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1789 A.D.:  A Tiny Ship In A Giant Ocean

 The mutiny that occurred upon the British ship Bounty has long been famous, with movies and books chronicaling the event and it's remarkable outcome.  But few people seem to focus upon what a memorable episode of God's providence it was for the ejected Capt. Bligh and those 18 crewmen who underwent the epic return voyage in a little bitty ship's launch.  It was 23 feet long, and was normally considered full if it held 12 people.  It held 19 when first abandoned by the mutineers.  Many people have water skied in a 16' boat, or an 18' foot boat.  Imagine a 23' boat with 19 people and all of your food, clothing, and supplies, abandoned in the middle of the Pacific ocean so overloaded that the water was 7" or 8" from over flowing into it....during calm seas!   

  The whole episode came about basically  like this:  Capt. William Bligh was a very skilled navigator that had sailed on two voyages with Capt. James Cook, who had made a celebrated early voyage of discovery (from Europe's point of view) through parts of the Pacific and many other regions of 'mar incognita'.  They had discovered Hawaii, and Cook had even gotten himself killed there.  They had also visited Otaheiti, now called Tahiti.

  Bligh's first assignment as a Captain in command of a ship occurred when he was assigned to manage a voyage to Tahiti, on the Bounty, to gather breadfruit trees and take them to the slave plantations of the Carribean.  The idea was that the nutritious breadfruit would make good cheap food for the slaves.  Not the most noble purpose, so perhaps that's part of why things turned out so badly.

  On Dec 23, 1787 they departed Portsmouth England, and aimed to circle beneath South America's Cape Horn and round the bend to Tahiti. 

  Bligh, who according to his journals thought he was only establishing himself as a firm and capable Captain, demanding the men's respect, came off to his men as.....well, a disciplinarian nightmare.  He seemed harsh, he criticized his officers publically and loudly, even for small things.  He had a man whipped pretty severely early on.  (In a good British naval 'whipping', a couple of dozen lashes sometimes made glimpses of bone show.   The men worked hard and often ate poorly, so they became pretty bony between ports.)

  Further aggravating the situation, the ship had been modified for it's breadfruit tree mission.  A good amount of berthing space had been taken for tree habitat.  The men's berthing space, always tight, was very cramped indeed. Even officers quarters had been reduced in size.

  Also, when Bligh, an extremely capable sailing Captain, tried to push the Bounty through the cold, powerful winds found at the southern tip of South America, he was beaten back again and again by the savage gales. The men worked the ropes and sails for weeks, but the winds never gave them the chance they needed.  Finally Bligh, stubborn though he was, assessed the mood of his men and relented.  He told them that they would move North where it was a little warmer and then push East across the Atlantic and cross beneath Africa instead, using the much more commodious Cape of Good Hope as their passage, though it was a longer route from England.

  This cheered the men considerably, but the voyage had been greatly lengthened, their food much depleted (they were pretty much down to eating the bad stuff), and they got to enjoy a whole lot more face time with cheery Captain Bligh than they would have otherwise.

  *** A couple of quick examples of Bligh discipline:  He felt the men were not showing a very governed use of the now rationed drinking water.  He thought there was some cheating going on - some excessive water drinking.  So, he had a nail sunk into the mast high up above the deck, and the crew drinking cup was hung upon this nail.  If you wanted a drink, you climbed up the mast and got the cup, you climbed down and brought it over to the drinking barrel, you got your proper allowed dosage of water, then you crawled up and put the cup away, then you crawled back down and went to work again.  That certainly would make me give some thought to just how thirsty I felt - that much I'll concede.  

  Physical Exercise:  Bligh liked a limber crew.  So he had a certain sailor that was nearly blind but an excellent fiddle player provide music for two hours a night, and the crew danced for two hours.  Mandatory dancing.  For two hours.

  I'm sure the men thought: "Thank God for grog."  Grog was a half water, half rum mixture that the men got a pretty generous portion of every night.  One of the consolations of sea life. ***

  When the Bounty finally arrived at Otaheite (Tahiti) suffice it to say that they were ready for a break from the sea.  And few islands anywhere are as beautiful as Tahiti.  Some think it is the world's most beautiful island.  It was one island among a fair size group of islands which had been named the 'Friendly' islands.  The people living on these islands spoke the same language, and traded and traveled back and forth. 

  There were many chiefs, and some head-chiefs.  They warred against each other at times, and weren't really all that 'Friendly' if you weren't able to defend yourself well.  But Captain Cook had managed his visit there 12 years ago with such skill that the island of Tahiti looked forward to ships from 'Pritain' (as they pronounced it) visiting.  They were a tall healthy and tan people, fond of love, war, and feasting.  Cook had given them many wonderful gifts from Europe of things that they couldn't produce on their island, things which had made the lucky recipients the objects of much envy.  A return visit from Cook was much anticipated (but wouldn't happen due to Cook's death in Hawaii.)

  The women were often lovely, and not overly prone to wearing clothing above the waist.  They also held a fair amount of status in Tahitian society, and were able to choose love interests from among the sailors if they were single and so inclined.   But they lived very seperately from the men in some particulars, took loving care of their men, and did not eat with men, for instance.  But again, they were thought very lovely.  

  Because the island had such rich soil, bread fruit trees, many fruits, and the bounty of the sea, life there was warm, lazy, and pleasant.  And romance was very important there.  

  The sailors were happy to make shore here.  The Tahitians had a tradition of choosing a foreign sailor to be their 'special friend'.  That meant that they would stay at your house, eat your food, basically be one of your family.  Most of the sailors who wanted a 'special friend' soon had one.  It was a warm and welcoming port, lovely smelling and beautiful.

  Bligh soon reacquainted himself with those who remembered him from his previous trip with Cook, and he negotiated with a head-chief there for young bread fruit trees, which were fairly plentiful and thought pretty worthless compared to the glass beads, knives, axes, etc., which Bligh had brought for trade.  A deal was quickly struck, and the tree transplant operation was begun.

  But from the beginning Bligh saw discipline deteriorating.  His men were loathe to work very hard or fast.  They wanted this to last as long as possible.  Many fell in love with local girls, and nearly all fell in love with Tahiti.  A few got married.

  The stay lasted 5 months, and it was with difficulty that Bligh even got them to board the ship for their departure.  They had gone native!

  A short distance out on their voyage home, an  officer named Christian Fletcher received a tongue lashing from Bligh over the possibility that Fletcher had stolen a few coconuts from Bligh's pile.  This, and the fact that Bligh had commandeered all of the enlisted men's departure gifts and declared them 'ship's stores' under his control, drove some of the men past their breaking point.

  Before they even cleared the Friendly Island group, there was an early morning mutiny.  About 18 mutineers took over the ship while nearly everyone loyal to Bligh was sleeping.  There wasn't really even a battle, the surprise was so complete. 

  Bligh and 18 loyal men were put out to sea in the ship's launch, with meager supplies, a few cutlasses for protection (For if they ever did reach an island.  They weren't really expected to, or the mutineers would have felt the need to just murder them so that Britain would never find out about their mutiny) there was some food, sail cloth, clothing, Bligh's logbooks, and a compass.  The sailors had long known each other well, so they were against killing the Bligh loyalists.  Many wanted to shoot Bligh himself, however, and it was mainly Christian Fletcher, a somewhat decent man, who prevented this...barely. 

  Then, having left Bligh and most of his loyalists in the small boat (there were a few more loyalists, but the little launch was about to sink as it was) the Bounty sailed off towards Tahiti to see the girls they had left behind, ask them to board ship and go with them, and then they would sail away for some safe uncharted island.  That was their plan, still not fully formed.

  And as for Bligh and the 18 men abandoned in the nearly floundering ship's launch, their situation must have seemed pretty hopeless, but they were there beneath the eyes of the Almighty, and were actually about to become part of Maritime legend. But that they didn't know yet.

 Though set out to sea in the region of Otaheiti (Tahiti), they ultimately would travel well over 3,000 miles (50,000 KM) in this little ship, who's intended function was to row to shore from the main ship when the main ship reached a port.  The little vessal was never meant for the open sea, and was an amazingly unlikely candidate for serving for thousands of miles through the storms and waves of the open mercurial ocean.  It did this while so packed full of men and their scanty supplies that it had about 7" or 8" of freeboard (heigth above the water) towards the middle of the gunwhale.  It would not have taken much of a wave, slopping over the dangerously low gunwhale, to send it to the bottom in an instant.

  It is truly an amazing event.  The men who endured the voyage deserve great credit.  But God deserves even more. There is just no such thing as a hopeless situation when our Lord chooses to act.

  ..................................................................................................................

Bligh took charge of the small company quickly, and they took stock of their food and their provisions.  There was very little of either.  He told them that with the islanders tending to be fierce towards small weak groups like their own, he thought it their best strategy to try to reach the closest European port that he was aware of without risking the making of a landfall in a populated island area more than was necessary.  He commended their course to the Lord, and then set about the business of trying to survive.

There in the launch the men’s world became very dependent upon God. They suffered a good number of storms, and with their 8" of freeboard they well knew that any single large wave might have ended their voyage and their lives. And they did suffer through several strong storms, being unable to make land to avoid them. This left them bailing water until their strength seemed wholly gone, but Bligh kept them bailing even when they no longer cared,

During storms like that, no one could really sleep. They had early on arrived upon a system where some (about 1/2) lay down in the boat and slept while others stayed awake and rowed and performed other duties. Then they would switch places. But during a storm that lasted perhaps a day and a half, there was no real rest for anyone.

And the weather could be quite cold. Often while out on the ocean the men shivered constantly from the night time cold. They found that the sea water stayed a much warmer temperature than the rainy air, so to warm up, they would soak their shirts in the warm ocean water , then wear them. For a while, the shirt would warm them. Then they would do it again.

The cold weather was more severe on them, but the daytime heat could be implacable, almost unbearable. Hours upon hours of being baked by the fierce sun.

They were almost constantly on water rations, sometimes receiving nothing but tea spoons of rum or wine, and only a small swallow of water. But still Bligh pushed them on, pretending to a little more confidence than he actually felt that they were on the right course, and would soon enough be back to a civilized European port.  He was almost as much a disciplinarian on the small launch as he had been on the Bounty.

There were very few men on that age - perhaps not a single other - that had the navigational knowledge, the fierce feisty drive, the endurance, the grit, the faith, and the never wavering will to just decide he was capable of finding his way back from nowhere, across half a planet, in a row boat, but Bligh was such a one.

Bligh would have been highly disliked by many in any age, his personality was just too strong, his ego just too large. But as much as the other 18 men in his rowboat may have hated him, they could see that Bligh believed that they were all getting back to civilization alive if they worked together.

Bligh wasn’t so strong physically. Towards the end of their journey, Bligh records that one of the sailors, a frank and simple man, told Bligh quite honestly that no one else on their boat looked so bad as he. The way he said it made Bligh smile, Bligh records in  his journal.

They tried to fish, but with no success. Once they caught a nice sized fish - enough for a fair meal for each man, something they were badly in need of! But one of the sailors grabbed it poorly while trying to get it aboard, and it came unhooked and swam away. This had to have been a crushing blow for men so starved. But, they got over it.  This no doubt impacted the popularity of the sailor the bungled the job for a ime.  

They would get off on land from time to time as they reached South Australia (a very unknown continent at the time) and began to travel North up it’s Eastern shore . They would find a little to eat, but surprisingly little. The men found some ripe berries and took a chance, against Bligh‘s orders. They turned out to be edible berries, and probably provided some much needed nutrition, including vitamin ‘C‘.

Scurvy (a Vitamin C deficiency sickness) is never far away for the man living off of the ocean, and it can be a debilitating sickness. But when given food rich in vitamin C, people usually make a remarkably fast recovery on about the third day.

Bligh told his men as much as he remembered about New Guinea and New Holland (Australia), thinking it as possible that he might die as that any other man might. That way they might have an idea about how to reach East Timor if they were left on their own.

They caught a seabird called a Noddy, once. They divided it and ate it raw.

On other occasions they would catch the larger Booby bird. About the size of a duck, it made a far better meal. These birds had the humorous habit of running into ropes and getting tangled up in rigging, hence the name. The men also enjoyed eating the cuttlefish in the birds stomach. When you are hungry enough, a lot of formerly revolting foods are just fine, thank you!

At one landing on the coast of Australia they saw animal tracks that they were convinced belonged to the Kangaroo, but they did not find the animal. They found the occasional oyster here, though, and made some stews that Bligh recorded that even a man that wasn’t starving might like. They endured lots of cold hungry days and a few where they ate much better.

They spent 6 of their sailing days basically along the coast of Australia, then left the resources and relative comfort of land to cross the ocean that was left between them and E. Timor - a sail that Bligh believed would take around 10 days.

They subsisted during those days on some dried oysters, their last little bit of wine, and the Lord sent them another Booby bird. Greatest of all, they caught a small dolphin just when they needed it most desperately.

  It was scanty fare, not enough to keep their brains nourished.  Bligh records that they reached a point where they had to speak things to each other two or three times before they would understand. But they persevered, and they sighted some land. They knew then that the settlement at Timor could only be a day or two away, maybe less. And they were right. They reached the Dutch settlement of Coupang two days later, and they were cordially and kindly received by the Dutch, who, though not always great friends of the English, are a good people and Christian. Within a few days the men were greatly recovered.

A ship took them to another port where Bligh was able to purchase a 34 foot schooner which they christened the ‘Resource’. With this ship they reached Batavia, Java. There they joined their ship to a large group of ships which were on their way to Europe. About 5 months later, they were home in England, though sadly, several of Bligh’s sailors died during this far less arduous leg of their journey, from fevers and such.

When they had first arrived in their small launch at the European port in E. Timor, they had traveled 41 days, and 3,618 miles. The 41 days may not sound so very long, but no one in known times had ever done anything like it. Not with so small a boat as they had. Not in such unknown waters, not with so many men and so little to feed them with.

There was general agreement through out Europe at that time that, though the men had shown courage and perseverance, God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit had done a very notable deed in providing for this small and wretchedly dependent group of cast-aways. They had called on the name of the Lord in their hour of need, and then had begun their journey.

Thirst came, but they found water in time on each occasion. Hunger came, but food arrived from unexpected places at just the right times to save them. They had dealt with treacherous men on one of the islands, but only one of them had been killed. And the storms had come again and again. But with 8" of freeboard far out there in the open ocean, no wave had sunk them. No wave had been too much.

God had done it, as much -no, probably much more - than the strength of the 19 men. Almighty God, the Merciful.

©2017 Daniel Curry & 'Deeds of God' Website