Bligh: William Bligh in the South Seas.
University of California Press.
Also published in New Zealand by The Penguin Group.
This book is a well-written, detailed, and very readable biography of Captain Bligh’s rather remarkable career, especially if an impression of Bligh is based only upon “Hollywood history,” vignettes associated with the Bounty mutiny.
As I read the book, I recalled my impressions of Captain Bligh. Yes, Bligh presented a volcanic temper. In modern terms, he lacked human relations skills. But, there is far more to Bligh’s life than Charles Laughton’s grim faced man scowling and glowering at Bounty’s failure to round Cape Horn, and the outbursts of his disagreeable temper. The 1935 film version contrasts this image with Clark Gable’s ever-charming Fletcher Christian or scenes of Christian and other officers frolicking with lovely Tahitian girls in the surf and on land before the mutiny and Bligh’s open boat journey in the Pacific. Unlike the film, in the real world of the mutineers, all does not end happily before or after their arrival at Pitcairn Island. Other film portrayals differ in degree but not in overall approach: bad Mr. Bligh, good Mr. Christian.
William Bligh (1754-1817) is of considerable interest to Captain Cook enthusiasts for at least three reasons:
- Bligh was Master in Resolution during the Third Voyage and was, therefore, present at Kealakekua Bay.
- Bligh considered Captain Cook as his mentor, believing he modeled his career upon what Cook would have done under similar circumstances.
- Both Cook and Bligh were excellent surveyors and cartographers as well as master navigators.
Regrettably, Bligh’s Resolution journal is lost. His conclusions about the Third Voyage, impressions of Captain Cook, and observations of Cook’s death would serve as an excellent source for historians. Consequently, Bligh is seen during the Third Voyage through the comments of others, interpretations and conjecture.
Almost alone among Cook’s junior officers during the Third Voyage, Bligh received no promotion after Resolution and Discovery returned to England in 1780. It is believed that Bligh was sharply critical of the conduct by others at Kealakekua Bay. Bligh believed that Cook was abandoned and left to fend for himself in those fateful hours on the morning of 14 February 1779. When most other officers and crew closed ranks after Cook’s death, Bligh was on the outside. He resented being passed over for promotion and he likely thought others schemed against his welfare and career.
The first two chapters are exclusively centered upon Captain Cook and Bligh, beginning with Cook’s death at Kealakekua Bay, and followed by a long account of Bligh, Cook and the Third Voyage. The biography then takes the reader through Bounty’s breadfruit venture to Tahiti, the extensive interactions with natives, and the deterioration of relationships between Bligh and Bounty’s men.
After Bounty departs with its 1000+ breadfruit plants, the reader encounters the mutiny and its aftermath, including Bligh’s miraculous 4,000 mile voyage in an overloaded open boat, along with 18 others, to Timor. The narrative then recounts the disintegration of relationships among the mutineers at Tahiti, the ill-fated attempt by a few at escape in Pandora, and violence and murder on Pitcairn Island. The balance of Bligh’s career was an effort to complete the breadfruit mission and to prove himself as an able captain, whether in Providence, on other naval assignments, or as Governor of New South Wales.
Bligh was obsessed with “setting the record straight” after the Bounty mutiny. Critical to an understanding of Bligh is his constant effort to prove himself by demonstrating his considerable seamanship. He was a perfectionist, and in matters of seamanship he was usually correct. Bligh was unable to deal constructively with adversity and often with the people he most needed for a successful voyage. He expressed great satisfaction in obtaining breadfruit and other plants for the Caribbean colonies as well as for Banks’s projects at Kew Gardens. He saw this achievement as vindication for his career.
Bligh was an extremely capable seaman as well as a caring and devoted husband and father, the latter revealed in his extensive correspondence with his beloved wife, Elizabeth (Betsy). Salmond includes letters between Bligh and Betsy that provide an insight into their loving relationship. Quite ironically, prior to Bounty’s departure from England, Christian was a family guest at Bligh’s home and bounced the Bligh children on his knees.
In contrast to this positive image, Bligh possessed an ungovernable temper. When he discovered something amiss, Bligh cursed his officers and sailors castigating them as “damned villains, miserable wretches,” etc., while flailing his arms about, shouting, and screaming. But these temper tantrums quickly passed and Bligh would then invite the same officers to dinner as if nothing had happened.
Varied opinions and testimony were offered about Bligh by officers and sailors at the various naval proceedings in England regarding the loss of Bounty or other subsequent voyages. On the high seas, Bligh provided great care and attention to the crew’s comfort and followed a detailed antiscorbutic regimen. He was sparing in the application of the lash, even compared to Cook, and especially in comparison to George Vancouver.
Joseph Banks is a link between Captain Cook and Bligh. Banks served as a life-long patron and supporter of Bligh, frequently approaching the Admiralty for Bligh’s advancement. Banks was a leading promoter of Bounty’s breadfruit missions and a defender of Bligh in the aftermath of the mutiny. It was Banks who encouraged the Admiralty to send Bligh back to Tahiti on Providence, just as it was Banks who encouraged Bligh’s ill-fated governorship of New South Wales. Banks is often regarded as an authority on Tahitian culture but Salmond points out that Bligh’s long stay at Tahiti while breadfruit were gathered provided an opportunity to study, interact with, and understand Tahitians on a far deeper level than either Banks or Cook.
As she similarly constructed the narrative for Aphrodite’s Island, Anne Salmond writes in great detail about Tahitian peoples. They are not merely various chiefs or groups of Polynesians in the background of the breadfruit voyages, but flesh and blood persons and families, many of whom recalled Cook with great affection from his visits during all three voyages. The constant almost daily giving of gifts in exchange for supplies, attendance at native festivals, and the misunderstandings and interpretations of actions by natives and visitors permeates the narrative. It is easy for the reader to get a bit lost in the details and personalities of various Tahitians, and the repetitive minutiae of daily cultural exchanges This concentration of detail reflects the author’s knowledge of the people and society of late 18th century Tahiti and is an important contribution to documentation of relationships between Tahitians and their visitors.
Tahitian reverence for Captain Cook initially led to welcoming Captain Bligh. John Webber’s portrait of Cook served as a sacred relic brought by Tahitian chiefs to Bounty or Providence when English ships first appeared offshore. William Bligh and captains of British ships anchored off Tahiti signed their name, ship’s name, and dates on the portrait’s reverse side, connecting them to Cook’s earlier presence. Initially Tahitians regarded Bligh as “Cook’s son,” and Bligh led Tahitians to believe that Cook was still alive when Bounty arrived in October 1788. After the Tahitians discovered Cook was dead, Bligh’s reputation suffered among island chiefs and their families. Similarly, Tahitians grew weary and unfriendly toward Christian and the mutineers when Bounty returned to Matavai Bay after the mutiny.
In appraising Bligh, Anne Salmond confirms Bligh’s great navigational abilities. However, she writes that he was “seriously flawed as a commander. Vain and ungenerous, he had a volatile temper and a biting tongue. Unlike his mentor Captain Cook, he lacked charisma or an imposing physical presence; and unlike Charles Clerke, he had no sense of humour. Obtuse to the point of cruelty, he had little empathy, except for his family and a few young protégés, and no gift for the arts of political management.” Salmond finds N.A.M. Rodger’s assessment close to the mark: Rodger observed Bligh was “an outstanding seaman with an ungovernable temper and no idea of how to get the best out of his officers,” while Fletcher Christian was “an unstable young man who could not stand being shouted at.”
Bligh’s tomb (and that of his wife Betsy and two grandchildren) is found at St. Mary’s Lambeth Churchyard, now The Garden Museum, not far from the Bligh’s home at 100 Lambeth Road. The large monument is topped with a sizeable breadfruit. Its inscription recalls the acquisition of plants from Tahiti, and the lengthy career of Bligh, eventually Vice Admiral of the Blue, in the service of England. As you stand in this lovely knot garden with its extensive collection of plantings and look at Bligh’s resting place it is useful to recall both Bligh’s excellence as a navigator and his ungovernable temper that bedeviled this complex personality.
The author is to be congratulated on mastering the material associated with William Bligh’s career. I highly recommend this excellent book with its important connections to Captain James Cook.
The book is organized into 23 chapters and an epilogue. There are chapter footnotes found at the end of the book as well as a bibliography and index. The book contains colour plates and extensive black and while illustrations.
James C. Hamilton
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 26, vol. 34, number 2 (2012)