheite in charge of the Bounty, a ship which had been especially fitted out to carry young plants of the breadfruit tree for transplantation in the West Indies.
"The breadfruit grows on a spreading tree about the size of a large apple tree; the fruit is round, and has a thick, tough rind. It is gathered when it is full-grown, and while it is still green and hard; it is then baked in an oven until the rind is black and scorched. This is scraped off, and the inside is soft and white, like the crumb of a penny loaf."
The Otaheitans use no other bread but the fruit kind. It is, therefore, little wonder that the West Indian planters were anxious to grow this valuable fruit in their own islands, as, if it flourished there, food would be provided with little trouble for their servants and slaves.
In the passage to Otaheite, Captain Bligh had several disturbances with his men. He had an extremely irritable temper, and would often fly into a passion and make most terrible accusations, and use most terrible language to his officers and sailors.
On one occasion he ordered the crew to eat some decayed pumpkins, instead of their allowance of cheese, which he said they had stolen from the ship's stores.
The pumpkin was to be given to the men at the rate of one pound of pumpkin to two pounds of biscuits.
The men did not like accepting the substitute on these terms. When the captain heard this, he was infuriated, and ordered the first man of each mess to be called by name, at the same time saying to them, "I'll see who will dare refuse the pumpkin or anything else I may order to be served out." Then, after swearing at them in a shocking way, he ended by saying, "I'll make you eat grass, or anything else you can catch, before I have done with you," and threatened to flog the first man who dared to complain again.
While they were at Otaheite, several of the sailors were flogged for small offences, or without reason, and on the other hand, during the seven months they stayed at the island, both officers and men were allowed to spend a great deal of time on shore, and were given the greatest possible liberty.
Therefore, when the breadfruit plants were collected, and they weighed anchor on April 4, in 1787, it is not unlikely they were loath to return to the strict discipline of the ship, and to leave an island so lovely, and where it was possible to live in the greatest luxury without any kind of labor.
From the time they sailed until April 27, Christian, the third officer, had been in constant hot water with Captain Bligh. On the afternoon of that day, when the captain came on deck, he missed some coconuts that had been heaped up between the guns. He said at once that they had been stolen, and that it could not have happened without the officers knowing of it. When they told him they had not seen any of the crew touch them, he cried, "Then you must have taken them yourselves!" After this he questioned them separately; when he came to Christian, the latter answered, "I do not know, sir, but I hope you do not think me so mean as to be guilty of stealing yours."
The captain swore terribly, and said, "You must have stolen them from me, or you would be able to give a better account of them!" He turned to the others with much more abuse, saying, "You scoundrels, you are all thieves alike, and combine with the men to rob me! I suppose you'll steal my yams next, but I'll sweat you for it, you rascals! I'll make half of you jump overboard before you get through Endeavor Straits!"
Then he turned to the clerk, giving the order to "give them but half a pound of yams to-morrow: if they steal them, I'll reduce them to a quarter."
That night, Christian, who was hardly less passionate and resentful than the captain, told two of the midshipmen, Stewart and Hayward, that he intended to leave the ship on a raft, as he could no longer endure the captain's suspicion and insults. He was very angry and excited, and made some preparations for carrying out his plan, though these had to be done with the greatest secrecy and care.
It was his duty to take the morning watch, which is from four to eight o'clock, and this time he thought would be a good opportunity to make his escape. He had only just fallen into a restless slumber when he was called to take his turn.
He got up with his brain still alert with the sense of injury and wrong, and most curiously alive to seize any opportunity which might lead to an escape from so galling a service.
On reaching the deck, he found the mate of the watch had fallen asleep, and that the other midshipman was not to be seen.
Then he made a sudden determination to seize the ship, and rushing down the gangway ladder, whispered his intention to Matthew Quintal and Isaac Martin, seamen, both of whom had been flogged. They readily agreed to join him, and several others of the watch were found to be quite as willing.
Some one went to the armorer for the keys of the arm chest, telling him they wanted to fire at a shark alongside.
Christian then armed those men whom he thought he could trust, and putting a guard at the officers' cabins, went himself with three other men to the captain's cabin.
It was just before sunrise when they dragged him from his bed, and tying his hands behind his back, threatened him with instant death if he should call for help or offer any kind of resistance. He was taken up to the quarter-deck in his nightclothes, and made to stand against the mizzen-mast with four men to guard him.
Christian then gave orders to lower the boat in which he intended to cast them adrift, and one by one the men were allowed to come up the hatchways, and made to go over the side of the ship into it. Meanwhile, no heed was given to the remonstrances, reasoning, and prayers of the captain, saving threats of death unless he was quiet.
Some twine, canvas, sails, a small cask of water, and a quadrant and compass were put into the boat, also some bread and a small quantity of rum and wines. When this was done the officers were brought up one by one and forced over the side. There was a great deal of rough joking at the captain's expense, who was still made to stand by the mizzen-mast, and much bad language was used by everybody.
When all the officers were out of the ship, Christian said, "Come, Captain Bligh, your officers and men are now in the boat, and you must go with them; if you make the least resistance you will be instantly put to death."
He was lowered over the side with his hands still fastened behind his back, and directly after the boat was veered astern with a rope.
Some one with a little pity for them threw in some pieces of pork and some clothes, as well as two or three cutlasses; these were the only arms given.
There were altogether nineteen men in this pitiful strait. Although much of the conduct of the mutineers is easily understood with regard to the captain, the wholesale crime of thrusting so many innocent persons out to the mercy of the winds and waves, or to the death from hunger and thirst which they must have believed would inevitably overtake them, is incomprehensible.
As the Bounty sailed away, leaving them to their fate, those in the boat cast anxious looks to the captain, wondering what should be done. At a time when his mind must have been full of the injury he had received, and the loss of his ship at a moment when his plans were so flourishing and he had every reason to congratulate himself as to the ultimate success of the undertaking, it is much in his favor that he seems to have realized their unfortunate position and to have been determined to make the best of it.
His first care was to see how much food they had. On examining it, they found there was a hundred and fifty pounds of bread, thirty-two pounds of pork, six quarts of rum, six bottles of wine, and twenty-eight gallons of water.
As they were so near Tofoa they determined to put in there for a supply of breadfruit and water, so that they might keep their other provisions. But after rowing along the coast for some time, they only discovered some coconut trees on the top of a stony cliff, against which the sea beat furiously. After several attempts they succeeded in getting about twenty nuts. The second day they failed to get anything at all.
However, some natives came down to the boat and made inquiries about the ship; but the captain unfortunately told the men to say she had been lost, and that only they were saved.
This proved most disastrous; for the treacherous natives, finding they were defenceless, at first brought them presents of breadfruit, plantains and coconuts, rendering them all more hopeful and cheerful by their kindness. But toward night their numbers increased in a most alarming manner, and soon the whole beach was lined with them.
Presently they began knocking stones together, by which the men knew they intended to make an attack upon them. They made haste to get all the things into the boat, and all but one, named John Norton, succeeded in reaching it. The natives rushed upon this poor man and stoned him to death.
Those in the boat put to sea with all haste, but were again terribly alarmed to find themselves followed by natives in canoes from which they renewed the attack.
Many of the sailors were a good deal hurt by stones, and they had no means at all with which to protect themselves. At last they threw some clothes overboard; these tempted the enemy to stop to pick them up, and as soon as night came on they gave up the chase and returned to the shore.
All the men now begged Captain Bligh to take them toward England; but he told them there could be no hope of relief until they reached Timor, a distance of full twelve hundred leagues; and that, if they wished to reach it, they would have to content themselves with one ounce of bread and a quarter of a pint of water a day. They all readily agreed to this allowance of food, and made a most solemn oath not to depart from their promise to be satisfied with the small quantity. This was about May 2.
After the compact was made, the boat was put in order, the men divided into watches, and they bore away under a reefed lug-foresail.
A fiery sun rose on the 3d, which is commonly a sign of rough weather, and filled the almost hopeless derelicts with a new terror.
In an hour or two it blew very hard, and the sea ran so high that their sail was becalmed between the waves; they did not dare to set it when on the top of the sea, for the water rushed in over the stern of the boat, and they were obliged to bale with all their might.
The bread was in bags, and in the greatest danger of being spoiled by the wet. They were obliged to throw some rope and the spare sails overboard, as well as all the clothes but what they wore, to lighten the boat; then the carpenter's tool-chest was cleared and the bread put into it.
They were all very wet and cold, and a teaspoonful of rum was served to each man, with a quarter of a breadfruit which was so bad that it could hardly be eaten; but the captain was determined at all risks to keep to the compact they had entered into, and to make their provisions last eight weeks.
In the afternoon the sea ran even higher, and at night it became very cold; but still they did not dare to leave off baling for an instant, though their legs and arms were numb with fatigue and wet.
In the morning a teaspoonful of rum was served to all, and five small coconuts divided for their dinner, and every one was satisfied.
When the gale had subsided they examined the bread, and found a great deal of it had become mouldy and rotten; but even this was carefully kept and used. The boat was now near some islands, but they were afraid to go on shore, as the natives might attack them; while being in sight of land, where they might replenish their poor stock of provisions and rest themselves, added to their misery. One morning they hooked a fish, and were overjoyed at their good fortune; but in trying to get it into the boat it was lost, and again they had to content themselves with the damaged bread and small allowance of water for their supper.
They were dreadfully cramped for room, and were obliged to manage so that half their number should lie down in the bottom of the boat or upon a chest, while the others sat up and kept watch; their limbs became so stiff from being constantly wet, and from want of space to stretch them in, that after a few hours' sleep they were hardly able to move.
About May 7, they passed what the captain supposed must be the Fiji Islands, and two large canoes put off and followed them for some time, but in the afternoon they gave up the chase. It rained heavily that day, and every one in the boat did his best to catch some water, and they succeeded in increasing their stock to thirty-four gallons, besides having had enough to drink for the first time since they had been cast adrift; but the rain made them very cold and miserable, as they had no dry clothes.
The next morning they had an ounce and a half of pork, a teaspoonful of rum, half a pint of coconut milk and an ounce of bread for breakfast, which was quite a large meal for them.
Through fifteen weary days and nights of ceaseless rain they toiled, sometimes through fierce storms of thunder and lightning, and before terrific seas lashed into foam and fury by swift and sudden squalls, with only their miserable pittance of bread and water to keep body and soul together.
In this rain and storm the little sleep they got only added to their discomfort, save for the brief forgetfulness it brought; for they had to lie down in water in the bottom of the boat, and with no covering but the streaming clouds above them.
The captain then advised them to wring their clothes through sea-water, which they found made them feel much warmer for a time.
On May 17 every one was ill and complaining of great pain, and begging for more food; but the captain refused to increase their allowance, though he gave them all a small quantity of rum.
Until the 24th they flew before the wild seas that swept over stem and stern of their boat and kept them constantly baling.
Some of them now looked more than half dead from starvation, but no one suffered from thirst, as they had absorbed so much water through the skin.
A fine morning dawned on the 25th, when they saw the sun for the first time for fifteen days, and were able to eat their scanty allowance in more comfort and warmth. In the afternoon there were numbers of birds called boobies and noddies near, which are never seen far from land.
The captain took this opportunity to look at the state of their bread, and found if they did not exceed their allowance there was enough to last for twenty-nine days, when they hoped to reach Timor.
That afternoon some noddies came so near the boat that one was caught. These birds are about the size of a small pigeon; it was divided into eighteen parts and given by lot. The men were much amused when they saw the beak and claws fall to the lot of the captain. The bird was eaten, bones and all, with bread and water, for dinner.
Now they were in calmer seas, they were overtaken by a new trouble. The heat of the sun became so great that many of them were overcome by faintness, and lay in the bottom of the boat in an apathetic state all day, only rousing themselves toward evening, when the catching of birds was attempted.
On the morning of the 28th the sound of breakers could be heard plainly; they had reached the Great Barrier Reef, which runs up much of the east coast of Australia.
After some little time a passage nearly a quartar of a mile in width was discovered through the reef, and they were carried by a strong current into the peaceful waters which lie within the Barrier.
For a little time they were so overjoyed that their past troubles were forgotten. The dull blue-gray lines of the mainland, with its white patches of glaring sandhills, could be seen in the distance, and that afternoon they landed on an island.
They found the rocks around it were covered with oysters and huge clams, which could easily be got at low tide. Some of their party sent out to reconnoitre returned greatly pleased at having found plenty of fresh water.
A fire was made by help of a small magnifying-glass. Among the things thrown into the boat from the ship was a small copper pot; and thus with a mixture of oysters, bread, and pork a stew was made, and every one had plenty to eat.
The day after they landed was the 29th of May, the anniversary of the restoration of King Charles II, and as the captain thought it applied to their own renewed health and strength, he named it Restoration Island.
After a few days' rest, which did much to revive the men, and when they had filled all their vessels with water and had gathered a large supply of oysters, they were ready to go on again.
As they were about to start, everybody was ordered to attend prayers, and as they were embarking about twenty naked savages came running and shouting toward them, each carrying a long barbed spear, but the English made all haste to put to sea.
For several days they sailed over the lakelike stillness of the Barrier reef-bound waters, and past the bold desolations of the Queensland coast, every headland and bay there bearing the names Cook gave them only a few years before, and which still tell us by that nomenclature each its own story of disappointment and hope.
Still making way to the north, they passed many more islands and keys, the onward passage growing hot and hotter, until on June 3, when they doubled Cape York, the peninsula which is all but unique in its northward bend, they were again in the open sea.
By this time many of them were ill with malaria; then for the first time some of the wine which they had with them was used.
But the little boat still bravely made its way with its crew, whose faces were so hollow and ghastly that they looked like a crew of spectres, sailing beneath the scorching sun that beat down from the pale blue of the cloudless sky upon a sea hardly less blue in its greater depths. Only the hope that they would soon reach Timor seemed to rouse them from a state of babbling delirium or fitful slumber.
On the 11th the captain told them they had passed the meridian of the east of Timor; and at three o'clock on the next morning they sighted the land.
It was on Sunday, June 14, when they arrived at Company Bay, and were received with every kindness by the people.
Thus ended one of the most remarkable voyages that have ever been made. They had been sent out with provisions only sufficient for their number for five days, and Captain Bligh had, by his careful calculation and determination to give each man only that equal portion they had agreed to accept, made it last for fifty days, during which time they had come three thousand six hundred and eighteen nautical miles.
There had been days when the men were so hunger-driven that they had besought him with pitiful prayers for more to eat, and when it was his painful duty to refuse it; and times, as they passed those islands where plentiful food could be got, when he had to turn a deaf ear to their longings to land. He had to endure the need of food, the cramped position, the uneasy slumber, as did his men; as well as the more perfect knowledge of their dangers. There had been days and nights while he worked out their bearings when he had to be propped up as he took the stars or sun.
It was, therefore, Captain Bligh's good seamanship, his strict discipline and fairness in the method of giving food and wine to those who were sick, that enabled them to land at Timor with the whole of their number alive, with the exception of the one man who was stoned to death by the savages at Tofoa.