BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
CAPTAIN BLIGH'S OTHER MUTINY, by Stephen Dando-Collins
, March 1, 2008
Clash of the wills in colonial NSWCAPTAIN BLIGH'S OTHER MUTINY
by Stephen Dando-Collins
(Random House Australia)
Paperback: 336 pages
Rec. price: AUD$34.95Mention William Bligh and the image that comes to most people's minds is that of a cruel disciplinarian who survived a mutiny that he justly deserved on his ship HMS Bounty, only to have the New South Wales Corp rightly in 1808 rebel against his tyrannical and harsh governance of the fledgling colony.
Stephen Dando-Collins challenges this negative characterisation of Bligh by arguing that it was largely a creation of Hollywood, first established with the film Mutiny on the Bounty
(1935) in which Charles Laughton (who was typically cast in the "baddie" role) played Bligh, with Clark Gable, playing Fletcher Christian (the "goodie").Hare-brained scheme
Dando-Collins instead argues that Bligh, far from being the tyrant, was held in good regard by the settlers in NSW and the London colonial officials. The military coup against his rule in NSW - now known as the Rum Rebellion - was largely the hare-brained scheme of John Macarthur rather than being a populist uprising against a tyrant.
The author explores the events of the coup, largely chronologically, and the subsequent 1811 trial in London of Macarthur's cohort, George Johnston, on a charge of mutiny.
Some time before the coup, a string of naval governors appointed by the British Government had been unable to curb the excessive and arbitrary actions of the NSW Corps. London thereupon chose Bligh for his no-nonsense approach.
Bligh, however, encountered resistance not only from the corps, but also from Macarthur, a former officer, whose network of patronage plus some dubious business enterprises were directly threatened by the new governor.
Bligh seems to have come close to breaking the undue power wielded in the colony by serving and former NSW Corps Officers.
Dando-Collins's study then details the events surrounding Bligh's arrest. Contrary to the myth spread by the rebels, Bligh was not
found hiding under a bed.
The months after the military coup saw the establishment of arbitrary rule by the rebels. They targeted anyone who dared oppose or question them, and punished them harshly.
The rebels ended up falling out with each other, as they became increasingly desperate to send despatches to London to justify their actions before the authorities learnt the full story from other persons, particularly Bligh.
Eventually, the rebels released Bligh from his Sydney confinement and allowed him onto a ship, the Porpoise
, on condition that he promised to sail to England.
Once on board, however, Bligh broke his word on the ground that it had been given under duress. He sailed to Hobart, and kept the ship at anchor in the bay for some months.
London, on learning of the events, sent Lachlan Macquarie with written orders to reinstate Bligh as governor for one day - a symbolic action recognising Bligh as the legitimate governor of New South Wales (an action Bligh was unable to fulfil) - before Macquarie succeeded as governor himself.Captain Bligh's Other Mutiny
culminates with a discussion of the court martial in England in 1811 of the rebel leader Macarthur's cohort George Johnston on a charge of mutiny.
The trial, which was carried out with great seriousness, attracted far more interest at the time than did the campaigns in the Peninsular War of General Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington).
The offence with which Johnston was charged could have earned him the death sentence. Instead, on being found guilty, he was dishonourably discharged.
Dando-Collins ends his work with an analysis of the rebel leader Macarthur.
He argues persuasively that, without him, the rebellion would not have happened, and it, like his other actions, was a reflection of Macarthur's character flaws.
This work, written to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Rum Rebellion, is an interesting re-examination and critique of one of the myths of Australian history.
The narrative is not purely analytical, but also provides a detailed chronology of events.