This Q&A first appeared in the April 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine
There are a lot of things wrong with the popular view of Captain Bligh. To begin with, Captain Bligh wasn’t even a captain during the famous 1789 Bounty voyage but only a commanding lieutenant. There was also no such ship as HMS Bounty as the Bounty was an armed auxiliary vessel and thus should be referred to as HMAV Bounty (His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty).
Nor did Bligh have a bad reputation among the men. The mutinous Fletcher Christian had sailed with him twice before without reporting any problems and had been promoted to sailing master during the Bounty voyage with the rank of acting lieutenant, so had every reason to thank Bligh, who was also lenient.
When three men went AWOL in Tahiti (and who can blame them) they were recaptured, but Bligh ordered them flogged instead of the usual penalty of hanging. Analysis of the ship’s logs shows that flogging onboard Bounty was well below the average Royal Navy level. When the crew did mutiny it’s also worth noting that only a quarter of them opposed their captain.
Having said that, Bligh did find himself mixed up in two further mutinies, firstly the Nore Mutiny in 1797, when he was expelled from his ship, and then when governor of New South Wales during the Rum Punch Rebellion – during which Bligh was arrested and imprisoned for a year.
When he finally got back to Britain he was promoted first to rear admiral and then vice admiral, which only goes to show that no one back home really blamed him for his rotten run of mutinous luck.
Answered by: Justin Pollard. His latest book is Secret Britain: the Hidden Bits of Our History (John Murray, 2009). He is a question writer for the panel show QI on BBC One.