Two Views of Captain Bligh

Jennifer Gall, In Bligh’s Hand: Surviving the Mutiny on the Bounty, National Library of Australia, 2011, 234 pages, $34.95.
Rob Mundle, Bligh: Master Mariner, Hachette Australia, 2010, 368 pages, $49.99.

Breadfruit is a poor relation among staple foods. Despite the name, it is neither light and yeasty like bread, nor sweet and juicy like fruit. But this dense, yam-like globe was a major player in one of the great dramas of the late eighteenth century.

Mutiny on the Bounty. Everyone knows the story, to an extent. And nearly everyone has an opinion, blaming either Bligh or Christian for one of history’s great naval scandals. I am inclined to blame the Admiralty lords and the breadfruit.

It was never a simple tale of villains and heroes. Two recent books approach the story from different angles. Rob Mundle’s Bligh: Master Mariner is a lively, admiring account of Bligh’s career, with a special emphasis on the voyage in the twenty-three-foot wooden launch after the mutiny. In mid-1789, in an overcrowded boat, close to starvation and with no weapons, Bligh and his loyalists made it from Tonga to Timor, some 6700 kilometres, in forty-seven days, with only one death. More of that death shortly.

Jennifer Gall’s handsomely illustrated book, In Bligh’s Hand: Surviving the Mutiny on the Bounty, is based on the small, sea-splashed notebook that Bligh kept throughout the weeks on the launch. The notebook, now safe in the National Library in Canberra, contains navigational calculations, sketches, maps and a prayer, plus descriptions of the islands passed, rations shared, storms endured and the brutal murder of John Norton on Tofua.

Mundle’s Bligh begins with an island chief shouting a threat at Bligh and summoning two hundred warriors to attack the nineteen unarmed Englishmen. It is a scene of drama and foreboding:

The warriors began clacking together the stones they held firmly in their hands—diamond-hard black volcanic rocks washed smooth by the sea for eons. Then the rhythmic, haunting, monotonous sound began rising to a crescendo. If it occurred, it would be a pivotal point for British maritime history in the eighteenth century.

The Englishmen risked not only death, but the chance to tell the world of the fate of the Bounty. Mundle recognises that for William Bligh the scene was one of frightful déjà vu. Ten years earlier, when he was only twenty-four, Bligh witnessed the killing of Captain Cook by Hawaiian natives, who circled menacingly, clacking stones, just like the warriors of Tofua. The nightmarish sound would have left lesser men frozen with fear.

Bligh kept his nerve and ordered his men to load the boat. There was pitifully little food from their time on Tofua and an attack was imminent. Bligh tried to gain some bargaining power by taking a hostage but the man broke free. The Englishmen strode to their boat to make their getaway through the surf. At that moment quartermaster Norton realised the stern grapnel (anchor) was still secured on the beach, so he turned back to release it. The Tofuans seized their chance and grabbed him. Stones flew. As Bligh and his men pulled away they saw some islanders crushing Norton’s skull with stones while others squabbled over his trousers. Warriors in canoes pursued the launch. Then Bligh—or perhaps other crew members—ostentatiously threw surplus clothing overboard. The canoes diverted to collect the clothes and the launch escaped.

Mundle writes a vigorous, enthralling narrative, while the more scholarly Gall offers a series of discursive essays sparked by the notebook. Mundle states that he is a sailor and a writer, not a historian. He gives credit to several historians, but his own research included paying close attention to Bligh’s letters in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. Many pictures from the Mitchell’s extensive Bligh collection also appear in Gall’s book.

A statuesque black woman, swathed in a turban and long white gown, a most romantic image of slavery, appears on page 9 of In Bligh’s Hand. She is surrounded by a much shorter William Bligh and a number of busy gardeners. The caption states, wrongly, that Bligh is collecting the breadfruit trees in Tahiti. On page 223, in the List of Illustrations, the same picture is correctly identified as Thomas Gosse (1765–1844) Transplanting the Bread Fruit Trees from Otaheite 1796.

Breadfruit reached St Vincent and Jamaica in the West Indies when Bligh completed his second, less eventful breadfruit voyage in the Providence. The second voyage was better equipped than the first in terms of tonnage and manpower—the crew included fifteen marines, notably absent on the Bounty. There was also a support vessel, the Assistant. The seasons were favourable. Bligh’s tombstone in Lambeth commemorates the successful transplantation of the breadfruit from Tahiti, with no mention of the Bounty. Although Gall attaches great importance to the tomb’s inscription, the wording may reflect the wishes of Bligh’s daughters rather than the deceased.

Breadfruit plants, and Joseph Banks’s instructions for their care, were as much to blame for the mutiny on the Bounty as any aspect of Bligh or Christian’s dispositions.

For years before Lieutenant Bligh received his commission on the Bounty, planters from the West Indies were agitating in London for breadfruit to be transported from Tahiti to Jamaica and St Vincent as cheap food for slaves. Sir Joseph Banks, friend of the king, globe-sailing botanist and enthusiast for colonial expansion, was a major spokesman for the campaign. Gall states that Banks had extensive plantations in the West Indies himself, but this claim is not footnoted and I have consulted several Banks biographies without finding corroboration.

Banks gave meticulous, detailed instructions on the selection, potting up, and shipboard care of the plants. Only plants of a certain maturity were to be put on board. They were to be kept in a cabin, sheltered from salty wind, and watered to a strict regime.

The Bounty arrived in Tahiti months later than Bligh had hoped. He was held up at Spithead through Admiralty red tape, and against his better judgment lost valuable time following his superiors’ orders to sail via Cape Horn. Eventually he had to abandon the effort and proceed via Capetown and Van Diemen’s Land. In Tahiti he had missed the optimum season for transplanting the trees and had to wait months for a new batch to grow. The long tropical sojourn inevitably led to a contest between naval discipline and the lure of a new way of life. Bligh’s insistence on courtesy and respect led, unintentionally, to close ties between crew members and Tahitian women. Sailors shirked their shipboard tasks. They were reluctant to load the breadfruit and leave. The departure was delayed by the need to search for three deserters, who were then punished by flogging.

Bligh always gave the highest priority to satisfying his patron, Banks. The anti-Bligh faction on the Bounty felt that he fussed over the potted plants while flying into a rage over a few missing coconuts. As soon as Christian was in command of the Bounty, he ordered the breadfruit to be thrown overboard.

Bligh’s written accounts tend to be self-serving. He admits to no mistakes. Mundle generally takes Bligh at his word, while Gall advises trying to imagine oneself in the shoes of everyone on board the Bounty or the launch. For example, tossing clothes overboard to divert the Tofua natives is, for Mundle, a Bligh masterstroke, while Gall credits the action to the rest of the crew.

Mundle is brilliant at explaining seamanship to non-sailors. His glossary is a marvel of clarity. Bligh buffs and general readers alike will relish a book that reads like an adventure story. In Bligh’s Hand will delight readers with its colour illustrations but the text, a series of essays, is a little disjointed. However, Gall provides some interesting insights into the mutiny. For example, John Adams (Alexander Smith) the longest-surviving mutineer, said many years after the event that Bligh had lent money to Fletcher Christian in a complicated deal at Capetown and that this debt was an underlying irritant in their relationship.

On one important point I disagree with Gall’s interpretation. When the half-starved men finally found an opening in the coral reef and landed on Restoration Island, North Queensland, they foraged for food, ate and slept. Bligh wrote up his notes. The notebook contains a prayer, which reads in part, “O Lord our heavenly Father almighty and everlasting God, who has safely brought us to the beginning of this day …” Gall writes that Bligh was “writing a new prayer” which is “perhaps … evidence of Bligh’s patronising attitude towards his men and his need to remain in absolute control”. She concludes that Bligh was balancing the books with God.

Far from being a new prayer, this was clearly an attempt to remember standard forms from the Book of Common Prayer. On ships without a chaplain, the commander regularly led the prayers. After the survival of great danger it was routine to give prayers of thanks. It is unlikely that the survivors felt patronised. There had been some discontent among the exhausted, underfed men, but Bligh’s strict rationing and navigational skills had kept them alive.

If it is difficult to put oneself in eighteenth-century shoes, understanding the religious attitudes of that time is harder still. We know from convict records that many of the English working-class had little time for church or churchmen. Some transportees openly mocked the ships’ chaplains. However, the men on the launch included most of the better-educated members of the Bounty crew, and like Bligh, they would have observed Christian forms. In letters to his wife and to Joseph Banks, Bligh sometimes mentions Providence—a term which can signify either the merciful hand of God or a divine destiny that humans have to accept. Interestingly, in letters to Joseph Banks from the Sydney period he refers to God as “the Great Architect”, a term that comes not from the English prayer book but from Masonic ritual. It is likely Banks and Bligh attended Masonic meetings together in London.

Mundle calls the second breadfruit voyage a superb achievement. It is only one aspect of the master mariner’s subsequent career, the naval battles of Camperdown and Copenhagen also being covered in Bligh. Bligh was promoted twice after his governorship and died aged sixty-three as a Vice-Admiral of the Blue.

Unlike Bligh, Fletcher Christian had a dismal career after the mutiny. Several mutineers, including Christian, were murdered by Pacific islanders who had been transported to work the fields on Pitcairn. Alexander Smith, also known as John Adams, said a dispute had arisen over women.

Both Mundle and Gall deal briefly with Bligh’s governorship of New South Wales. For the pro-Bligh Mundle, Bligh’s main problem is the avaricious, acquisitive John Macarthur, aided by his former colleagues in the Corps. The more measured Gall builds up an anti-Bligh case, listing most of the available criticisms. Bligh accepted personal land grants from his predecessor, King. He used convict labour and government animals on his Hawkesbury farm. He interfered with local expectations about real estate, challenging and overturning some leases in Sydney Town. Gall fails to mention Bligh’s popularity in the Hawkesbury area and his prompt action after the severe 1806 floods.

It is true, as Gall says, that tact and negotiating skills were never Bligh’s strengths. It can be argued, though, that once again London’s expectations were at fault. Authorities there imagined that the strategically placed port of Sydney, perfect for trade and private enterprise, could remain a regulated penal settlement well into the nineteenth century. They were wrong, as governor after governor was to discover.

Controversy about Bligh began not long after the Bounty mutiny when Fletcher Christian’s brother, a barrister, and well-connected friends of the teenage Peter Heyward, an accused mutineer, began blackening Bligh’s name in their efforts to shift the blame for the mutiny. Bligh had become famous after the long voyage, but fame can turn ugly. Despite being held in high regard by naval colleagues, he became the butt of London gossip in his own lifetime, long before Hollywood presented him as a foul-mouthed flogger. His reputation preceded him to New South Wales.

In 2008, the bicentenary of the Rum Rebellion, some intriguing new theories were put forward. The Governor of New South Wales, Professor Marie Bashir, made a posthumous diagnosis of John Macarthur, suggesting that he may have had bipolar disorder. A participant at a Historic Houses Trust forum suggested that Bligh’s recurrent migraines, dizzy spells and periods of bed rest might have been caused by Meniere’s disease. Intermittent near-deafness could have accentuated his propensity to shout. We can’t know for sure, but these are fascinating hypotheses.

Although breadfruit trees flourished in the West Indies, the slaves on sugar plantations did not care for the new food. Only after the emancipation of the slaves in 1838 did breadfruit gradually become more popular. I have eaten it only once, in St Vincent, and although it was perfectly edible, I have no desire to repeat the experience.

William Bligh’s renown has far outlived the breadfruit voyages and the mutinies. For years to come, people will be arguing the rights and wrongs of his astonishing career. These two books provide valuable material for the continuing debates. 

Penelope Nelson’s publications include Prophesying Backwards, Bligh’s Daughter and the memoir Penny Dreadful. She lives in Sydney.


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