Guest post: The Board, Bligh and Brando

Tracey Gooch, who has been helping with our digitisation project, has been looking at the story of Captain Bligh and the Bounty mutiny:

On the morning of 28 April 1789 William Bligh stood on the deck of his ship the Bounty surrounded by mutineers and staring down the wrong end of Fletcher Christian’s bayonet while being ushered into a small boat overloaded with 18 other men. As he was about to be set loose in the middle of the ocean the loss of a watch was perhaps not at the top of his list of worries. But over a year later the Board of Longitude read out a letter Bligh had diligently written reporting the loss of a timekeeper they had lent him.

On 8 December 1787 the Board of Longitude had noted that Kendall’s second timekeeper, an artificial horizon and a mercurial thermometer were to be lent to Bligh for use on the “Bounty Armed Ship” and here we see Bligh’s note acknowledging his receipt of these objects:

But on 4 December 1790 the Board of Longitude,

Read a letter from Captain Bligh, late of the Bounty Storeship acquainting the Board of his having lost the Timekeeper that was lent him when the pirates seized the Vessel.

This ‘Timekeeper’ was the second watch to be made by Larcum Kendall for the Board of Longitude. Now known as K2, it was commissioned by the Board to be a simplified and cheaper version of John Harrison’s fourth marine timekeeper (H4) and used as a means to help calculate longitude at sea. It was made in 1771 and had already been on several voyages, including Constantine Phipps’ voyage towards the North Pole in 1773, before being taken by the mutineers before they made their way to Pitcairn Island.

The watch has made its way to Royal Museums Greenwich via an intriguing route since being exchanged in 1808 by John Adams (one of the original mutineers) on Pitcairn Island, apparently for a silk handkerchief. It was taken off its new owners who were imprisoned in Spain and later sold in Chile for three doubloons before being purchased by a navy officer in 1840 and handed back to the authorities (you can hear about this at the Museum's Gallery Favourites Online).

Meanwhile, Bligh’s experience, discipline and knowledge of navigational techniques enabled him to return to safe lands. After stopping off at the nearby island of Tafoa, he and his 18 companions set off with meagre rations for what would become a 48-day journey of nearly 4,000 miles to Timor. With no watch for the journey some of the men who had stayed loyal to him learnt to count seconds accurately so that a log line could be set up and used for dead reckoning navigation. Bligh continued to log the journey diligently.

The importance of navigational instruments has also found its way into film dramatisations of the mutiny. The focus is often on the turbulent relationships on board the ship, with the overbearing, strict and cruel Bligh pitted against the dashing and fair-minded Fletcher Christian. But it is notable that in the 1962 version of Mutiny on The Bounty, Marlon Brando’s Fletcher Christian is killed when he runs back onto the burning Bounty to rescue his sextant, declaring that 'we will never leave here without it' – highlighting how this would be his most important possession if he were ever to leave the island.

So while facing the prospect of endlessly drifting at sea Bligh would have taken much comfort in the fact he had a sextant with him, but with little in the way of other navigational tools, the loss of this watch may actually have been pretty high up on Bligh’s list of worries.

Tracey also has her own blog, Please Don't Touch the Dinosaurs.