This exhibition remembers a notable West Countryman and significant national figure, in the 200th anniversary year of his death. It tells a story that challenges the more commonly known Hollywood depiction and brings to life one of the greatest small boat survival stories in history featuring relics from the voyage and a specially built reproduction of the Bounty launch, giving a very real sense of the situation of the 18 men who sailed it over 3600 nautical miles across the Pacific.
One of the greatest small boat survival journeys in history
Lieutenant William Bligh, then commanding HM armed transport Bounty in the Pacific, is remembered for the famous mutiny led by his acting lieutenant, Fletcher Christian, in April 1789. Bligh and his loyal men were cast adrift in mid-ocean in the Bounty’s 23-foot launch in the expectation they would die. In a remarkable feat of seamanship, Bligh sailed the heavily overloaded launch to safety across 3600 nautical miles of open sea from Tonga to Timor, in the East Indies. This journey has been described as one of the greatest small-boat survival voyages, a triumph of endurance, navigation and leadership against extraordinary odds.
Bringing this journey to life
The exhibition brings this gruelling journey to life through a faithful reproduction of the Bounty launch and with original relics from the voyage – Bligh’s coconut bowl, bullet-weight (used for measuring the meagre rations), horn beaker and the magnifying glass he used to light cooking fires once they reached the Great Barrier Reef, all on loan from The National Maritime Museum Greenwich. A fine model of the Bounty has also come from The National Maritime Museum Greenwich and one of William Hodges’s magnificent paintings of Tahiti, from Cook’s second voyage.
Challenging myths and common perceptions
The exhibition also challenges the myths and stereotypical perceptions created by the various Hollywood depictions. There have been three popular and successful films based on the incident: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton as Christian and Bligh; in 1962 Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard reprised these roles, while The Bounty (1984) had Mel Gibson confronting Anthony Hopkins. Each presents a fairly straightforward tale of Bligh as ‘villain’ versus Fletcher Christian as romantic hero. The exhibition, by contrast, outlines the historical facts to show that ‘the past is another country’, with different rules but where clashes of personality – especially in unusual circumstances – produced human and ‘managerial’ conflicts that still occur today.
Exploring the Cornwall Connection
Following on from previous exhibitions at the Museum, such as Viking Voyagers, with Captain Bligh the Museum once again takes a globally important story, and explores the Cornwall context, in this case Bligh’s Cornish roots.
Captain Bligh: Myth, Man and Mutiny has been guest curated for the National Maritime Museum Cornwall by Dr Pieter van der Merwe, General Editor and Curator Emeritus at the National Maritime Museum, Royal Museums Greenwich.
The boat build
The in-house build of the Bounty launch is part of a programme of reconstructions of historical craft in the Museum’s boatbuilding workshop. This build is being led by professional and accomplished local boat builder Andrew Nancarrow supported by the Museum’s new trainee Boat Curator Ollie Crediton and Advanced Apprentice in Boat Conservation Reuben Thompson and a small team of Museum Volunteers and students from Falmouth Marine School.
The Museum team has carried out extensive research in-house to ensure the boat is as faithful a reproduction as possible. This boat is one of a number of complete reconstructions built in the Museum’s boat building workshop and something the Museum is keen to do more of, continuing to build representations or reconstructions of important craft. Follow the Boatbuilding Workshop on Facebook