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The Voyage of Bounty's Launch

Photograph of a model of Bounty's launch

The entirely 1/24 scale, scratch-built model of Bounty's launch shown here was crafted by James M. Norton, Professor, Department of Physiology, New England University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Photos are used by his permission. Each crew member's pose represents an activity recorded in Bligh's journal of the launch's voyage. The model is dedicated to the memory of Michael Norton, Professor Norton’s father.

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 (see sidebar below) 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.

Photograph of the model of the Bounty facing left

Scratch-built model of Bounty's launch was crafted by Prof. James Norton, Department of Physiology, New England University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Photos are used by his permission.

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.

Photograph of the Bounty model, sitting sideways completely parallel to the camera

Scratch-built model of Bounty's launch was crafted by Prof. James Norton, Department of Physiology, New England University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Photos are used by his permission.

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. . . .

Bligh and his seventeen loyalists were safely inside Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Reading Bligh’s account of the open-boat voyage from Tofua to Timor, one gets the impression that there had been little dissension on board, even though the men had undergone incredible hardships. But Bligh was always careful to omit any references to incidents where he may not have appeared in the best possible light.

According to John Fryer, the sailing master, Bligh “was as Tryannical in his temper in the Boat as in the Ship, and . . . his chief thought was his own comfort . . .” Be that as it may, now when the immediate perils of the voyage were over (at least for the time being), trouble broke out. In fact, Bligh was faced with another mutiny!

On an islet which Bligh had named Sunday Island, Purcell, the carpenter, had been gathering clams under the impression that it was “every man for himself.” When he returned to camp with his catch, Bligh proclaimed that all victuals were to be considered common property and demanded that Purcell hand over his clams. The latter refused, whereupon Bligh called him a scoundrel, adding: “If I had not brought you here, you would all have perished.” Purcell replied: “Yes, sir, if it had not been for you, we should not have been here.” At this, Bligh again called him a scoundrel. Purcell: “I am not a scoundrel, sir, I am as good a man as you.”

This enraged Bligh who considered the statement mutinous. He grabbed a cutlass and told Purcell to take another and defend himself. At this point Fryer, the sailing master, gave an order to the boatswain: “Mr. Cole, please arrest both these men!”

The situation was critical for Bligh; he could have lost his command right then and there. Eventually, however, both Fryer and Purcell backed off when they saw that the captain was determined to preserve his authority or die in the attempt. If they had not given up, Bligh would have been in a weak position; there was a strong anti-Bligh faction among the loyalists consisting not only of Fryer and Purcell, but including quartermaster Linkletter and able seamen Hall, Lamb, and Tinkler as well. In fact, Bligh was so unpopular that the could not have counted on support from any of the loyalists, except possibly for botanist Nelson and sailmaker Lebogue, and they were in the weakest condition of them all.

Again, Fryer’s recollection of the affair was quite different. In the words of his daughter, Mary Ann:

. . . the fact is Purcel [sic] had in some way offended Bligh and he as usual gave way to his ungovernable passions, and drew his Cutless swearing at the same time he would kill him. My father wrested the weapon from him to prevent blood-shed and for this he was for ever after both hated and feared by Bligh.

Fryer told Bligh after this incident: “There are other methods in making people do as they are ordered, without fighting them, Sir. And you may rest assured that I will support you in that as far as lays in my power.” Bligh’s answer has not been recorded, but it can well be imagined.

After another two weeks of extreme suffering Bligh and his crew finally reached Coupang, a Dutch settlement on Timor, on Sunday, June 14. It is characteristic of Bligh’s pedantry and compulsive insistence on protocol that, even though several of his men were dangerously close to dying, he insisted on hoisting a distress flag and waiting for permission to land. And when the boat finally docked, Bligh’s petty vindictiveness again showed itself: he commanded Fryer to stay in the boat to “guard it,” as if there had been anything to guard! . . .

Bligh and his seventeen loyalists spent the month of July 1789 regaining their strength in the Dutch settlement of Coupang on Timor. And now when the perils and privations of the journey in the open boat were over, the same troubles surfaced as earlier on Tahiti and also on the islands within the Great Barrier Reef. Discipline disintegrated to the extent that Bligh again found it necessary to issue written orders, as he had during the last months on Tahiti.

According to Alexander McKee in H.M.S. Bounty (1962):

Purcell, the carpenter, told Bligh to his face that, during the boat voyage, he had seen him frequently drop a piece of bread, while serving out the rations, and afterwards, when he thought no one was looking, pick it up and pop it into his mouth. Linkletter, one of the quartermasters, backed Purcell up: he, too, had seen Bligh conjuring an extra piece for himself. Bligh retaliated in the customary Service way: within twenty-four hours he had “picked on” Purcell and Linkletter, and had them imprisoned on board Captain Spikerman’s ship.

(Captain Spikerman was the first officer to greet and help Bligh and his crew on their arrival at Coupang.)

Fryer, the sailing master, was again “insolent and neglectful” and, according to Bligh, had even told his brother-in-law, able seaman Robert Tinkler, to stick his knife into Cole, the boatswain!

Being anxious to get to Batavia (now Djakarta), 1,800 miles distant, in time for the departure of the Dutch October fleet for Europe, Bligh bought a 34-foot schooner for 1,000 Rix Dollars and named it HMS Resource. Because of the prevalence of pirates in the Java Sea, the vessel was armed with four swivel guns, and the crew with 14 stand of small arms.

After Norton’s death on Tofua there had been no further casualties on the long voyage. But now the tropical fevers of Indonesia started taking their toll. David Nelson, the botanist, succumbed to an “inflammatory fever” on July 20. Others were to follow. . . .

In early August 1789 Bligh and his loyalist crew were still in Coupang occupied with fitting out the 34-foot schooner Bligh had bought and named HMS Resource. They sailed for Java on August 20, having had a good two months to recuperate from the extreme privations of the open-boat voyage from Tofua to Timor. Because of the danger of attacks by pirates, they were escorted by two armed proas (Indonesian sailboats).

Bligh and his loyalist crew were sailing westward on the schooner Resource on their way from Coupang to Batavia. The term “loyalist” may be a euphemism, because Bligh again faced a mutiny, albeit a minor one. Having reached Surabaya, a Dutch settlement on the north coast of Java, Bligh ordered Fryer, the sailing master and Bligh’s nemesis, to take the Resource and meet him in the harbor at a point to which the governor of the district was going to take Bligh in the official launch. However, when the captain and the governor reached the place at the appointed time, the Resource was nowhere to be seen. Bligh, livid with rage over the embarrassment, finally found her snugly moored at the quay. He demanded to see Mr. Fryer.

When Fryer appeared, Bligh heaped even more than his usual abuse on him. Fryer: “You not only use me ill, but every man in the vessel will say the same.” And the seamen who were standing around agreed: “Yes, by God, we are used damn ill, nor have we any right to be used so.” At which point Bligh grabbed a bayonet and arrested Fryer and also Purcell (who had been the most vocal of the complainers) and had them put in irons.

In Surabaya Fryer had also accused Bligh of fraudulent dealings at Coupang, but he later retracted his allegations. After apologizing, Fryer was released when the party reached Samarang on September 22, but Purcell, who refused to apologize, was kept prisoner until the ship arrived in Batavia on October 1.

On October 1, 1789, Bligh and his men arrived in Batavia in the Resource. Purcell, who had been in irons ever since the stop-over at Surabaya was now let free.

On the following day Bligh fell ill with malaria, an ailment which was to haunt him for the the next few years and from which he suffered especially during the second breadfruit expedition.

The Resource was sold at auction on October 10, as was the launch, with which Bligh, for sentimental reasons, found it difficult to part.

On October 16, accompanied by his clerk Samuel and his servant John Smith, Bligh left for South Africa on the Dutch packet Vlydte. Before their departure, seaman Thomas Hall died from a tropical disease. The other crew members were left in Batavia to arrange for passage home in various Dutch ships. Many of them were ill; a few were dying. If Bligh had cared for his crew for any other reason than to keep them in effective working order on board, he would have seen to it that the sick were sent home first.

Bligh spent the month of November 1789 on the Indian Ocean on his way from Batavia to Cape Town. He certainly did not like being a passenger and least of all on a Dutch ship; his journal is full of contemptuous and sarcastic remarks Dutch methods of navigation.

Meanwhile, the tropical diseases in the Dutch East Indies were wreaking havoc with the loyalists he had left behind to wait for transportation home. David Nelson, the botanist, had died in Coupang. Seaman Thomas Hall had died in Batavia before Bligh left. Now it was quartermaster Peter Linkletter’s and master’s mate William Elphinstone’s turn to succumb to the “violent fevers.” Seaman Robert Lamb died on the passage home and the acting ship’s surgeon, Thomas Ledward, was never heard of again. The likelihood is that he was on board the ship Welfare which was lost without a trace. Some Bounty scholars, however, think he died in Batavia, others that he survived and is identical with a surgeon, also named Ledward, who allegedly was on George Vancouver’s ship Discovery from 1791 to 1795 (Kennedy: Bligh, 1978).

One of Ledward’s letters from Batavia has been preserved and it gives an excellent insight into Bligh’s pettiness and meanness (the word “mean” was equivalent to stingy or ungenerous in the 1700s):

The captain denied me, as well as the rest of the gentlemen who had not agents, any money unless I would give him my power of attorney and also my will, in which I was to bequeath to him all my property, this he called by the proper name of security . . . In case of my death I hope this matter will be clearly pointed out to my relations.

Eventually, only twelve of the nineteen men set adrift by the mutineers ever reached England (quartermaster John Norton having been killed by natives on Tofua).

Text from Mutiny and Romance in the South Seas: A Companion to the Bounty Adventure by Sven Wahlroos. Used by permission. See Book Recommendations for more information about this book.

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Loyalists with Bligh in the Bounty's Launch
John Fryer, Sailing Master
Peter Linkletter, Quartermaster
John Norton, Quartermaster
William Cole, Boatswain
George Simpson, Quartermaster's Mate
William Peckover, Gunner
Lawrence Lebogue, Sailmaker
William Purcell, Carpenter
John Samuel, Clerk and Steward
Thomas Ledward, Acting Surgeon
Thomas Hall, Able-bodied Seaman
William Elphinstone, Master's Mate
Robert Lamb, Able-bodied Seaman
Thomas Hayward, Midshipman
John Smith, Able-bodied Seaman (Bligh's Servant)
John Hallett, Midshipman
Robert Tinkler, Able-bodied Seaman (Acting Midshipman)
David Nelson, Botanist