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
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