Rob Hardy on books


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Reassessing a Famous Legend



Rob Hardy


When I first opened Bligh: William Bligh in the South Seas (University of California Press), I went to the index to learn what it said about the Bligh I know. Marlon Brando was not listed, nor was Trevor Howard; the two had played Fletcher Christian and Bligh in the 1962 movie Mutiny on the Bounty. Clark Gable and Charles Laughton were not there for their roles in the 1935 movie. Not even Nordhoff and Hall were listed as the authors of the famous trilogy of books based on the mutiny. It was a bit of a surprise that within this big book's 500 pages there is little account of, or even commentary upon, the mutiny as it has most recently been presented to us, but as I read though, I realized that these sources of legend had no place in Anne Salmond's fine biography. She does allude to how the image of Bligh as sadistic commander has come down to us, but she gives authoritative evidence that the image is wrong. Bligh was a mix of high degrees of good and bad traits, and it seems as if circumstances conspired against him in the mutiny, and afterwards against his reputation. Salmond is a professor in New Zealand, and has written books about the discovery of Tahiti and about Captain James Cook, subjects essential to understanding Bligh. He is presented here in as full a picture as anyone is ever going to be able to draw, and there is much about the British and Tahitian cultures of the time, so that the context of the legend and the facts behind it can be better understood. 




Bligh was born in 1754 to a family that had included admirals. He was listed as "captain's servant" on a muster when he was but seven, although this is probably merely paperwork allowing him to put in fake sea time to count as his six years as a midshipman before promotion to lieutenant. He was an able-bodied seaman and put to sea at age fifteen. At age twenty-one, he was appointed to be master of the Resolution, commanded by Captain Cook himself. His rapid rise can be explained by his superb skills as a seaman, navigator, hydrographer, and cartographer. No matter what his reputation went through, he was simply an enthusiastic and completely qualified sailor whose seamanship was unparalleled. He also was perceptive about the indigenous cultures of the islands he visited. He was deeply interested in customs and beliefs of the islanders, and he had insight into their rituals and into their different view of sexuality, more insight, Salmond says, than any contemporary European. 




Indeed, Bligh tended to get along well with the islanders. He had to handle constant misunderstandings, thefts, and language difficulties as he dropped in on the tribes. Though he didn't take part in sexual dalliances, he understood how the crew was eager to enjoy the relaxed sexuality. He had friends among the islanders. Salmond devotes many pages to Bligh's experiences and descriptions of tribal life. Bligh had a model family life of his own. He and his wife had an exemplary matched devotion, and he adored his two daughters. Bligh's problem was in getting along with his crew. The difficulties did not manifest themselves when he was serving under Cook, who served as his model for command behavior. In journals and letters from the Resolution, the sailors might complain of another officer as a tyrant, but there is no evidence that Bligh was unpopular. 




Bligh was also not a flogging captain, or at least not as much as Cook and far less than other captains. Salmond even goes into statistics which show that he "flogged his men less often than almost any other British commander in the Pacific during this period." The movies get this wrong, probably because it is easy to show the brutality of the punishment, which was, of course, standard in the British navy at the time. A case could be made that Bligh was particularly solicitous about his men's health, making sure that the gruel they got for breakfast was warm and that it was fortified with sauerkraut and dried cabbage to prevent scurvy and pellagra. He kept the ship clean, and he also made sure it was warmed by its onboard fireplaces.  




Despite his sincere humanitarian impulses, Bligh had interpersonal problems. Part was that he was a stocky, short man who had little charisma. He didn't have aristocratic connections, and his masterful work on charts during Cook's last voyage got credited to someone more influential. If he felt that he had been overlooked, or needed to be suspicious of others, he had reasons. Bligh certainly had a bad temper, and had little ability to control it. Sailors accepted flogging as part of the navy's way of doing things, and would have accepted higher levels of it from Bligh. What Bligh did do that was unforgivable was to go on tirades with little provocation. One observer called these "violent tornadoes of temper," and Bligh might inexcusably belittle officers while their subordinates could hear, making accusations of incompetence or cowardice. After such a show, it mattered little that his rage would be short lived or that he would do the victim a kindness or ask him to dinner immediately thereafter. 




Salmond is careful to look at a larger view, though, of problems that were out of Bligh's control. Those within the Admiralty who had planned the expedition had scrimped on costs. Bounty was too small. What extra room it did have had been assigned to hold breadfruits, the reason for the expedition (they were to be transported to the West Indies as a cheap, nutritious fodder for slaves). Bligh thus had no Great Cabin for a captain's usual solitude, and his officers were squeezed as well. The ship was too small to have a component of marines to help with discipline. The Admiralty poorly timed Bligh's orders so that the ship had to stay for an extended time in Tahiti, undermining discipline. The mutiny did not have to happen. 




Naturally, Salmond covers the astonishing feat of seamanship when Bligh and those loyal to him were put to sea by Fletcher Christian in Bounty's 23-foot launch. Bligh's nautical skills, and his sternness, allowed his crew to manage a 47-day, 3600-mile voyage. Fletcher Christian and the mutineers who went with him destroyed the ship on the paradisaical Pitcairn Island, and in a few years murdered each other, mostly in fights over the Tahitian women they had taken with them. Only one mutineer survived on the island, to be discovered twenty years later. One of the best aspects of Salmond's book is to show how we have been bequeathed our view of Bligh from the "battle of the pamphlets" after those mutineers who had stayed on Tahiti were brought back for trial. Originally, Bligh had been celebrated as a hero; the Admiralty and the British government did not want his overthrow to remind their populace that Frenchmen at the time were busily overthrowing their own royalty. Some of the returned mutineers escaped hanging because of some clever legal work by law professor Edward Christian, brother of Fletcher. Edward Christian wrote an account of the mutiny, with a sadistic Bligh harassing an intimidated crew, and the Romanticists lapped it up. Fletcher Christian was sanctified as a freedom-loving hero, and Bligh was vilified as a symbol of despotic rule.  




And there they remain today, in popular culture. Salmond's perceptive volume expands the tragedy of Bligh and the tragedy of the mutineers and gives insight into nautical power-broking and patronage as well as Bligh's astute observations of Polynesian culture when it was mysterious and unspoiled. Bligh's name has come down to us as synonymous with brutality, but Salmond admonishes us that it is all only "a triumph of rhetoric over reality." The rhetoric has continued to triumph for over two hundred years, and her book deserves to be the work that brings the reality back. 




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