BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Reappraisal of a much-maligned figure
, May 26, 2012
BLIGH: MASTER MARINER
by Rob Mundle
(Sydney: Hachette Australia)
Paperback: 400 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
In the popular imagination, William Bligh was a stern disciplinarian whose subordinates justifiably rose up against him: the first time, in 1789 when the crew of the Bounty mutinied, the second time during the Rum Rebellion of 1808.
Author and journalist Rob Mundle re-examines the career of Bligh, presenting an alternative perspective.
Far from being the martinet portrayed in Hollywood films, Bligh was, by the standards of the day, a commander who was genuinely concerned for the welfare of his men.
Mundle’s study traces the career of Bligh, who for most of his life was a member of the Royal Navy. Born in Cornwall in 1754, he entered service, as was customary for those aspiring to be naval officers, as a seven-year-old.
In 1776, soon after being promoted to the rank of lieutenant, he was appointed sailing master on the Resolution, for Captain James Cook’s third and fatal voyage of exploration.
Mundle contends that it was at this point he probably met the English naturalist and botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who thereafter became his patron and, on more than one occasion, helped him secure appointments.
Mundle’s narrative follows both Bligh’s role on Cook’s voyage and his career during hostilities with the French and Dutch during the American War of Independence.
While serving on the Cambridge, he met and befriended Fletcher Christian. Bligh subsequently served with him in the merchant navy after many naval personnel found themselves without postings when peace was concluded in 1783.
Mundle then explores at length the ill-fated voyage of the Bounty, attempting to separate fact from myth. He argues that Bligh was a mild disciplinarian by the standards of the day. It was not until well into the voyage that he administered corporal punishment.
After failing to round Cape Horn due to adverse weather, Bligh made the decision to take the Bounty to Tahiti via the Cape of Good Hope. He arrived at his destination towards the end of 1788.
The ship’s crew then spent a number of months potting breadfruit plants in preparation for the next leg of their journey to the West Indies, where it was hoped that breadfruit could be grown to feed slaves on the plantations.
It could be argued that Bligh was given an impossible mission. His sailors had enjoyed spending months in Tahiti. Now Bligh was forcing them to leave a place they regarded as paradise on earth and return to their duties aboard the Bounty.
Only days after leaving Tahiti, Fletcher Christian led a well-orchestrated mutiny, which saw Bligh and 18 crew-members loyal to him being cast adrift in a small boat with minimal provisions.
It was in this perilous circumstance that Bligh demonstrated his first-class abilities as a leader and navigator. Against all odds he sailed a rowing-boat with a single sail approximately 3,600 miles to the nearest port of Coupang in Timor, with the loss of only one life during the entire journey.
The Royal Admiralty subsequently cleared Bligh of the loss of the Bounty. Those mutineers who were subsequently apprehended were all found guilty.
However, Bligh became the victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by Fletcher Christian’s older brother, Edward, a barrister, and it is arguable that this was the origin of the popular negative perception of Bligh.
This was despite the fact that Bligh, in his subsequent naval career on various fleet ships, particularly as commander of the Director, prevented mutinies from breaking out, thanks to his prudent management of those under his command.
Bligh also served with distinction in the Battle of Camperdown in 1797 and under Nelson in the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801.
In contrast to the number of pages he devotes in his book to the voyage of the Bounty, Mundle’s coverage of Bligh’s governorship of New South Wales is brief.
Bligh was appointed governor of the new colony because of his reputation for firm and decisive leadership. He was charged with cleaning up the corruption and racketeering of leading settlers and members of the New South Wales Corps, particularly John Macarthur.
Just when Bligh had almost succeeded in curbing corruption, Macarthur launched, via the colony’s primitive legal system, the Rum Rebellion on January 26, 1808, in protest against Bligh’s prohibition of the use of strong spirits as a medium of exchange.
Although the rebels received lenient sentences, Bligh’s handling of the affair was vindicated by his subsequent promotions to the ranks of rear-admiral and vice-admiral. He died in 1817.
Mundle observes that he is still held in high regard by many of the descendants of early settlers — the “little” people whom Bligh championed over the rich and powerful oligarchy which sought to control the colony.
Mundle’s book is a fascinating and very readable account of an intriguing figure whom history has unjustly maligned.
Although Bligh was not without his faults — his “bad language” and outbursts of temper being legendary amongst his peers — the man who brought 17 men safely to Coupang in a small boat, prevented a subsequent mutiny, fought bravely at Camperdown and Copenhagen and opposed the corrupt, self-serving clique in NSW deserves a better reputation than history has accorded him.