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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Bligh at Tofua

TOFUA, April 28, 1789

Night falls. The Bounty launch is bobbing in the surf of the island of Tofua, at the end of the first day of her voyage. The Bounty ship has long since vanished into the mists of the horizon.  The nineteen men crammed into the 23-foot launch try to snatch what sleep they can. At daybreak, they sail slowly along the coast, landing where they can, scavenging for coconuts and fresh water, trying to trade buttons from their jackets for breadfruit from the natives.
It becomes a routine over the next few days. But the natives are gathering in greater and greater numbers, friendly at first, but increasingly more menacing. Forebodingly, it seems that the news of the kidnapping at Anamooka has reached Tofua. Not only does the crowd know about the seizure of the chiefs, but they are aware of Bligh’s weak capitulation, and that he handed out conciliatory gifts when he let the kidnapped chiefs go.
In the middle of the next day, it becomes obvious that attack is imminent. The warriors are gathering, pressing in from all sides.  Each warrior holds two stones, and taps them together as he slowly advances. No words are spoken.  There is just the ominous clack, clack, clack of the stones.
Bligh orders a quiet, orderly retreat to the boat, while he remains on the beach, casually pretending to write up his log. Two chiefs approach, and order him to sleep on shore. “I never sleep out of my boat,” he replies.  “Then we will kill you,” they boast.
Still, Bligh remains calm. Taking one of the chiefs by the hand, he leads him to the launch through the press of menacing warriors. There is no noise, apart from the clack of stones.  The Bounty men watch numbly, with silent horror.
Bligh reaches the launch. The chief breaks away. “Pile into the boat!” shouts Bligh.  All the men obey except the big quartermaster, John Norton. Dutiful to the end, he wades out to where the boat’s painter is tied, ready to release it.
Frantically, the others shout at Norton to leave it, and jump into the boat. Too late.  A shower of stones fells him to the ground. The warriors take the line from his slack grip. They start to haul the launch up the beach. Through the surf and across the shingle, they drag it, while other warriors rain stones on the men in the boat.  Fumbling with his knife, Bligh somehow manages to cut the line. Pushing with their oars, raising the sail, the Bounty men flee
The natives leap into canoes and make chase. Bligh and his companions take off jackets and hats and throw them into the water. The warriors in the canoes stop for the plunder, and so the men in the Bounty launch escape. Their last sight of the beach is of John Norton’s head being beaten in, while other natives pull off the murdered man’s clothes.
Bruised and bleeding from the hail of stones, shaking with the aftermath of fear, the men in the launch make a historic decision. They will stop at no more islands. Instead, they will make the 3,618-mile voyage to Timor, in the East Indies, skirting Fiji, Vanuatu, and the Great Barrier Reef, and then negotiating the scarcely charted Torres Strait. Living on one ounce of bread and a quarter pint of water each day, somehow they will do it—and without the loss of even one more man.  
It is the start of the most remarkable small boat voyage in history.

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