Monday, September 12, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“BLIGH – William Bligh in the South Seas” Anne Salmond (Penguin/Viking , $65)

Here is a problem for reviewers. When they are faced with something flawed, it is easy to write a review, as the review will consist of a clever comments at the expense of the book being reviewed.

But when reviewers are faced with high quality, they can do little more than list a book’s contents and explain the author’s perspective. This makes for dull and not particularly clever criticism.

It means that this week I am going to indulge in dull and not very clever criticism, because I find little to criticise in the hefty 500-plus pages of Dame Anne Salmond’s Bligh - William Bligh in the South Seas. It is a fascinating, detailed book, illuminating aspects of a famous story that have hitherto been left unchronicled.

Anne Salmond’s reputation rests as much on her work as an anthropologist as on her work as an historian. In a series of detailed books (Two Worlds, Between Worlds, Aphrodite’s Island etc.) she has given accounts of European “first contact” with the peoples of the Pacific, and the impact of European civilization and settlement. Her focus has most often been on the eighteenth century, the age when Spanish and French and especially British expeditions first encountered Tahiti, Hawaii, New Zealand and other such exotic places.

Salmond’s specialty is the interface of different cultures, their mutual borrowings and mutual misunderstandings. As much as she can (in the absence of written indigenous records), she tries to reconstruct what the French Annalist school of historians would call the “mentalites” of the pre-contact and early-contact Pacific peoples. Some speculation is inevitably involved, and much depends on trying to interpret, from an indigenous point of view, events that have been recorded only by European observers.

Salmond is aware of the hugely negative impact that much European contact had on the islands. But she does not succumb to any afterglow of the “Noble Savage” myth. She is fully aware that if Europeans brought firearms, syphilis, alcohol and exploitation, then the islanders already lived in radically unequal societies, often ravaged by clan warfare, routinely taking slaves and sometimes practising human sacrifice. With the climate, the abundance of food and the sexual complaisance of Pacific women, it is easy to see why French and British sailors thought they had discovered Paradise in the Pacific. But they thought wrong. Basically, Salmond remembers that as a modern historian and anthropologist, she has to treat both Pacific society and European society dispassionately. Both societies had mores radically different from our own. Salmond does not set Pacific innocence neatly against European corruption. Power plays, faction and human weaknesses are on display in both polities.

All of this informs her new, detailed biography of one of the most controversial figures of eighteenth century Pacific exploration.

William Bligh is doomed to be remembered as the commander of the Bounty whose crew mutinied. The few who know anything more about him will probably next recall that he became a harsh Governor of New South Wales, who again suffered mutiny when he tried to control the rum trade.

Salmond wants to set Bligh in the context of his times and particularly in the context of the Pacific, as the book’s subtitle suggests. She gives him high marks as an early ethnographer, coming to study and understand Pacific communities much better than most of his European contemporaries did, and leaving valuable accounts of Pacific customs. He did not exploit Pacific communities anywhere near as grossly as some of his rivals and subordinates did.

Inevitably, Salmond also has to recount much of Bligh’s life outside the Pacific, including his earlier career working merchant ships to the West Indies, his later career as a trusted and capable officer under Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen, and the more distressing events in New South Wales.

Of Bligh’s superb seamanship and skills as a navigator there is no doubt. This is proven not only in his later voyages to gather breadfruit seedlings, but also in his open-boat voyage across the ocean to Timor, with those who had been turned off the Bounty with him. There is also no doubt of Bligh’s skills as a cartographer. His original charts of parts of the Pacific, often made under distressing circumstances, became the standard charts in naval publications. Unusual in the often rakish and brutal society of naval officers, Bligh was apparently also an exemplary family man, happily married, devoted to his wife Betsy and to their 6 children.

Yet while establishing all this clearly, Salmond also has to explain why the legend of Bligh as a sadistic disciplinarian arose.

All records and evidence show that Bligh was no harsher a disciplinarian than any other Royal Navy commander of his day. He was a lot more lenient than many. In his fateful Bounty voyage, Bligh was responsible for having 10% of his crew flogged for misdemeanours.  Compare this with the 25% of his crew that James Cook had flogged on his third Pacific expedition, and the 45% of his crew that the genuinely sadistic George Vancouver had flogged in his explorations of the American Pacific coast. Bligh did a better job than most in attempting to protect his men from scurvy. Fletcher Christian, who led the mutiny, was a man whose career Bligh had mentored in his merchant navy years.

So what went wrong on the Bounty?

Salmond really comes up with a three-part answer.

First, despite his genuinely humanitarian impulses, Bligh was a stocky, unimposing man who lacked the charisma of  James Cook, who found it hard to assert his authority and who was filled with justified resentments. Bligh had, on numerous occasions, been passed over for prestigious commands which he had merited, because he did not have the right aristocratic connections. The original chart surveys he undertook on Cook’s last voyage were attributed to others who had more influence than he. (Salmond begins her book with an account of Cook’s last voyage, ten years before the Bounty mutiny, detailing Bligh’s role and the messy recriminations surrounding Cook’s murder in Hawaii.) All this bred a suspicious streak in Bligh.

Second, for all his good qualities, Bligh clearly had a foul temper. His contemporaries called him “passionate”. He got offside not only with the Bounty mutineers, but with those who chose not to mutiny and to accompany him in the long boat. Sailors did not like being flogged, but they knew it was part of naval discipline and on the whole accepted it. What they did not like was a being bawled out and belittled, sometimes in front of their subordinates, on very little provocation. This trait in Bligh angered even the men who admired him.

Third, Salmond notes there was something quite beyond Bligh’s control in the whole Bounty expedition. The ship Bligh was assigned was too small a craft for such a long expedition. Men lived cheek-by-jowl with their commander, who had no privacy and whose authority was inevitably undermined.

Lack of authority, a foul temper and the conditions of the ship became intolerable for those officers and sailors who had formed relationships with women in Tahiti, where the Bounty had had to stay for longer than Bligh wanted it to. And so the mutiny happened.

Salmond does not whitewash Bligh. His character flaws and inconsistencies are clear. But at the same time she does not whitewash the mutineers. Fletcher Christian was no common man rebelling against the officer class (the Hollywood legend), but was of higher social rank and had better social connections than Bligh himself. In many respects he was the “gentleman ranker” who resented legitimate authority. Some of his fellow mutineers were very unsavoury types and were far more exploitative of indigenous Pacific women than their officers were.

Of those mutineers who did not accompany Fletcher Christian to Pitcairn Island, some were rounded up by HMS Pandora, and transported back to England. Some drowned when the Pandora struck the Great Barrier Reef and sank. Three were hanged after court-martial in England. We can make our own judgements about the harshness of British justice in this matter. But there is no doubt that Fletcher’s closest followers did a very good job of destroying themselves, without official intervention. Within a very few years nearly all the mutineers on Pitcairn had murdered one another, basically in a series of fights over the Tahitian women they had taken with them. Only one mutineer, John Adams, survived, to be discovered twenty years later as the mellowed patriarch of his own tribe of women and children.

True historian that she is, Salmond does not bother to mention persistent romantic fictions about Fletcher Christian, which claim that he returned secretly to England and provided part of the inspiration for Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In hard reality, there was no such happy ending for Fletcher Christian, who was murdered on Pitcairn. Yet in England, Bligh lost a battle of pamphlets when Fletcher Christian’s brother Edward Christian, a Professor of Law, wrote an account of the mutiny which caught the public imagination. It gave a fanciful version of a harsh disciplinarian Blight harassing a cowed crew. It is from this pamphlet that subsequent romanticisations developed.

I finished this long, detailed book with a strong sense that Bligh was a man whose true talents were never fully developed, and who never achieved the reputation he could have won if he did not have such a foul temper.

As an account of his life, this is certainly the most comprehensive to appear so far. Its anthropological detail of the Pacific is impressive.


  1. Nicholas Reid's review of Anne Salmond's 'Bligh' is (as usual) a masterly account of another superb historical book by Anne Salmond. The mystery of what Bligh might or might not have done to drive his crew to mutiny is now through Salmond's work and with Reid's support about as near to solution as it's ever likely to get. As a former naval officer however, I'm well aware of the tensions that can arise between crew members on a protracted mission or voyage. Sometimes those closest to the commanding officer feel they could handle the ship as well - and perhaps even better - than he (and today possibly 'she') does. A belief like this, coupled with one or two injudicious behaviours or comments by the commander can have the most dire effdects on the crew's confidence in and attitude towards him. In the 18th century when voyages could last two years or so,the consequences as in the case of HMS Bounty, could be disastrous. Salmond and Reid (the latter of course in a lesser way) have made this abundantly clear and Reid's review is as suaul an excellent incentive for readers to get into the book itself. 
    Alistair Paterson 

  2. The MOTB movies are also interesting in their treatment of Bligh.
    I can't remember much about the first except that Bligh was played as pure authoritarian - a fat martinet with dewlaps. Trevor Howard was equally one-dimensional, with no chance against Brando's smoulderingly handsome Christian. Finally Roger Donaldson turned Bligh into someone more human, Anthony Hopkins' portrayal being a much more believable commander, firm but without the foul temper that Salmond's study would seem to prove.
    Despite Bligh's harsh discipline being a factor in the mutiny, I've always thought that the seamen, once released for some R&R in idyllic Tahiti, would have done anything to return to the sun, the swaying palms and beautiful women, than face grimy old Blighty again.

  3. Agree entirely, Hugh. This is a factor that Anne Salmond covers well, although she does not call it R and R. And by the way, as well as Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson, Fletcher Christian was also portrayed by Errol Flynn in a cheapo Australian movie in the early 1930s called "In the Wake of the Bounty". You will understand from that the direction in which the movies' fictions were tending.

  4. I have not read Salmond's book, but from the synopsis here, I can glean that Glynn Christian who wrote Fragile Paradise, and Carolyn Alexander who wrote The Bounty did not white wash Bligh, and came to many of the same conclusions. Actually, Fragile Paradise was heavily researched, and Glynn Christian even went to Pitcairn for part of his research. I am sure the Salmond book is a great volume for those who have never read about the Bounty story before, and only know about the Marlon Brando movie, but for those of us who have read Glynn Christian's and Carolyn Alexander's books, much of what is covered here is also covered in their books. I just wanted to say this is not the first book offer an unbias look at Bligh or Christian. I might read it eventually, but there are some superb volumes on the subject that have been out for many decades, ie Glynn Christian's Fragile Paradise.