Bryan Caplan  

Captain Bligh: Bad Economist or Bad Psychologist?

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Cowen's Law... The 1920's and the 1990's...

If you believe the movies, Captain Bligh caused the "mutiny on the Bounty" by being so harsh that his men decided that they had nothing to lose by kicking him off the ship. In other words, Captain Bligh was to the right of the peak of the Laffer Curve: He could have gotten more breadfruit to Jamaica (i.e. more than zero) by giving his sailors better treatment.

But after watching the 1962 Marlon Brando version, I was curious about the actual facts. According to Wikipedia, Bligh was less brutal than the typical ship captain of his day:

For the book Mr. Bligh's Bad Language, Greg Dening analyzed ships' logs for the statistics on floggings at sea between 1765 and 1793. Fleet-wide, 21.5% of sailors received at least one lash, and the average number of lashes per flogging was five. At one extreme, George Vancouver had 45% of his crew flogged, averaging 21 strokes per flogging; Bligh was well below average, with 19 percent of his crew receiving an average of 1.5 lashes; whatever Bligh's faults, unusually harsh discipline was not among them. This is also brought out by the fact that three deserters during the voyage were flogged instead of being hanged. Further, Bligh noted within his official log that he needed every man.

So why was there a mutiny? One intriguing explanation is that Bligh just had bad interpersonal skills. He made his sailors hate him by talking down to them:

Bligh was reputed to have a harsh tongue, and to criticize substandard performance at length in front of other crewmembers. While he may have been comparatively lenient in actual discipline, some historians have speculated that his demanding character cost him the loyalty necessary to maintain good order among the crew, especially in light of six months of soft living in Tahiti.

In other words, Captain Bligh's problem was not that he gave his crew bad incentives, but that he gave his crew a bad attitude toward himself. As the old song goes, it "t'ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it."


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Deb McAdams writes:

I have to say that wikipedia is leaving the realm of encyclopedias and turning into a storehouse of knowledge that cannot even be imagined yet.

The time when the answer to every question that anybody on the internet has ever asked is available in a somewhat organized and easy to search format.

What that will do to the concept of education or the concept of knowledge or human interactions it is just not seeable yet.

Robert Schwartz writes:

Maybe it wasn't Bligh's fault. Maybe the mutineers were just bad guys.

After being tossed off the Bounty, Bligh demonstrated extraordinary seamanship and command ability, by sailing the ship's launch, a 23 foot long open vessel, and 18 of the loyal crew, on a 41 day voyage first to Tofua and then to Timor a distance of more than distance as 3,600 nautical miles. The only casualty was a crewman who was stoned by the natives of Tofua, the first island they tried to land on.

Was he really such a bad guy?

Grzegorz writes:

Read 'The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty' by Caroline Alexander.

You'll realize:
* William Bligh was a Lieutenant not a Captain (the 'Bounty' was a cutter (I believe), not a ship. Cutters did not require the rank of 'Captain' to launch.

* William Bligh was a great sailor; witness his experience of survival of over a month in an open boat, traveling over 3600 miles, with limited food and water, through rough seas, ultimately arriving safely in West Timor.

* As Bryan pointed out, the tales of drunkenness and cruelty attributed to Bligh were embellished to grant cause to the mutineers.

KipEsquire writes:

Might part of the problem also have been the destination? It's one thing to endure harsh navy life, but to endure it, then spend time on Tahiti, then go back to harsh Navy life might have been too much for Christian and the crew.

asg writes:

Anyone in command of a ship is addressed as "Captain", however, regardless of his actual rank.

Jonathan Dingel writes:

(Apologies for dragging this off-topic)

Deb, I wouldn't be so quick to hop on the Wikipedia bandwagon. In my experience, the entries tend to poorly characterize the central ideas and implications of an event/theory/statute.

See http://volokh.com/posts/1098119066.shtml & http://www.tradediversion.net/archives/2005/07/wikipedia_on_ne.html

dearieme writes:

As I understand it, one of the problems was that Bligh was rather foul-mouthed and was not a Gentleman. Christian was a Gentleman and came to resent taking orders, and curses, from his social inferior. Christian was evidently a bad lot, and shouldn't have joined the (relative) meritocracy of the Navy (the great Captain Cook was a shepherd's son) if he felt hoity-toity about social status.

Bob Knaus writes:

It's entries like this that keep me coming back to read this blog :-D

No, Bligh was not such a bad guy. His crew mutinied in the context of the French Revolution and Droits de l'Homme and all of that stuff. The culture of incest recently exposed in the Pitcairn Islanders is the sad end of the paradise that Christian sought to establish. You can draw just about any moral you want to out of the whole affair.

Bligh was a tenacious fellow. His second voyage was sucessful in bringing breadfruit to the West Indies. I have my boy scout crews look for the tree descended from his seedlings when they go ashore at Hopetown in the Bahamas. The fruit, unfortunately, was too insipid and starchy for local tastes and never caught on amongst the natives.

Now what was that about drawing whatever moral you liked?

Capt. Bob Knaus
S/V PELLUCID
www.pellucid.org

Ian Lewis writes:

I can't remember where I read it, but I do remember reading that Bligh might have caused the mutiny by being to LENIENT with his crew. That is, they had a sense of entitlement that other Captains (or Lieutenants) did not allow.

Actually, this might have been on NPR once, has anyone else encountered this story?

Bligh suffered another mutiny a few years later, as Governor of New South Wales, Australia. The colonists rebelled, imprisoned him and shipped him back to England.

Maybe he wasn't all that good with people.

But, add the memories of the sybaritic existence the Bounty sailors enjoyed in Tahiti to the mix, and it would have been trouble for any Captain.

Darin London writes:

Maybe this is a case where the lack of 'follow-through' by Bligh to actually punish his
crew, despite his harsh language, led to a decrease in Marginal Power over the crew, combined with a concomitant increase in MP of the crew. Maybe it is at the margin that tension turns into violent revolution.

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