The Public Opinion Trial of Captain William Bligh


Bailiff: “All rise for the judge, his honorable of Public Opinion, John Cleese”


Judge Cleese: “Please be seated. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you’re about to hear the concluding arguments in the case of History v. William Bligh. At the summation you’ll be asked to provide a verdict. We’ll begin with the defense. Representing Captain Bligh will be Sir Patrick Stewart, Esquire.”


Defense Counselor Stewart: “Thank you your honor. Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ll begin with a case that is mired in deep historical distortions. William Bligh has been unfairly slighted through modern history as the tyrant of the ship HMS Bounty. It’s difficult to be cast as the protagonist in the 1962 film against Marlon Brando.


ANYONE cast against Brando at that time was at a severe disadvantage in pubic opinion. Despite these slanderous slights, the facts remain that Lieutenant Bligh was an admirable sailing master under the famous world explorer, James Cook. In 1787, Bligh was hand picked by the British navy as commander of this vessel to sail to the southern Pacific to collect breadfruit plants and other flora as part of an expedition to collect horticultural samples for the British Royal Society directed by Sir Joseph Banks. Yes, breadfruit plants. Because of the structure of the ship and the necessity for space to store the exotic plants, the normal compliment of marines to act as security detail was abandoned. This decision by the British Royal Society was to effectively doom this trip.”

“Without this security detail, Bligh was forced to deal with discipline matters, with an unruly crew. Ladies and gentlemen, imagine the predicament of being a sheriff in an unruly western town, with no guns to defend yourself. This was the situation Bligh was faced with.”

“Tensions rose high during the voyage, and when arriving at Tahiti, the men of the Bounty rejoiced, and took full advantage of the area, and the women. And the women. Fletcher Christian, born of poverty and despised any of class, tested the leadership of Lt. Bligh at every moment. Lt. Bligh had to resort to harsh measures to keep these unruly sailors in line, all along the mission. After many days at Tahiti, Lt. Bligh finally ordered the Bounty to resume sail to continue its important mission.”

“After 23 days at sea, Mr. Christian, drunk with passion (and lust) for the Tahitian women and mad with revenge instigated a mutiny, a penalty under British maritime law punishable by death, and forced Lt. Bligh and five other men into a life raft with meager provisions in the middle of the south Pacific. This was, in effect, its own death sentence.”

“However, your honor, what Mr. Christian forgot was the fact the Lt. Bligh was an expert navigator and seaman, learning many of these qualities under Mr. Cook. Using just dead reckoning, a quadrant, pocket watch and navigation by stars, he was able to steer his 23-foot open boat 3,918 miles over 47 days to Timor. The longest open boat navigation in human history!”

“Upon return to England, Bligh was tried, and acquitted by the Royal Admiralty. He was even promoted to the rank of Captain in the British Navy.”

“In 1806, Captain Bligh was promoted as Governor of New South Wales in Australia. He sought to prevent the exploitation of farmers by the monopolistic traders, who smuggled liquor to enrich their pockets. His actions promoted a counter-action, known as the Rum Rebellion. His honorable actions brought forth the ire of the sinister mogul John MacArthur, who saw a threat to his empire, and had a campaign launched to arrest Mr. Bligh and remove him from Australia.”

“In closing, William Bligh is often misconstrued as a tyrant. In reality, he was a noble and dedicated servant of the British Empire, who valued order and mission and the keys to stability in an otherwise chaotic world. This concludes my statement.”

Judge Cleese: “Thank you, Sir Patrick Stewart. We’ll now hear from the defense, Sir Ian McKellan for the prosecution.”


Crown Prosecutor McKellan: “Thank you your honor. Ladies and gentlemen, this is clearly an open and shut case of the image and posterity of a man who ruled with such tyrannical powers. Mr. Bligh was indeed chosen as commander of the HMS Bounty. While he did lack a security detail, he made up in spades with a legion of harsh discipline and fear, due to his lack of effective management. His inefficient leadership and lack of empathy towards his men drove him to such harsh punitive measures as to cause such resentment amongst his crew. The documented tales of retributive punishment for the most trivial minor offenses is well known to all. It is no wonder, then, that the crew saw safety and security in the lush islands of Tahiti. And when ordered to set sail, the crew, under the situational leadership of Mr. Christian, saw an opportunity to escape and took advantage. Rather than outright killing Bligh and his loyal servants, Mr. Christian offered mercy and allowed him to sail open the vast seas.”

“Bligh was indeed a privileged and comforted member of the British upper classes. He was eventually rewarded with the title of Governor of New South Wales in Australia, and sought to impose his distinct views upon a land completely foreign to him. Governor Bligh imposed his strict values, and disregard for the economic conditions which allowed for the barter of alcohol for the market sale of livestock and grain. His tyrannical controls over the regulation of stills, and his outright hostility toward those in economic powers were characteristic of his myopic views and inflexibility. He was a coward who, when faced with arrest, hid under a bed rather than openly face his accusers”

“In short, William Bligh is, and was, a bully and a man of horrible management and leadership skills. His name is synonymous with merciless rule and tyrannical fear. History has been correct in judging him in a negative slant. I propose we maintain this perspective.”


Judge Cleese: “Thank you, Crown Prosecutor and Defense Counselor. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury of Public Opinion, you have heard the summation of arguments for and against William Bligh. You have before you reference materials for further examination. I ask you now to take leave and return with a verdict on the historic fate of this man. Was he in fact a cruel tyrant and ineffective governor, or an expert sailor and a man who sought justice and dispensed it as best he could? Please provide your answer to the court. Thank you.”


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Welcome to Africa – Epilogue (How Much Does an Aircraft Weigh?)

To read this, you really should read the previous post:

So, in the infamous travel jargon “there I was…”

My guide had driven me to the airport terminal at N’Djamena airfield in Chad. We departed the truck parked askew in front of the entrance to base operations. I exited the back of the Land Cruiser with bag of cash in hand, carefully counted and accounted for based on the ridiculous fees negotiated over. We walked amidst the silence of the base; air traffic into this desolate location is few, far between, and only occurs due to travel miscalculations or planned surreptitious business.


Traversing through the abandoned corridors of the offices, I was struck by the pungent stale odors of musty furniture and mysterious herbs cooked from obscure kitchens. My guide, who knew this place all too unfortunately well, walked brusquely to the main office of the airfield manager. It was there that we were to negotiate and offer tribute to this country.


As I walked into the manager’s office, 2 things struck me. One was the overweight and seriously lethargic secretary that sat on an overstuffed tattered sofa, looking at me with indignant apathy. She sized me up much like my cat who casually looks at me when I return from work, evaluating me as to how I can be of any use. The other vision was the immense and oversized portrait of the Chadian President, about 4 x 6 feet (at least), framed and hung prominently on the main wall. I am of the age that I know my limits of knowledge and wisdom, but one thing I know for sure: that picture has been changed and replaced so many times yet the fading shadows of the paint has not effected the texture of the structure behind it. Presidents and dictators are always evident in public places. They change frequently but their residue spot on the wall remains the same.


Anyway, after waiting for what seemed an eternity, the airfield manager finally came in and greeted us. The secretary continued to sit and watch us with benign interest. I walked up to the main desk and began my business of payment for landing at this austere destination. We ran through the laundry list of costs: air stairs, dry ice, fuel, emergency equipment (we didn’t need this, but had to pay in case we did), and so forth.


But the best part came when this seasoned bureaucrat turned his head towards us and asked me in a casual sort of way, “How much does your aircraft weigh”. He was trying to calculate the costs for landing, using some antiquated formula. “Geez, how much DOES a cargo jet weigh?” I thought to myself. I hadn’t expected this question. I was just there to dump cold US cash onto his lap to pay for the transport fees.

I stumbled about and finally confessed I had no idea how much a huge US military cargo jet weighs. Tons? 1000 tons? 10,000 tons? I’m not an aviator and never dreamed of trying to figure that out. It’s like someone asking “How many jelly beans fit in a 2003 Honda Accord?” Quick. And then stare at you awaiting the response.

So, in my befuddlement I confessed I could only WAG it, and WAG it very hard. So, my Chadian bureaucrat fished around and finally came about an old aviation book, much like the old Bell South White Pages and thumbed through some torn pages to try to figure out a weight. The best part was when we finally negotiated on a weight of tons, and then had to figure the calculations into metric. My limited knowledge knows that multiplying kilometers by .54 gets you nautical miles, and I then dug deeper into the well of trivia and cranial depths to remember that dividing pounds by 2.2 gets you kilograms (or is it multiplying?). The best part was when my Chadian counterpart shoved a cheap Casio calculator under my nose to figure out the math, and the ransom. So there I was, putting my best guess into a $2 pocket calculator, figuring the math to pay thousands of dollars to a corrupt official in a hot steamy room on a desolate terminal in the middle of the Sahara. I’ve done haggling, and have haggled my way through Souks in the Mideast and bazaars in southern Africa, but at this point all I wanted was a reasonable number that would pass muster and avoid the threat of AK-47s in my face.


I can’t remember what I told them a US heavy cargo jet weighs, but it must’ve seemed reasonable because we all agreed on a landing fee price. I got a receipt from the secretary cat and had a strong desire to leave the airfield ops at N’Djamena as quick as humanely possible.

After the payment was made, my US Embassy guide walked me out to the White Land Cruiser, and as I jumped into the back cabin, splattered with human blood and spinal fluid from a dead Libyan pilot, we drove across the tarmac back to our jet. The image of the US flag on the fuselage brought me back to a comfort level. I climbed back aboard the aircraft and sat down, empty canvas bag, head swirling, and wondering exactly what had just happened. So many bizarre moments, so many unexplainable situations. Yes, “Welcome to Africa” indeed.

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Welcome to Africa


We think we know, but oftentimes we don’t. We think we know what our surroundings are, the cultural mores and customs – the “way things work”. When thrust into a foreign and alien environment, one tries to adapt as best they can and “roll with the punches”. Sometimes those punches come at you like a ‘sucker-punch’ without any warning.

I was on a trip with the military (sometime around 2007) that included stops in several destinations in the Sahel (northern Africa). I had travelled to Africa many times before, but this time one of our stops was to N’Djamena in Chad. Because of security concerns, some destinations were just “stop and go”, while at others we were permitted to stay and allow crew rest.



To say there’s corruption in Africa is to say there can be traffic problems in Manhattan, or LA, or DC – it’s a given (and obvious). We accept it as a condition of life. When an aircraft, let alone a US military aircraft lands in an undeveloped country in Africa it’s not a symbol of freedom and democracy but a gi-normous dollar sign and source of income. There are fees. Lots of fees. Landing fees. Air stairs? That’s a fee (about $500). Dry ice? (for keeping whatever food you have onboard fresh) – that’s a fee. Jet fuel? Exorbitant prices. Whatever services you can imagine a cargo jet needs, African airfields can provide – sometimes against your will – and at a hefty price. And these prices are calculated into the corruption factor that the bureaucrats at the airfield use to supplant their income, and pay those higher up in the food chain. It’s all survival.

One of my duties on this particular mission was to act as intermediary between the US government and the local bureaucracy. We had radioed in to the airfield base ops and negotiated the costs of arrival at this “luxurious” place of N’Djamena. Upon arrival we taxied the jet and shut down the engines. Once the ransom fee was agreed upon, we sat in the cabin of the jet counting the money, in unmarked US $20’s. Corrupt officials prefer cold cash to traceable electronic debit.


So there I was, sitting in the cabin counting out 20 dollar bills as if in some drug deal…20 – 40 – 60 – 80 — 100… 20 – 40 – 60 – 80 — 200…so forth until we had thousands of US bills stuffed in a nondescript beige canvas bag, ready to hand over to the local authorities (we kept receipts). Once the money was counted and accounted for, all we were waiting for was the US Embassy official to pull up outside the jet and escort us to the airfield terminal.

But then something interesting happened. We noticed through the portal windows that several unmarked vehicles were racing about at breakneck speed all along the tarmac. I noticed that there was a Libyan cargo jet, an IL-76 (Ilyushin), parked a ways away and much commotion enveloped around it. I later discovered that President Muammar Qaddafi of Libya had visited N’Djamena the day prior and dedicated a hospital, or hotel, or school, or some other official building soon to be a relic in 20 years as part of Libya’s good will gesture to the Sahel. Qaddafi had left in a flourish but his entourage was preparing to head back to Tripoli.


As it turns out, the cargo door of the IL-76 from the back has an opening/enclosure that can be triggered by a button/lever that instigates a massive hydraulic mechanism, much like a clamshell that closes in upon itself. It so happened that the Libyan pilot, standing on a ladder (cost of which unknown) had inadvertently pushed this button/level whilst inspecting the cargo bay. This hydraulic door had abruptly activated and suddenly collapsed in, and closed in upon his skull. It crushed his head, as later described, “like a grapefruit”. The pilot, or rather his now lifeless body, was pinned by the cargo door in some grotesque form, dangling above the hot African asphalt.


The Chadians now had a serious diplomatic problem. Their benefactor’s military pilot had had his cranium smashed like some rotten fruit, and the diplomatic consequences were impending. The Chadians were not about to take custody of this situation and had asked for help from the US to remove this body off the tarmac and take it to the edge of the airfield to allow the Libyans to take ownership. The corrupt Chadian airfield officials did not want, literally, blood on their hands.


The US Embassy official obliged and drove to the IL-76 to retrieve the mangled body and placed him in the back of this non-descript beaten-down and weather-worn white Toyota Land cruiser as to drive this mangled corpse off the ramp to a location whereas the Chadians, and Libyans, could negotiate its fate.

Hence the scene of the rapidly moving vehicles and mayhem on the tarmac. Meanwhile I’m waiting patiently with a bag of unmarked bills in a canvas bag wondering when the payoff would proceed.

After some time, this white (well, it was white at one time early in its life) Land cruiser pulls up alongside our jet and the US Embassy man, wearing civilian clothes and a Yuengling baseball cap bounces out introduces himself to us. We do the obligatory handshakes and talk a bit about the latest events back in “the States”. I walk over and tactfully enter into the back cabin of the truck, which is batter-worn and noticeably rusted but wet with water and the gullies of the truck bed covered in some sort of dark emerald green slime. Flies are swarming around me in a predatory fashion. Lots and lots of flies. As I step in, I discover from my guide that the green slime is actually spinal fluid from the Libyan pilot. The water was from a garden hose they sprayed down to try to wash away the bodily fluids from this dead airman, as I hunch down delicately in a catcher’s stance, still with a tight grip on the canvas bag full of hard cash. As we speed along the tarmac to the terminal I desperately try to keep balance as the truck bounces along, it’s at this point that my US Embassy official turns his head around slowly from the front and describes the proceeding event in lurid detail, and ends with a casual and flippant air telling me “Welcome to Africa”.


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The Lost World – thru stamps (Dahomey)


Dahomey is one of those Lost Worlds that, like Siam and Ceylon, literally still exists in landmass, people, flora and fauna but has ceased to be in the political realm. It’s like a ghost in that its history and existence survive but only in this otherworld of forgotten lore.

Dahomey was a kingdom on western Africa that existed as a political entity for almost 300 years. It’s position on the coast enabled it to benefit from the lucrative gold trade as well as a port of departure for the slave trade from unwilling participants caught by enterprising warlords on north and central Africa. And in 1960 it was rebranded as Benin.


One interesting fact about Dahomey is that in 1729, the King, wanting to fill up the ranks of the military, enlisted the help of strong and fierce women who later became known as Amazonian Women ( They were so fierce that the “women soldiers were consistently judged to be superior to the male soldiers in effectiveness and bravery.” There was obviously no political news echo chamber back in the 18th century that prevented the King to second-guess his decision.

Dahomey Amazonian Warriors
Hollywood Amazonian Warriors

Dahomey, like its compatriots Ceylon, Formosa and Upper Volta, were washed away in the tide of imperialism and Realpolitik. But like the latent shadow it is, still survives in relics such as stamps, and of course, the Internet. As James Thurber penned, and oft quoted by Casey Stengel, “you could look it up”.

But geography is an atrophied skill of most people. Never mind knowing where Formosa once stood, most people if asked to place Benin on a world map would fare quite miserably. And if asked where Dahomey was, you may get an answer like “Dahomey…that’s where Da House is”.

We’ve grown too accustomed to GPS and Google Maps to navigate our way through the world. Physical maps have gone the way of typewriter ribbons. So much reliance on technology has provided the opposite effect in terms of geographic literacy – our insolation and interdependent on technology has created a soda straw that we view the world through. And still, ghosts such as Dahomey wander through and exit into the ethereal of the Lost World.

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Honoring Richard Burton (no, not that one)


No blog that includes passages about travel would be entirely complete without a mention to some of the famous travellers throughout history. Most people, if challenged, would probably list Columbus and Marco Polo as the tops in this list. Very few people would be able to list one of the most well versed and travelled explorers, and that is Sir Richard Burton.

No, not that guy.

This guy.
Since this is a blog and attention spans are short, I’ll keep this succinct.

Sir Richard Francis Burton could probably be described as the great-grandfather to The World’s Most Interesting Man.
Born in England, he struggled his way up the ladder of society, only to be kicked back a few rungs by the established elite. He struck out on his own and did some remarkable but sometimes forgotten things.

In short, he was:
– a Rebel. Kicked out of Trinity College for challenging the rules about attending horse races. Trampled the college’s famous flowers with his horse upon expulsion.
– a Fighter. As Laurell Hamilton quipped, “is this a private fight, or can anyone join”? Burton enlisted in the British Army in 1842 to fight in the 1st Afghan war, only to find the war was over by the time he sailed over (he eventually served in Goa India – he needn’t worry, there’d be more wars in Afghanistan through time). He got commissioned and went native. He eventually rejoined the army in 1855 to fight in the Crimean War, only to be drummed out on dubious charges.
– a Lover. Burton, whilst in the British Army, worked as an undercover agent reporting on the brothels in Pakistan, and was responsible and published the famous English-version of the Kama Sutra in 1883.
– a Cultural Icon. Burton spoke 29 European, Asian and African languages. Twenty Nine! He was fascinated with cultures and life-styles and blended seamlessly into other lands. He was the most famous early non-Muslim explorer to travel to Mecca (1853), participate undetected, survive and live about it and write about his travels.

– One to piss-off people. Burton defied authority, and despite his knowledge of culture and languages, failed to pass the British Army Arab language exam, despite his previous experience (Pakistan, Mecca, et al). The exam proctor was amazed by Burton’s skills, but the overall examiner had quite an axe to grind – bad blood from a previous squabble. His famous companion and explorer Richard Speke turned against him after the Africa exploration – Speke got to England first and told his side of the story. It’s HIS-story, after all.
– a Renaissance Man. In addition to travel, language, military experience, Burton was a noted scholar and prolific writer who penned books about fencing, falconry, and other topics. He was the one responsible for the most comprehensive English translation of ‘1001 Nights’ (or, the Arabian Nights).
– a Survivor. Burton lived through the Crimean War, an uprising in Yemen (1854), an exploration in Somalia (with Speke) in which he was impaled with a javelin – the point entering one cheek and exiting the other, and the expedition into Tanganyika (now Tanzania) with Speke (1858) to find the source of the river Nile.

Burton is most famously known as the co-explorer with Speke in east Africa. There was a dust-up upon return to England over the details of the exploration. However, Burton was one to keep meticulous notes, and this information was invaluable to David Livingstone and Henry Stanley (“Dr. Livingstone I presume”) for future explorations.

Sir Richard Burton, after the Tanganyika exploration, was assigned to a post in West Africa whence he wrote about the local customs and cultures, as well as a stint in Brazil. He eventually was sent to Trieste Italy where he rested, and wrote, and rested, and then died of a heart attack in 1890 at age 69.

Sir Richard Francis Burton is indeed worthy of attention, and mention, because of his heroic deeds and exploration of the Lost World. There aren’t too many like him, then or today.

Sir Richard Burton's journey to the Secret City

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The Lost World – thru stamps (Cook Islands)


As Lost Worlds go, the Cook Islands seem to have an enviable place as one infested with colorful history. As a chain of islands that apparently were discovered, then re-discovered, and re-re-discovered by various Polynesian clan members, it was re-re-re-discovered by, of course, the British.

On the Cook Islands (whose income today rests primarily on tourism), it seems tradition held that the leader of the pack had to have not just physical strength, but a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that included such attributes as street smarts, elderly wisdom and spiritual endowment.

Of course, this “mana” was only as good until the British arrived with heavier firepower and armed, hardened sailors. Over time the islanders accepted the British as a better option over the French, who had a bad reputation at the time for their foraging of Tahiti.

The Cook Islands, obviously, is named after the explorer James Cook who has an equally colorful past. His top Lieutenant at the time, William Bligh, goes down unfortunately in history as the victim of the mutiny of the ship Bounty in of all places, Tahiti. I’ve read the historical accounts and agree that Bligh probably got a bad shake. But, as a side note, his survival in an open boat and navigation across the Pacific stands as the longest open boat survival voyage, 3618 miles, to this day.
That is the equivalent of sailing, with the aid of only the stars and a compass from the distance of Central Park in NYC to the Grand Canyon, AND back, and even to the shores of Bethesda Fountain (if it had a shore). The point is the amazing precision of the navigation on top of the challenge of survival. No small feat. And without Google maps or a GPS. Bligh was good. A great navigator, but maybe his management skills had much to be desired.

Having travelled to my share of south Pacific islands (but not Cook), the tourism brochures always show a tranquil, idyllic paradise. What they don’t like to show are the indigenous peoples living in poverty, often with a latent resentment to outsiders. Much like the attitudes of the Maori when James Cook arrived in 1773. In this respect, the Cook Islands still retain the attitudes of the Lost World.




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The Lost World – thru stamps (Cayman Islands)


While I have bounced about the Caribbean in my travels, I’ve never called the Cayman Islands one of my destinations. It’s a small island, about 19 miles from head to toe. About the same distance as from Alexandria, Virginia to Silver Spring, Maryland, or from the terminal at LAX to Pasadena. I’m sure the traffic on the Caymans is nowhere near the chaos and mayhem of the Beltway or the Santa Monica Freeway.

The Caymans according to history was an island devoid of plenty of indigenous peoples, until of course, it was swarmed by pirates, cast-outs and those fleeing persecutions. Not exactly your ideal nucleus for the beginnings of a civilization. And, as it turned out the British came by as they usually did, and imposed their sort of order. So much order in fact that by the first census in 1802 showed that a good 60% of the population were slaves.

The Caymans quickly discovered, like the Swiss, that by offering a place to dump money at no tax rate, they could become the groundskeeper of the evil sin of greed. And they’ve (or at least the top 1%) have excelled in perpetuating this tax shelter. So much so, that the Caymans has a stigma to this day of a land of shady and illicit money dealings.

So, this Lost World was never really lost, it just fooled us into believing it was a Caribbean paradise, idyllic and tranquil. And sitting atop mounds of ill-gotten gains. A real pirate oasis, then and today.



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