Fortune both grants favor and revokes it. Plutarch, wise in the ways of such things, puts this prescient little speech into the mouth of Aemilius Paullus, who was addressing a group of intemperate young men:

Is it fitting for a mortal man to become bold when he enjoys success, or proud because he has conquered a nation or a city or a kingdom?  Or should he instead contemplate this reversal of fortune, which provides for any man who wages war an instructive example of our common vulnerability and teaches us that nothing is stable and secure? What sort of moment is it for mortals to be confident, when their victory over other men obliges them to be most afraid of fortune, and when a happy man can be reduced to dejection by his knowledge that destiny follows a circular course, coming to different men at different times?…Can you then believe that our own affairs enjoy any lasting protection from the vicissitudes of fortune? Young men, will you not then abandon your hollow insolence and let go of your pride…and instead look towards the future with humility, always watchful of the moment when the divine will at last exacts from each of you retribution for your present prosperity?[1]

Falls from Fortune’s grace can come with distressing speed. Captain William Bligh, a respected officer of the British Navy and merchant service, discovered for himself just how cruel such reversals can be. Awarded the captaincy of H.M.S. Bounty in 1787, he and his crew sailed for Tahiti on a mission to collect breadfruit trees for agricultural use in the Caribbean. After ten months at sea on a voyage that exceeded 27,000 miles, the Bounty finally reached the South Seas. Much has been written on the character of Bligh and his style of command; while not the tyrannical monster he has been made out to be, he certainly was a product of the British maritime service’s severe disciplinary culture.

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William Bligh:  a complex and controversial figure

A competent and meticulous mariner, he nevertheless lacked a measure of joviality that might have softened his harsher edges. Deaf to the music of mildness, his coldness and detachment prevented him from extending to his crew those incidental touches of magnanimity that might have done much to relieve the tedium of a long sea voyage. Tensions multiplied, and Bligh’s appointment with the laughing mistress Fortune was not long in coming. He later related how he was seized by the mutineers:

Just before sun-rising, while I was yet asleep, Mr. [Fletcher] Christian…came into my cabin, and seizing me, tied my hands with a cord behind my back, threatening me with instant death if I spoke…I was hauled out of bed, and forced on deck in my shirt, suffering great pain from the tightness with which they had tied my hands.[2]

For Bligh and the crew members loyal to him, things were about to become much worse. He and eighteen other men were cast adrift in a leaky open boat only twenty-three feet in length, and which was so overloaded that it was in constant danger of being swamped. One errant wave of sufficient size might have spelled the end for them. For provisions, they were permitted only the barest of essentials: some salt pork, bread, wine, rum, water, and a few cutlasses.

Most significantly, they were given no charts or navigational equipment; the mutineers permitted them only a compass and an old quadrant. In the enormity of the Pacific Ocean, to try to navigate by such primitive reckonings was a colossal handicap, something within the capabilities of only the most talented navigator. But Bligh, who had served under Captain Cook, one of Britain’s ablest explorers, was up to the task.

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The plan was to head for the closest known friendly location: the island of Timor, which was a daunting 3,600 miles distant. Bligh’s crew, exposed to the torments of wave, sun, and starvation, had hardly one chance in a hundred. Trying to locate an island three thousand miles away by dead reckoning on the open sea was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. To this difficulty was added the fact that the men could not make landfall for rest or provisions during the journey; the islands were populated by fierce cannibals, hostile to all outsiders, even other Polynesians. One of Bligh’s crew was killed by natives as they tried to land on the island of Tofua.

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It is unlikely that Bligh, even had he possessed the philosophic temperament to reflect on the rapidity of his fall from power, would have had much opportunity to brood over the desperation of his situation. The day-to-day struggle for survival supplanted all other considerations. It is ironic—how strange and variable is Fate!—that the personal qualities that so disadvantaged him as captain of the Bounty now proved to be invaluable in preserving his and his men’s lives. Survival in the boat now called for parsimony, iron discipline, seamanship, and the ability to block out the true desperation of the situation; these were qualities that Bligh possessed in abundance. So men’s faults in one setting may be virtues in another.

He instituted a strict rationing policy from which he never deviated; he occupied his men’s minds so as to prevent despair from taking hold of them; and he developed a creative method of ensuring fairness in the allotment of rations. In his published account of the ordeal, Bligh emerges as something of a mother hen to his men, apportioning out teaspoons of rum, bread, and raw bird flesh with soothing regularity. Under his tutelage, his men remained British seamen, rather than a starving collection of skeletons. Baked by the unrelenting sun, buffeted by waves and storms, and denied food and water, they maintained their cohesion and discipline in the face of the most miserable conditions imaginable.

“The sea flew over us with great force, and kept us bailing with horror and anxiety,” he later wrote. Incredibly, Bligh even managed to record topographic data along the way regarding the islands, currents, depths, and wind conditions he encountered en route. And he lost not one single man. It was a feat of incredible resourcefulness and willpower, never equaled in the turbulent annals of maritime history. He and his men reached Timor, in a state of near collapse. Bligh comments on the event in his usual deadpan manner:

Thus, through the assistance of Divine Providence, we surmounted the difficulties and distresses of a most perilous voyage, and arrived safe in a hospitable port, where every necessary and comfort were administered to us with a most liberal hand.[3]

One day, we may be a captain, controlling our destiny. The next day, we may find ourselves adrift on the open sea with scarcely a prayer. Plutarch reminds us of this truth:

Perhaps…there exists a divinity whose role it is to diminish our prosperity, whenever it  becomes exceedingly great, and add complexity to a mortal’s life, so that it is not unmixed with evils or left altogether free from misfortune, so that instead, as Homer says, they seem to fare best whose fortunes tip the scales now in one direction, now in the other.[4]

I have come to accept the truth of this view. It is well for us to remain suspicious of Fortune and her wily ways. She never really bestows her blessings on us without some condition of future repayment in kind. The wise and prudent man will accept the blessings of life without undue exuberance or frivolity; for he remains keenly aware that what is certain today may dissolve into the swirling fog of memory tomorrow. He will, like Bligh, learn to bear these calamities with a grim determination that never permits the indulgence of self-pity. All that remain for us are the virtues that contribute to our endurance of these cruel vagaries.


[1] Scott-Kilvert, Ian et al., The Rise of Rome: Twelve Lives by Plutarch, London:  The Penguin Group (2013), p. 571.

[2] Bligh, William, The Mutiny On Board H.M.S. Bounty, New York:  Airmont Publishing Co. (1965), p. 117.

[3] Id., p. 172.

[4] Scott-Kilvert, supra, p. 578.

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