If the Bounty had reached Pitcairn Island, but the open boat with the
drifting Captain William Bligh and his remaining crew had been consumed by the ocean,
the Bounty would have appeared as another anonymous naval loss. One of
the countless unspecific tragedies, which were experienced by a dangerous
profession. Perhaps rumours may have circulated years later as other
wandering vessels encountered the descendants of the mutineers. Romantic
stories may have been based on these accounts. It is unlikely that Bligh
would have been remembered as anything more than an accomplished
seaman with an interest in botany. Fletcher Christian may not have been
known of at all. Bligh ensured his ambiguous place in history and that of
his nemesis, through a single feat: his survival.
Set adrift in Bounty’s open launch, he and the rump of his crew failed to
die of exposure, dehydration, starvation or drowning. All but one survived
conflict with islanders or each other and amazingly they were not noticeably afflicted by madness.
Through careful calculations and the generosity of the mutineers (in
providing Bligh with all the necessary instruments of navigation), Bligh
and his crew navigated 5,800 km through the South Pacific to safety. Bligh
ultimately returned to England to face Court Martial for the loss of a
vessel, to be exonorated and to publish his memoirs of the mutiny and his
epic journey. Bligh continued through a respectable naval career to
retirement, becoming one of the most celebrated navigators and one of the
most vilified historical figures in British History.
For those of us who have never been to sea and who will never truly
experience the fear of being lost or isolated, we can only fantasize as to the
poignant terror of gazing into the apparent horizon of the South Pacific.
Scratching simple calculations into a sodden notebook and sharing
diminishing quanities of food amongst an increasingly wretched group of
companions. Fearful and ignorant of the human inhabitants of islands on
the horizon, the squalor of the boat would vary from claustrophobic
incarceration to paranoid sanctuary.
Bligh's log book documents an unfamiliar discipline and consistency. The
heightened emotions of contemporary fictional struggles are not
represented here. He does not vocalise his fear or his anxiety. We can
assume that he had such confidence in his own navigational ability that he
felt no concern, but more realistically we can reflect that even at this state
of exhaustion, isolation and degeneration after 40 days at sea, Bligh was
considering the importance of his dignity. Whether real or perceived,
melancholia, depression or frustration had no place in the official record.
Contemporary navigation still uses the same units of measurement and
much of the same knowledge that Bligh had been informed by. The data
conversion tables have been supplanted by computers and the sextant is
now overshadowed by precision, compasses, chronometers and GPS.
Radar and radio will mean that the psychological isolation felt by Bligh
and his crew could rarely be experienced again.
For the generation that witnessed the proliferation of mobile telephones it
is possible for us to lament the loss of isolation. It is no longer possible for
lovers to lose each other in a crowd. The poignancy of missed
opportunities and the serendipity of chance encounters is more often
replaced with less dignified incremental instructions via text message.
The ocean is the ultimate navigational challenge. The open sea, free from
reference points, familiar land masses or other travellers, offers a vast
desert of uncertainty and isolation. The same stars look down on mariners
now as 250 years ago but augemented with digital information and
analogue communications the electronic maps of the oceans bristle with
information. Virtual markers populate the ocean floor with plotted depths,
underwater mountain ranges, submerged reefs, tidal currents and volcanic
Traversing oceans has, like much of contemporary experience, become
mediated through technology and virtual imagery. Perhaps the reason for
the resonance of Bligh’s epic voyage is that although the city and culture
that he inhabited has changed beyond all recognition, the oceans remain
the component part of the planet least visibly affected by human
development. Shipping lanes may be infinitely busier but the enormity of
the ocean means that man’s presence can still not be felt beyond its
perimeter. Our inability to cultivate or settle the oceans has left them as the
The mesmerising idea of a 360 degree view devoid of human presence or
influence remains plausible and timeless. The magnetic desire for poetic
isolation remains intertwined with our inate fear of mortality.
Latitude is an attempt to reference this experience. Using simulation
technology developed by KongsBerg AS, Norway and with advice and
support of the Maritime Simulation Unit at South Tyneside College,
Latitude is a attempt to regenerate the view from the Bligh’s open boat as it
traversed the 5,800km to safety.
The data recorded by Bligh in his notebook combined with oceanographic
information and a vessel modelled on the original elevation drawings, are
combined to render with physical accuracy the motion and view of the
occupants of Bligh’s launch. Generated in real-time the imagery is not prerecorded
but created mathematically through the coordinates, weather, and
other information available. In a sense this is a reverse engineered log-book
allowing the audience to translate the notes and figures recorded in Bligh's journal into sensory experience.