The Captain Bligh Conspiracy: Revealed - Tuesday October 2

the captain bligh conspiracy: revealed (5/8)
20.00–21.00

Five’s historical documentary strand continues with a compelling new examination of the mutiny on the Bounty. Popular history has long depicted this famous event as a tale of plucky sailors confronting their brutal master, Captain Bligh. But now Mark Arundel, a direct descendent of Bligh, sets out on a quest to establish the truth of the matter and clear his ancestor’s name.

The most famous mutiny in history occurred in the middle of the Pacific Ocean over 200 years ago. In 1789, after the Bounty’s mission to Tahiti, Fletcher Christian led 18 men in a bloodless mutiny against commanding officer Lieutenant William Bligh. The ship was taken without force, and Bligh and the men loyal to him were put to sea in a small launch. Bligh then embarked on an epic 47-day voyage to find inhabited land, whilst the mutineers went on to settle the tiny island of Pitcairn.

In countless books, films and poems Bligh has been painted as the villain of the tale. But is the truth as clear-cut as the stories would have us believe? Mark Arundel, the great, great, great, great, great grandson of Bligh, is determined to find out whether the evil reputation of his ancestor is justified. Taking Charles Laughton’s performance as a monstrous Bligh in the1935 film as his starting point, Mark trawls the archives and canvasses expert opinion in a bid to shatter the myth of the despotic captain.

Mark’s journey begins in the British Library newspaper archive, where he learns that, in the wake of the mutiny, Bligh was hailed as a hero. After being put to sea by Christian, Bligh successfully crossed 3,500 miles of ocean in his open-topped boat to reach safety – an extraordinary feat of navigation. He was rewarded with an audience with the king and a quick promotion. For Mark, the question is: how did the naval hero of 1790 become the Hollywood tyrant of 1935?

To understand more about the Bounty’s voyage, Mark visits the Natural History Museum, where he inspects the breadfruit plant that the crew were sent to collect. Then he reads the official log of the trip, where he finds references to Bligh’s many efforts to make life for his crew easier. He also hears testimony from historian Andrew Lambert, who suggests that the real reason for the mutiny was not Bligh’s brutal captaincy, but rather the delights and attractions of Tahiti. Was it the desire to “go native” that prompted the crew’s action?

Mark’s investigation now turns to the accounts that sketched Bligh as a despot. Chief among them are the memoirs of one mutineer, James Morrison, who first detailed Bligh’s alleged tyrannical ways. Another crewman who attempted to demonise Bligh was Peter Heywood, who hoped to salvage his career in the navy by justifying his actions in the mutiny.

But Mark finds further evidence of a conspiracy against his illustrious ancestor in the history of Edward Christian, brother of Fletcher. Edward Christian was a prominent magistrate who was determined to clear his brother’s name. He conducted a series of interviews with the disgruntled survivors of the Bounty and compiled them into a formidable denunciation of Bligh. Mark reads a copy of this intriguing document and is astonished to learn the extent of this little-known scheme to discredit the captain. Furthermore, he finds a direct link between the denigrating accounts of Christian and Morrison, and the screenplay of the popular 1935 film, which cemented Bligh’s modern reputation as a villain.

Mark’s quest throws fascinating new light on this famous episode and vividly illustrates how one version of events has contaminated all future accounts. With the use of primary sources, expert interviews and reconstructions, this film sets the record straight on the life of William Bligh.

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