b i o g r a p h y & m e m o i r m i c h a e l fat h e r s
He Was Never Loved Bligh: William Bligh in the South Seas
By Anne Salmond (University of California Press 528pp £27.95)
There is one thing you need to know about the mutiny on Bounty before you take the side of either the well-connected, loveable and sexually active young Fletcher Christian or the maligned, midget-sized tyrant William Bligh. Prior to making a judgement, consider this.
In his mid-twenties, at the end of Captain James Cook’s last tragic voyage to the Pacific in 1780, Bligh, master of Cook’s ship, returned home expecting promotion. Over the next few years he was snubbed and put on half pay, and saw his maps of the coasts of Tonga, Hawaii, Alaska, and Russia’s Pacific shore accredited to lesser men. Bligh struggled for the rest of his life for recognition and reward, which he got in the end. He was a superb seaman and skilled cartographer but was brought down at almost every turn by an explosive personality that led men to hate him or, at best, just about tolerate him. He was never loved.
He was a man of courage and high standards, though not averse to fiddling the books and short-changing his crew over provisions, as he did on Bounty. He was a victim of his own quick and taunting temper, which was triggered by the first sign of any incompetence or cowardice. The humiliating and often ridiculous bawlingout would not take place in private but in front of the victim’s colleagues. Then the mood would just as rapidly change and Bligh would invite him to dinner.
Bligh was not a flogger. He had a vicious tongue, but he was surprisingly lenient with the lash. His record on the two breadfruit voyages he led to the Pacific on Bounty and Providence was exemplary, compared to Cook’s on his last voyage and that of the brutal George Vancouver.
According to Anne Salmond, in this latest addition to the literary barge that still trails behind the Bounty mutiny after more than 200 years:
When Bligh castigated someone to whom he had formerly been kind, upbraiding them in front of the crew for not doing their duty, his habit of cursing and wild gesticulation often led to trouble. This was particularly the case with men who cherished their dignity as officers – Fletcher Christian, for instance – who felt affronted and humiliated by his tirades. Others were more tolerant of Bligh’s outbursts, weighing these against his seamanship, courage and high standards.
Salmond’s book, a hefty 530 pages with notes and sources, is a biography with a difference, however. Salmond, a historian and anthropologist, is the doyenne of a group of academics around the Pacific who have been rewriting the history of exploration and ‘first contact’. She has chosen William Bligh as the last great European mariner to voyage to Polynesia before the South Pacific – and Tahiti in particular – fell into the crushing embrace of Christian missionaries. Bligh is the final book in a trilogy that began with The Trial of the Cannibal Dog (Yale University Press, 2003), a clever and illuminating look at Cook’s three great voyages of exploration from the point of view of the people he encountered.
As master of Cook’s vessel Resolution, Bligh was probably closer to Cook than any officer on board. He was his pupil and familiar, and together they navigated and mapped the ocean; Bligh’s coordinates were often more accurate than Cook’s. Salmond begins her story with Cook’s death at
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Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii, and examines the effect it had on Bligh. Bligh ‘burned with rage’, she says, and was deeply upset over the failure to rescue his mentor, accusing those involved of abandoning Cook to die on the beach. The focus of his anger was Lieutenant James King, who wrote the official report on Cook’s death and blamed Cook entirely for his own demise. None of the officers involved in Cook’s death was ever held to account, and King ensured that Bligh was shunned and powerless when the expedition returned to England.
When Bligh went back to Tahiti on Bounty ten years later in 1788–9 he presented himself to the Tahitians as Cook’s son. He also lied that the great navigator was still alive to ensure that the goodwill of Cook’s earlier visits was not broken. In Tahiti he was more at ease with the Tahitians than his own crew, and spent most of his time with Tu, the paramount chief of the Pomare clan, who became his taio or ‘blood brother’. When he returned a third time in Providence (after his sensational 3,600mile voyage to Timor in Bounty’s open launch) and the lie was uncovered, Tu and other prominent Tahitians stayed away.
The picture Salmond paints of the sixteen Bounty crew who chose to stay in Tahiti after Christian sailed off with his little gang and their abducted Tahitian women to find Pitcairn Island reads almost like Lord of the Flies. Heavily tattooed, deeply tanned and half naked, the young sailors scamper around the island with their Tahitian wives and girlfriends, taking part in tribal battles like little gods. Then that bright sunny morning dawns when a British warship that was sent to find them drops anchor in Matavai Bay and the idyll ends.
This is an interesting book by a historian at the peak of her talent. However, it is a surprise to find a couple of howlers in the early pages. The ‘immortalised’ painting of Vaitepiha Bay is by William Hodges, the artist on Cook’s second voyage, not John Webber, the artist on his third voyage. And Cook did not reach Hawaii from Tahiti before he died. He brought his ships down from the Arctic to refit and reprovision. One can only hope for Anne Salmond’s reputation that these are publishing errors. To order this book for £22.36, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 49
Literary Review | n o v e m b e r 2 0 1 1 12 b i o g r a p h y & m e m o i r s e b a s t i a n s h a k e s p e a r e
ne on One By Craig Brown (Fourth Estate 358pp £16.99)
This book is a treat. And what a de- lightful conceit it is – a daisy chain of 101 improbable encounters between famous people over the last two centuries, juxtaposing the revered and reviled, the prickly and the pompous, the saucy and the sage. The subjects range from the sublime (Tolstoy meeting Tchaikovsky) to the ridiculous (George Galloway encountering Michael Barrymore on Celebrity Big Brother), but diversity is part of the book’s charm. Each entry is a model of brevity, impeccably researched, and written in the present tense, making it especially vivid.
The narrative begins with the most fleeting encounter of them all, but one that could have changed the course of history. Old Etonian John Scott-Ellis, aged eighteen, accidentally knocks over a pedestrian with ‘a small, square moustache’ while driving through Munich in 1931. It is Adolf Hitler. He gets up, brushes himself down and shakes his assailant’s hand. ‘For a few seconds, perhaps, I held the history of Europe in my rather clumsy hands,’ Scott-Ellis reflected years later. In the next entry, the ten-year-old ScottEllis meets Kipling, who tells the young boy how much he hates the Bosche. We then flash back thirty years to Kipling’s encounter with his hero Mark Twain, and on it goes until the final entry, when we come full circle and end up with Hitler taking tea with the Duchess of Windsor.
The ingenious technique of overlapping encounters offers us a kaleidoscopic view of history. It is a dance to the music of time where everyone rubs shoulders with everyone else and you get the impression you are at one vast, garrulous cocktail party. Paul McCartney and his fellow Beatles are called ‘bad-mannered little shits’ by Nöel Coward, who is serenaded in the south of France by Felix Yusupov, who assassinates Rasputin. There is just one degree of separation between Sigmund Freud and Barry Humphries.
Brown has an unerring eye for the apposite quote, the memorable anecdote and the salient detail. As a result his book is fun, fascinating and informative. Did you know that Tolstoy preached nonviolence but was happy to throttle rabbits? Or that Alec Guinness fancied himself a soothsayer and predicted James Dean’s death? Or that three weeks after finishing a play Larry Olivier was unable to quote a single word from it? Or that Truman Capote was so superstitious that he would never telephone friends whose numbers added up to an unlucky figure and he refused to travel on a plane with two nuns? You laugh with hindsight at H G Wells sucking up to Stalin and recoil with foreboding at Phil Spector putting a gun to Leonard Cohen’s head.
Brown tries to impose order on the chaos by making each of the 101 meetings just 1,001 words long. It is an impressive artistic feat, though he does cheat by smuggling a lot of extraneous information into footnotes. But that is a minor cavil. There are feuds, froideurs and, yes, lots of celebrity flirtation (nonagenarian Bertrand Russell squeezes 23-year-old Sarah Miles’s thigh; Tom Driberg chases Martin Amis around a bed). Such fleeting encounters rarely lead to lifelong friendships. When comedians and intellectuals meet, they are so at pains to impress with their knowledge of each other’s works they end up boring each other – as happened with Groucho Marx and T S Eliot.
Some meetings are comically anodyne, from Gorky on Tolstoy (‘How small he is!’) to Paul McCartney on Elvis Presley (‘Wow! That’s Elvis’). Others are absurdly sycophantic (Truman Capote to Peggy Lee: ‘Oh my god I am in the presence of an angel’) or richly comic (Winston Churchill on Vivien Leigh: ‘By Jove! She’s a clinker’). If history is gossip well told, then this book is a triumph of the genre. By Jove! It ’s a clinker. To order this book for £13.59, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 49
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