Leadership at sea

February 02, 2020

Power of command is a theoretical measure, the ability to convert amassed subordinate potential to effective action. Much like its physical namesake, power is the product of potential difference in station and forcefulness of command. In situations of significant resistance, the balance of these factors must be managed—lest influence decay, resistance escalate, or force of command reach an extreme. Authority has a different connotation, that of applied command maintained by propriety and due respect. The two are neither mutually exclusive nor congruent. A good leader may be defined by either, but effective leadership is contingent on circumstance. There is a situation in which every leader would be impotent, and one in which even a terrible leader could thrive. The very fact that leadership has a bipolar scale signifies the complexity of command.

Going to sea in great ships requires a measure of courage and skill, and surviving it requires luck and fortitude. The interplay of personality, station and circumstance of the principals of two tragic maritime voyages will serve as example: first mate Owen Chase and captain George Pollard Jr. of Essex, and Commander William Bligh of Bounty. Had the events surrounding the two ships not occurred, history would not mention them or their successes and failures.

Owen Chase verbally lashed the inexperienced crew of Essex at every opportunity, dispelling any illusion of romance or adventure. He showed no mercy to seasick novices and established a reputation as a ruthless taskmaster. Bloodthirsty preparations ensured that Essex was ready to kill only days out of port, although there was no quarry. He was exceptionally verbal, with an imposing physical presence. Chase had faith in himself nearing bravado, and a career dependent on outspokenness. The fervor with which he hunted the sperm whale is characteristic of a business built on the reckless pursuit of profit. At the outset, he commanded ample authority by virtue of experience and strong will.

George Pollard instead opened the voyage with a speech asserting only that authority of the officers was ultimate. Crew described him as simple and reserved, and though he held both authority and power, he wielded them with unsure hands. In urgency the Essex sailed through a squall, severely damaging her and setting them back from the start. The dramatic shakedown cruise reflected poorly on Pollard’s judgement, but did show that he could remain calm in an emergency. Pollard thought to return to Nantucket for repairs rather than press on disadvantaged, but instead set a singular precedent defining his leadership style: deference to the opinions of his officers. He was not a soft man. He exercised authority when crew complained of scant meals, and promised retribution for the malicious ignition of the Galapagos.

Pollard showed reserve after the attack: remaining with the wreck and ensuring as many supplies were salvaged as could be carried. He stayed on Henderson as long as food was available. His determination to extract every ounce of vitality available when they had nothing stands in stark contrast to his rage that the crew would demand more when they felt slighted aboard Essex. He shows a passion for providing originally denied by the Quaker parsimony of Folger and Macy.

After sinking Essex, Pollard would continue to give orders counter to intuition. He committed to a journey that would stretch provisions even if everything went according to plan. He maintained this plan even as whale boats made no progress toward South America, as their course brought them nearer instead to Tahiti and the Society Islands. There was no way to know the utter weakness of the starved crew when he commanded them to row out of the doldrums, but it was rash to double their rations without assurance of making progress. He lapsed into dangerous generosity as despair and hunger became more pressing. This inconsistency led to sharing supplies with other boats, who had glutted themselves while others weren’t watching. Equitable concern for the group decreased their chance of survival, and made rampant cannibalism necessary.

It is unsurprising that Pollard faltered faced with Chase’s gale of personality. Chase’s impatient authority continued through much of the endeavor, seen in pressing crew regardless of despair and exhaustion, and readiness to leave Henderson before game and water were depleted. The predilection to action keeps the crew distracted and the boats seaworthy. His constancy gives difficult orders weight, and he only eases and encourages when no course is left but to hold fast to life and pray. Chase’s contingent fared better after the separation of the boats, and more crew would have survived if they had parted sooner. Cohesion was important when the boats required radical repair, but the vagabond community complicated the command process.

Chase was effective, but far from infallible. An uncharacteristic restraint in not lancing the stunned whale doomed them to wander the Pacific. The attack could not be anticipated, but his judgement in its wake would result in many deaths.

William Bligh was a Navy man, but the voyage of Bounty, despite the trappings of a naval mission, was largely commercial. The plan accounted for no grapeshot or sabers, and only the promise of mild excitement. Essex was destined to see more carnage than Bounty, and if successful would pay better.

Essex was sunk without warning, but they were rather more in control of their subsequent course of action than Bligh. A lack of sympathy did not lead directly to his marooning, but developed into an impassable fissure from which the chaos arose. Bligh’s analogy of sailors to children indicates a crucial factor in his perceived and actual relationship with the crew. He showered them in a litany of insult, but showed a genuine concern for the success of the mission by way of the welfare of its men.

His unconventional provisioning was intended to prevent scurvy, but created discontent. Disparity in food was not uncommon, excepting Bligh’s substitutions, and the men ate as much or more than a whaler could hope for. His skylarking orders were neither appreciated for diversion nor exercise. His ban of dunking at the equatorial crossing (for safety) was loathed, though he supplied ample drink to lubricate the celebrations. He was even uncommonly reserved in ordering lashings, and was noted as having taught his men skills of the trade.

For much of the stay in Tahiti he was necessarily liberal in the allocation of shore time. Whether the root of these allowances was pure neurotic fixation on success, or was tempered with parental concern, is immaterial. An earnest concern in shipboard affairs delivered with venom was juxtaposed with a secluded infatuation with navigational and botanical hallmarks of the voyage. He had a lingering romantic notion of the high seas, which Owen Chase would’ve expelled given the opportunity. The sailors aboard the Bounty were less like children than teenagers, especially in their contemptuous regard for the impositions of authority, and his privilege exacerbated this. Space was a universal inconvenience, and in all likelihood Bligh sacrificed more net comfort and privacy than the already cramped sailors. But his losses were for the advancement of an ideal and his future captaincy. Bligh had the luxury of personal project, even if he sacrificed the luxury space to the breadfruit nursery. His investment in the form of familiar personnel, financial risk, and reputation would pay dividends. In the same way that he saw every infraction as a personal offense, those under him read into his decisions self-serving exploitation.

Successful whalers reveled in the thrill of the hunt, and held stock in the financial success of the trip. This engendered healthy competition and pride in their trade. Successful naval sailors were paid so long as they managed to breath and haul line. Their preoccupations can be summarized as: get there, get back, get paid, get laid (with some ordinal variation). Harrowing experiences would be yarned, but there was no prestige or higher ideal gained by a feat like circumnavigation: career enlisted men had the rest of their lives to incrementally supplement their arsenal of tales. They did not fear Cape Horn, but Bligh’s dedication and bravery in this personal goal (and an admiralty order) would have seemed misplaced and inconsequential.

Bligh was the kind of micro-manager he himself would have lamented serving under, as he resented Cook’s imposition on his duties. He was a very different man than his crew, and the mind of an 18th century English gentleperson mistook the simpler satisfactions as a waiver of self-governance. It was an unusual group only in his personal placement of associates, and typical in most regards, and simply understanding the psychology of the common sailor and their patent devotion to convention may have prevented a mutiny. He was unable to anticipate or transcend the fractionation of the crew: in this regard Bligh was not a great leader, but neither was he an exceptionally poor leader.

Bligh’s thunder lacked lightning. His inaction or ignorance regarding the crew’s barely covert mockery made such actions permissible, while his alteration of punitive records lessened the threat of long term consequences. The mutiny was not the product of sailors confounded by mutable social boundaries, and much less about abuse and violence. It began long before the oldest of the perpetrators or victims were born, and became more likely with every crew member born into the social stratification of the time. Tahitianization of the crew shows their tendency to rebellion against the status quo, and the the mass mutiny at Nore would soon show the ubiquity of discontent in the Royal Navy. The metastasizing discontent became disproportional to any offense committed by Bligh: he is guilty of inability to manage the escalating crisis, but not of pernicious behavior.

For general irresoluteness I would be wary of serving under Pollard. For delusional misjudgment in direction, and tendency for abuse, I would loath working under Chase. Of the three, I would prefer to serve with Bligh. He was engaged with the officers who he believed of sound mind and character, and was generally agreeable so long as he had no cause for disappointment. His eccentricity is derived from intellectual curiosity, and I believe his level of personal investment would ensure the success and safety. Furthermore he was a brilliant navigator and principled moralist. Though his character was ill appreciated by the crew for lack of mutual understanding, he had significant raw potential for leadership. The admiralty is unlikely to have sided with the mutineers in any case, but it is telling that they awarded him captaincy after clearing him of responsibility.

A chimeric blend of Chase’s force, Bligh’s attention to detail, and Pollard’s judgement would make an ideal leader. It is unfortunate that their respective faults killed many, and we are forced to judge them through the lens of time and catastrophe.

  1. Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (New York: Penguin, 2001).
  2. Greg Dening, Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty (Cambridge UP: 1994),