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The Power of Gossip
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Photo: MorgueFile
You have a choice. Sail with William Bligh or Fletcher Christian. The historical Bligh or Christian. Your life depends upon it. Decide now.

Did you chose Fletcher Christian because you thought Bligh was a sadistic tyrant? You – along with Bligh’s reputation – are a victim of gossip.

The actual William Bligh was the most humane commander of a Royal Navy expedition to the Pacific in the 1700s. He awarded fewer lashes to his men, and treated the native population with greater forbearance than captains like Cook or Vancouver. Bligh was irascible (especially with slipshod subordinates), but his language was no worse than Royal Navy contemporaries.

What transformed him into the bully of popular literature? The power of gossip – and a human appetite for a good story.

The Bounty mutineers included Peter Heywood and Fletcher Christian. Their families, were poor, but well connected. Heywood was related through marriage to a senior Royal Navy admiral. Christian’s brother, Edward, taught law. The Christians went to school with Wordsworth and Coleridge, two of England’s leading romantic poets.

Heywood convicted of mutiny, received a pardon through family connections. He resumed his career, on a ship commanded by his uncle. The mutiny conviction was an inconvenient blot. To further Peter’s advancement, the family started a whispering campaign against Bligh – who had no relatives in the Royal Navy.

The thrust of the stories was that the mutiny was due to Bligh, not the mutineers. Two other pardoned mutineers eagerly provided tidbits supporting this. Others spread the stories – it was interesting gossip.

Then Edward Christian attempted to rehabilitate his brother. Interviewing Bounty survivors, he embellished their yarns about the voyage into a tale of Bligh’s brutal behavior. The hardships related – short rations, bad food, and crowded conditions – were typical of those faced by that era’s sailors, but far removed from the world of a genteel lawyer. Coleridge and Wordsworth, fascinated by Edward’s account, transformed Christian into the beau ideal of the romantic rebel in their poetry.

Found His Reputation in Tatters

The Heywood and Christian streams merged into today’s Bounty narrative, an attractive tale of romantic resistance to tyranny. Captivated by the legend, many ignored the self-interest of those creating it. Bligh, who took his loyalists on a 4000 mile sea voyage in an overcrowded open boat without losing a man, found his reputation in tatters.

It took two centuries before scholars reexamined the conventional wisdom about the mutiny. The most comprehensive look at these events is Caroline Alexander’s 2003 book, The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty.

It will do little to restore Bligh’s reputation. The story has been repeated so many times people believe it has to be true. Otherwise why would so many people repeat it? Such is the power of gossip.

Fletcher Christian returned to Tahiti. He and other mutineers kidnapped native women as wives, and Tahitian men as slaves. Sailing to an isolated island, they wrecked the Bounty, and spent the next few years murdering each other. After four years, just one mutineer was alive.

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Written by Mark N. Lardas, copyright 2007, Mark N. Lardas, all rights reserved.  Copyright © 2007 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.


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