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Vanishing Act:

The Strange Case of HMS Bounty

 

By Chris Oakley

 

For more than two centuries, mariners have been haunted by the disappearance of the British man-of-war HMS Bounty; from the day that Captain William Bligh and his crew were first reported missing back in 1789, the circumstances of Bountyís vanishing have been the subject of rampant speculation, dozens if not hundreds of searches, and three Hollywood epics. Like the case of Amelia Earhart 150 years later, the Bounty story would come to be regarded as one of the great unexplained mysteries of human history; some people would cite the incident as proof of the existence of metaphysical forces beyond human comprehension.

Some of those who knew Captain Blighís reputation as a tyrant were of the opinion that perhaps there had been a mutiny attempt on board the Bounty and that the ship had been destroyed in an armed struggle between the mutineers and those crewmen siding with Captain Bligh. As no wreckage or logbooks have ever been recovered, however, this idea remains only speculation; still, no one would be greatly surprised if it turned out to be true. Bligh was one of the sternest taskmasters who ever wore the uniform of the Royal Navy, and his hard methods of discipline could have undoubtedly rubbed some people the wrong way.

But for every man who detested Bligh, there were an equal number of men who revered him as a seaman and naval officer of the first order; if a mutiny attempt had been made, chances are fairly good it would have been met with intense opposition.

And what of Blighís second-in-command, Fletcher Christian? Whose side would he have taken if push had come to shove? Would he have been among those defending Bligh, or would he have sided with the mutineers and abandoned Bligh to his fate? Those questions can never be answered with any degree of certainty, since the only evidence which could have verified Christianís attitudes toward the idea of a mutiny disappeared along with the Bounty and its crew....

******

...but before we speculate any further along these lines, letís first review the facts behind the Bountyís disappearance. HMS Bounty set sail from the Isle of Wight on December 26th, 1787 bound for the fabled South Seas island of Tahiti, a land as remote and mysterious to Blighís generation as the planet Pluto is to ours. Both sea travel and communications were considerably slower in those days than they are now, so no one thought it particularly unusual at first when there  were no letters received from Bountyís officers or crew for several months. Not until May of 1789, nearly seven full months after Bounty should have reached its scheduled port of call, did anyone even begin to suspect something was amiss. It wasnít until September of 1789 that the Royal Navy even thought to send a search party out to look for the missing vessel, and by that time Bligh and his crew were long gone.

For the better part of three years the RN search party combed the Pacific for any clue as to Bountyís fate but turned up nothing. Not even extensive questioning of other ship captains who sailed the South Seas could give a hint as to what might have happened to Bligh and his crew, and in the spring of 1793 the missing sailors were all declared legally dead. By 1801, the Royal Navy had issued a directive barring any of its future vessels from being named for that ill-fated ship; in a few generations Bligh, Christian, and the rest of the Bounty crew were little more than ghostly names on personnel records buried in the RN historical archives. The probe into HMS Bountyís disappearance has continued to this day, but in the absence of any concrete evidence as to where the ship went it is highly unlikely that weíll ever know for sure what became of her and her crew.

******

Yet the dearth of concrete evidence hasnít stopped people from offering all manner of explanations for the vanishing of Bounty. The British warshipís disappearance has been attributed to everything from pirates to storms to a shipboard fire; at least one famous paranormal events expert has even broached the notion that Bounty sailed into what he claims is a "dimensional rift" off Madagascarís eastern coast. An interesting notion, and one that might explain a great deal about Bountyís disappearance were it not for one small yet notable detail-- thousands of other ships have sailed through the alleged location of the rift without incident.

So letís instead deal with some of the more credible explanations as to why and how Bounty might have been lost at sea. One of the most commonly offered explanations for Bountyís loss is that the ship ran into a heavy storm and was destroyed; considering that her originally proposed route to Tahiti would have taken her near Cape Horn, which is known to have some of the earthís stormiest and most hazardous waters, itís not hard to imagine her meeting such a grim fate. Even a seaman as gifted as Captain Bligh would have found it tricky to navigate Cape Horn-- particularly given that its seas are home to numerous icebergs.

Another frequently proposed explanation for Bountyís disappearance is that she was seized by privateers or pirates and either renamed or stripped for firewood and building materials. While most of the great pirate captains had long since been killed, put in prison, or made to give up their piracy by the time Bligh assumed command of the Bounty, there were still enough buccaneers out on the open sea to give honest seamen cause for concern. Under the right circumstances itís possible that a resourceful pirate crew could have surprised Bounty and taken control of the British vessel; some of the men under Blighís command might have even aided the pirates in that takeover. But those seeking  to prove the validity of this conjecture face the same obstacle that confronts advocates of other Bounty disappearance theories-- lack of hard physical evidence.

Some suggest Bountyís crew may have mutinied en route to Tahiti and steered for South America only to run into foul weather or attack by French warships and perish in the South Atlantic. Of these two potential grim fates for the mutineers, the foul weather scenario seems the more plausible one; most of Franceís naval power at that time was concentrated in the North Atlantic or the Mediterranean, so chances of Bounty encountering a French warship in the South Atlantic were rather slim. Furthermore, the South Atlantic can often be just as stormy as its northern twin, sometimes even more so; if by chance the wreck of the Bounty does lie on the South Atlantic floor, it will take more advanced technology than currently exists to reach it.

******

Of the three feature films made to date about the Bounty and her strange disappearance the second movie, released in 1963 and directed by Stanley Kubrick, is generally regarded by film critics as the best of the trio. The first movie, a 1926 silent picture, was considered a ridiculous melodrama even in its own time and the third movie, a 1987 three-hour epic, seems more interested in setting the record for most topless shots of Tahitian women in a single film than in offering any serious theories about Bountyís final fate.1

In addition to the three drama films about the mystery surrounding Bountyís disappearance, there have been a dozen or so documentaries on the vanished British man-of-war and the hundreds of searches mounted in an effort to determine her final fate. The subject of one of these documentaries, ocean explorer Robert Ballard, would become famous for locating the wreck of another legendary ill-fated ship when he and one of his search teams finally discovered the remains of the RMS Titanic in 1983.2

The mystery of HMS Bountyís disappearance may never be solved, but that hardly stops people from trying. In fact, one suspects that the obsession with learning the truth about the ultimate fate of Captain William Bligh and his crew will linger within the hearts of mariners all over the world for generations to come. No doubt Bligh, a man who gave his heart and soul along with most of his life to the sea, would be flattered to know there was still so much great interest in him and in his vessel more than two hundred years after both set out from the Isle of Wight on what turned out to be their last voyage.

 

The End

 

Footnotes

1 The 1987 Bounty film was the focus of international controversy on a number of levels, and not all of it had to do with the movieís gratuitous semi-nudity. The writers of the filmís screenplay were sued by a British naval historian who claimed their script was adapted without his permission from a book which heíd published four years earlier; descendants of the late William Bligh objected to the movieís portrayal of him as a heartless tyrant; the activist environmental group Greenpeace accused the movieís producers of abusing horses that appeared in a stunt sequence early in the film; and the movieís director and leading man repeatedly clashed over changes in its script.

2 That documentary in turn would provide the basis from James Cameronís 1998 epic historical romance Titanic.

 

 

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