Captain Bligh: Bad Economist or Bad Psychologist?
By Bryan Caplan
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.
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.”