SPITHEAD, WINTER 1787
His small vessel pitching in the squally winter sea, a young British naval lieutenant waited restlessly to embark upon the most important and daunting voyage of his still young but highly promising career. William Bligh, aged thirty-three, had been selected by His Majesty's government to collect breadfruit plants from the South Pacific island of Tahiti and to transport them to the plantations of the West Indies. Like most of the Pacific, Tahiti--Otaheite--was little known; in all the centuries of maritime travel, fewer than a dozen European ships had anchored in her waters. Bligh himself had been on one of these early voyages, ten years previously, when he had sailed under the command of the great Captain Cook. Now he was to lead his own expedition in a single small vessel called Bounty.
With his ship mustered and provisioned for eighteen months, Bligh had anxiously been awaiting the Admiralty's final orders, which would allow him to sail, since his arrival at Spithead in early November. A journey of some sixteen thousand miles lay ahead, including a passage around Cape Horn, some of the most tempestuous sailing in the world. Any further delay, Bligh knew, would ensure that he approached the Horn at the height of its worst weather. By the time the orders arrived in late November, the weather at Spithead itself had also deteriorated to the extent that Bligh had been able to advance no farther than the Isle of Wight, from where he wrote a frustrated letter to his uncle-in-law and mentor, Duncan Campbell.
"If there is any punishment that ought to be inflicted on a set of Men for neglect I am sure it ought on the Admiralty," he wrote irascibly on December 10, 1787, "for my three weeks detention at this place during a fine fair wind which carried all outward bound ships clear of the channel but me, who wanted it most."
Nearly two weeks later, he had retreated back to Spithead, still riding out bad weather.
"It is impossible to say what may be the result," Bligh wrote to Campbell, his anxiety mounting. "I shall endeavor to get round [the Horn]; but with heavy Gales, should it be accompanied with sleet & snow my people will not be able to stand it....Indeed I feel my voyage a very arduous one, and have only to hope in return that whatever the event may be my poor little Family may be provided for. I have this comfort," he continued with some complacency, "that my health is good and I know of nothing that can scarce happen but I have some resource for-- My little Ship is in the best of order and my Men & officers all good & feel happy under my directions."
At last, on December 23, 1787, the Bounty departed England and after a rough passage arrived at Santa Cruz, in Tenerife. Here, fresh provisions were acquired and repairs made, for the ship had been mauled by severe storms.
"The first sea that struck us carryed away all my spare yards and some spars," Bligh reported, writing again to Campbell; "--the second broke the Boats chocks & stove them & I was buryed in the Sea with my poor little crew...."
Despite the exasperating delay of his departure, the tumultuous passage and the untold miles that still lay ahead, Bligh's spirits were now high--manifestly higher than when he had first set out. On February 17, 1788, off Tenerife, he took advantage of a passing British whaler, the Queen of London, to drop a line to Sir Joseph Banks, his patron and the man most responsible for the breadfruit venture.
"I am happy and satisfyed in my little Ship and we are now fit to go round half a score of worlds," Bligh wrote, "both Men & Officers tractable and well disposed & cheerfulness & content in the countenance of every one. I am sure nothing is even more conducive to health. --I have no cause to inflict punishments for I have no offenders and every thing turns out to my most sanguine expectations."
From The Bounty by Caroline Alexander. Copyright Caroline Alexander 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or stored in an form without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book, Viking Penguin.
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