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Page last updated at 11:41 GMT, Thursday, 20 August 2009 12:41 UK
Master mariner's Humber history
William Bligh
William Bligh

William Bligh is best known as the captain involved in the Mutiny on the Bounty.

The incident, which took place in the south Pacific in April 1789, has become world-famous due to a number of books and Hollywood films.

The ship, HMS Bounty, was built in Hull.

It was constructed in 1784 at the Blaydes shipyard on the River Hull.

HMS Bounty started life as the collier Bethia; carrying cargoes of coal up and down the East Coast.

Bought by the Royal Navy in 1787, it was sent to Tahiti under Bligh's command to collect breadfruit plants and ship them to the Caribbean, to feed slaves in the British Colonies.

Blaydes House in the 18th century
Blaydes House in the 18th century

The journey took ten arduous months, as the ship was forced by bad weather to abandon the shorter route round South America and go via the Cape of Good Hope.

Hull University's Maritime Historical Studies Centre is based in Blaydes House on Hull's High Street, adjacent to where the Bounty was built. Dr Robb Robinson, a historian at the centre, says that the ship was much smaller than other naval vessels, such as Captain Cook's Endeavour. A factor which may have caused the mutiny.

"When it was known as the Bethia it would have been designed to be manned by a crew of about 15. But, in the voyage to Tahiti it had to take a crew of 42. So that would mean everything would be very cramped.

In addition, part of the deck space was taken up for the bringing home of the breadfruit plant and again that restricted size. So tensions on board you can imagine building up when a lot of people are in an enclosed place."

After the Bounty was seized by Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers, Bligh and the loyal crew members were set adrift in an open boat. Bligh navigated the boat across the Pacific Ocean to safety, without any charts.

The Humber Harbour Master, Captain Phil Cowing, says that Bligh's amazing sailing skills deserves a reassessment of the much maligned captain's character.

Humber Harbour Master: Captain Phil Cowing
Humber Harbour Master: Captain Phil Cowing

"The Hollywood version suggests he was the villain of the piece but history really proves that his time in that open boat, 47 days afloat and travelling 3600 miles. And the fact that he chose to navigate to Timor where he knew there was a civilized outpost which, would ultimately if they made it, would ensure his safe return to London. All of that demonstrates a huge degree of professionalism, of navigational skill.

"It's generally accepted now, that, that 47 day journey was probably one of the most outstanding feats of seamanship and navigation in history. It would be generally accepted that such a journey in an open boat would almost certainly result in the death of all on board.

"So, the fact that he, and the 18 loyal crewmen, all survived and arrived safely back in London is a testament to his ability."

Captain Cowing has a special interest in the life of William Bligh, as one of the jobs that the newly promoted Bligh was given on his return to the UK was the mapping of the Humber Estuary.

Associated British Ports has a copy of Bligh's original chart. The survey was done in February 1797. Bligh would have used a sextant - a naval navigation tool - to chart his location in relation to fixed points on the land, usually church steeples.

The chart carries notes in Bligh's own hand. One note states that the survey would have been more detailed, but the captain was called away at short notice. This haste in completing the survey may explain some of the errors in the mapping as Phil Cowing explains:

"We've checked some of the coordinates and we notice that the position he has Spurn Point is some two miles north of what we know to be the position in the modern day. Likewise, Grimsby was some two miles out from its chart position these days. So maybe he was rushing somewhat."

Bligh's chart of the Humber from 1797
Bligh's chart of the Humber from 1797

Despite the inaccuracies the chart is testament to Bligh's navigational abilities in an age before satellite mapping, and other electronic aids.

Navigating the Humber is difficult due to the high speed of the tides and the constantly shifting sands beneath. Captain Cowing describes the Humber as "challenging", and others have described it as the most dangerous river in the world.


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