Home » Reviews

Bligh image gets a polish

6 March 2011 3,010 views One Comment

THE much-maligned Bounty captain and colonial governor was not such a tyrant after all.

In the main, William Bligh, who joined the British navy at the age of seven, has had a bad press in Australia. In particular, Bligh has often been portrayed as a martinet when he was governor of NSW. Earlier in his career he was thought of as a cruel disciplinarian.

Despite Bligh’s foul language and fiery temper, Rob Mundle makes clear that Bligh delivered far fewer floggings than many of his contemporaries, including Captain James Cook, with whom he had sailed previously. In fact, throughout his life Bligh was a “restrained disciplinarian”.

Although Mundle is not a professional historian, he is a fine storyteller and the scope of his research in Bligh: Master Mariner is vast. This especially applies to the infamous Bounty mutiny, which was led on April 28, 1789, by his erstwhile friend Fletcher Christian, who later acknowledged that his captain had treated him “like a brother”. Bligh and 18 other men were banished to a small open boat with scant provisions. Mundle paints a powerful picture of the way Bligh, enduring appalling conditions, led his increasingly fractious crew on a 47-day, 6700-kilometre journey from Tofua (a volcanic island in the Tonga group) to Coupang in Timor.

In Timor, Bligh bought a ship, which he renamed Resource, and headed for Batavia (now Jakarta, in Java) via Surabaya. Soon after arriving, the ill Bligh set about organising his passage, and that of his remaining crew, to England, where he was reunited with his beloved wife Elizabeth (affectionately known as Betsy) and his daughters, whom he had not seen for two years and three months.

On his return, Bligh published his Narrative of the Mutiny, on Board His Majesty’s Ship Bounty; and the Subsequent Voyage of Part of the Crew, in the Ship’s Boat. This further fuelled the British public’s fascination with what Mundle terms Bligh’s “odyssey into an unknown and exotic world”. He was regarded with such distinction that he and Betsy were presented to King George III at Buckingham House under the escort of his mentor, the botanist Sir Joseph Banks.

Mundle is also particularly strong when writing about the seductive allure of Tahiti, which at first sight Bligh described as an unalloyed “paradise”. In fact, the beauty of Tahiti and the appeal of its women were a key factor in the overthrow of Bligh by the duplicitous Christian.

Despite Bligh “losing” his ship and the court-martial of the mutineers in some ways discrediting Bligh, the influential Banks had no hesitation in recommending that his tenacious and incorruptible protege should take over as the fourth governor of NSW. On August 13, 1806, the 52-year-old Bligh, having arrived in Sydney a few days earlier, formally replaced the widely “disliked and much opposed” Captain Philip Gidley King. Sadly, while his second eldest daughter Mary (and her sick husband) accompanied him, the ever-supportive Betsy – who had a phobia about being on board a ship – could not travel with Bligh to Britain’s fledgling, yet foundering, colony.

One of the National Library of Australia’s greatest treasures is the small notebook kept by Bligh detailing how he and his loyal but near-starving crew survived the mutiny by negotiating the extremely arduous journey from Tofua to Timor in an extremely cramped seven-metre open boat with few rations and little fresh water and rum to keep their spirits alive.

Thankfully, Jennifer Gall has now published beautifully illustrated extracts from Bligh’s notebook, which not only gives us a unique insight into his leadership but also reveals the fascinating details of his navigational calculations and his descriptions of the suffering he and his men had to endure.

What is not so well known is that Bligh, a man prone to uncontrolled rage and fury at the best of times, had to survive another near-mutiny by the ragged and sometimes disobedient crew who had been cast adrift. Yet perhaps more remarkable is the fact that, because of his brilliant navigational skills, 16 of Bligh’s “loyal” seamen survived the exhausting trip.

Each chapter begins with a reproduced page from Bligh’s notebook, which begins with these brief but memorable words: “Just before Sun Rise the People Mutinied seized me while asleep in my Cabbin tied my Hands behind my back.”

In comparison to Bligh’s water-splashed notebook and Mundle’s magisterial and superbly illustrated book, Russell Earls Davis’s Bligh in Australia is a much slighter work. This supposedly “new appraisal” of Bligh and the so-called rum rebellion of January 26, 1808 (20 years to the day after the founding of the colony) is, in fact, largely based on research that is often out of date.

This means that Rundle’s 14-page epilogue on Bligh’s regime in Sydney and his many battles with that great agent of perturbation in NSW, John Macarthur, is significantly more revealing than Davis’s entire book. Moreover, in Bligh in Australia there are some inexcusable errors, including misspelling the name of Bligh’s predecessor, Philip Gidley King. There are also a number of typographical mistakes.

However, there are some good points in Davis’s narrative, which, unlike Bligh: Master Mariner and In Bligh’s Hand, seems to be directed at school students. This especially applies to his treatment of the rapacious New South Wales Corp, the military force that monopolised the sale of many necessary items of food and clothing and widely controlled the trade in “rum”, a term that covered all forms of alcohol. Indeed, in NSW, as Davis pithily puts it: “Rum became the unofficial currency in the colony and alcohol addiction its greatest curse.”

The truth is that Bligh provoked the ire of the Rum Corps and their friends, in particular Macarthur, a teetotaller who had previously been a member of the corps. In contrast to his opposition to the depredations of the Rum Corps, Bligh supported free immigrants and small farmers, who soon became his most loyal supporters.

All in all, by portraying Governor Bligh as more wronged against than not, especially at the hands of Macarthur, Davis’s heart is in the right place in trying to re-establish Bligh’s tarnished reputation. Certainly, he highlights the fact that, before the military coup that resulted in his wrongful arrest, Bligh not only attempted to deal with alcohol abuse but tried to stop the bartering of spirits and the use of rum as currency.

It seems somehow fitting that while Bligh died in London on December 7, 1817, much loved by his family, Macarthur died, alone, friendless and insane, at his property, Camden Park, on April 11, 1834.

Bligh: Master Mariner, by Rob Mundle, Hachette, 368pp, $49.99

In Bligh’s hand, by Jennifer Gall, National Library of Australia, 234pp, $34.95

Bligh in Australia, byRussell Earls Davis, Woodslane Press, 242pp, $24.95

Review by Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. Ross Fitzgerald is co-author of Bligh, Macarthur and the Rum Rebellion and the forthcoming Austen Tayshus: Merchant of Menace (Hale & Iremonger).

One Comment »

  • Stephen Matchett said:

    Heed the lesson

    CONSERVATIVES are supposed to learn from history, so why is Tony Abbott still saying NSW Labor is the worst government in the state’s history since William Bligh controlled the colony? The first time the Opposition Leader did it historian Ross Fitzgerald pointed out Governor Bligh defended farmers and free settlers (including many self-employed tradespeople and small business owners) against the military monopolists of the Rum Corp but yesterday Abbott was drawing the same long bow.

    Comparing Kristina of the stopped bus to the much-maligned Bligh he drew the longest of bows, saying her team “had been the worst government in history,” (has he not heard of William McMahon?). Surely no sensible conservative could prefer Bligh’s successor Lachlan Macquarie, a big-government man who never saw a government spending project he did not like.

    STREWTH. The Australian, March 7, 2011, p.13