Bligh: William Bligh in the South Seas
- Anne Salmond
- University of California Press
- 528 pp.
- Reviewed by Robert Knight
- October 19, 2011
An examination of Captain William Bligh’s three Pacific voyages yields a detailed portrait of a complex man.
Reviewed by Robert M. Knight
Captain William Bligh. The name sails through the ether and lands in our imaginations, representing sort of an inept, smalltime Saddam Hussein.
In makes and remakes of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” Bligh (1754-1817) was portrayed by actors as diverse in style as Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard and Anthony Hopkins. This should be a clue that he wasn’t all Saddam, but that he provided those around him with an array of traits, many of them admirable. Laughton was blustery, Howard properly military and Hopkins thoughtful and perhaps devious.
It is this complex Bligh that New Zealand scholar Anne Salmond explores through about 500 pages of dense prose in Bligh: William Bligh in the South Seas; Bligh the man, as well as the South Pacific islands and islanders he got to know so well.
Salmond ties the whole man — the good, the bad, the apparently schizoid — to a review of the whole of Polynesian culture, especially that of Tahiti. She examines not only Bligh’s second 1787 naval voyage to the Pacific, which was scarred by mutiny, but the other two. (On the first he witnessed the murder of Captain James Cook by Hawaiian islanders.)
A recognized authority on Polynesian history and culture, Salmond goes into some detail describing how the islanders lived and how they treated the British sailors who stopped by. But, as the title implies, it is Salmond’s detailed portrait of Bligh himself that characterizes — literally — this book.
He was a tyrant who could not hold his temper; his officers suffered most from his tyranny. Bligh was a miser who was said to occasionally skim the best of the victuals and supplies allotted to his crew for himself or his family. And he did indeed ride his chief mate, Fletcher Christian, to distraction and eventually mutiny with his peevishness. His sailors called him “the Don.”
But Salmond points out that he took care of his crew, making sure their breakfast gruel was warm and balanced with sauerkraut, dried cabbage and portable soup to prevent scurvy and pellagra.
“Spruce beer alternated with grog, and the ship was kept meticulously clean and warm, with fires burning in both cockpits (which made it intolerably smoky below),” Salmond writes.
Bligh’s men did admire his seamanship. He was considered one of the best chart makers in the British Navy. “It was when his superiority was challenged or his high standards were not met — especially by his immediate subordinates — that he became quick to insist upon his authority,” she writes.
Further, Salmond writes that although Bligh’s language and manner were rough, they were most likely no rougher than those of other ships’ captains in the late 18th century, and he had his seamen flogged much less than the average captain.
At least some of Bligh’s temper might have been the result of persistent headaches, which plagued him throughout each voyage. And HMS Bounty turned out to be much too small for the task it was set out to do: harvest breadfruit and transport it to the British slave colonies in the Caribbean. Even the “Great Cabin,” which was “the captain’s sanctum and symbol of his authority,” had become a greenhouse. Nor did he have a detachment of marines, which quelled disturbances on bigger ships.
Gauging from his letters home, which Salmond says she inspected thoroughly, it was obvious that Bligh adored his wife and their two daughters. They remained loyal to him not only during the Bounty mutiny, but during a similar incident 20 years later when he was governor of Australia’s New South Wales.
He treated the islanders with respect and was curious about their society. He learned their language and “made a particular study of Tahiti; and in his charts and sketches, as well as the surviving logs and journals, made many irreplaceable observations, fostered by a close relationship with his ‘family,’ the Pomare clan, and a confidence that Sir Joseph Banks, his patron back in Britain, would cherish any detail he could glean about life in those islands.” Salmond calls him a “pioneering ethnographer.”
Her own waters get a little murky at times as the reader tries to figure out who was doing what to whom, where, and keep track of the myriad names and relationships, genetic and otherwise, among the cheerful, generous, promiscuous and sometimes brutal Tahitians and Tongans.
She does, however, use previously unpublished research to fill in many gaps of understanding about Bligh’s apparently bipolar personality and about the islanders who fascinated him — and us.
Robert Knight is the author of Journalistic Writing: Building the Skills, Honing the Craft (Marion Street Press 2010). A veteran journalist, he taught at Northwestern University and Gettysburg College.