Bligh: William Bligh in the South Seas

Jonathan Lamb feels that a new biography of the Bounty captain William Bligh is excessively kind to its subject

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Reviewed by: Jonathan Lamb
Author: Anne Salmond
Publisher: University of California
Price (RRP): £27.95

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New Zealand historian Anne Salmond has turned to William Bligh in her latest book. She confesses to being riveted by his pioneering ethnography, his affection for his family, and the intertwinement of his career with that of Captain Cook. 

This is a generous judgment. Bligh’s success as a cartographer was compromised by the ill-government of his pen and his tongue. He wrote intemperate letters to the Admiralty about his charts, his promotion and his colleagues, losing the goodwill of Lord Sandwich.

Over alleged thefts of food and property he was so vituperative with his men, and unhandsome with his officers, that having lost his temper once too often, finally he lost his ship. It is as well to remember that Bligh endured not one but two mutinies: as commander of the Bounty and as governor of the New South Wales convict settlement.

Historian Greg Dening persuasively argued that Bligh’s failure was more about words than deeds. His language – passionate when it ought to have been impassive, easy and good-natured when it ought to have been austere, resentful when it ought to have been reticent – was fated to unmake everything, leaving words and events at odds and himself in a perpetually awkward relation to his subordinates and the navy at large. 

Salmond wants to offer some excuses for this state of affairs by pointing to cramped quarters and the loneliness of command, but they are not convincing. Other captains including Cook coped with these pressures on space and authority in conditions much worse than those faced by the Bounty

The link with Cook is more suggestive. It was from him that Bligh learned his good habits of cartography, but also the negative ones of rage and bad language. Cook’s fits of annoyance grew more extravagant in the last months of his life, part of the ‘infatuation’ (as his crew called it) that led to his death.

Of all the ill-conduct young Bligh observed on Cook’s last day there was a notorious instance about which he said nothing at all, namely Lieutenant John Williamson’s refusal to come to Cook’s aid during the attack that led to the explorer’s death. 

One member of Cook’s crew accused Williamson of cowardice to his face, while another reported that he destroyed the evidence that had been gathered for a court martial. Alexander Home, a master’s mate on Discovery, supposed that Williamson, although despised as a bully and a lickspittle, had used bribes of liquor to encourage a conspiracy of silence among the crew. 

Certainly no one was willing to testify against him back in London, and he was duly promoted. 

Salmond supposes on good evidence that Bligh was part of that conspiracy.  The more innocent ‘masonic’ groups formed on the Bounty, which Bligh cited as plain evidence of mutinous intent, were here anticipated in a much more sinister fashion. Who knows?

Perhaps Bligh’s tendency to see himself as the target of all malice, and everyone else as thieves and poltroons, had its origin in this guilty secret. Possibly all his bad language was the noise on the other side of this silence. 

Jonathan Lamb is Andrew W Mellon professor of the humanities at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee
 

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A great misconception about Captain Bligh