Bad luck, bad language, bad management, Bronwyn Dalley

Bligh: William Bligh in the South Seas
Anne Salmond
Viking, $65.00,
ISBN 9780670075560


One of the prefaces in the late Greg Dening’s Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty (1992) is written at the “bicentenary moment” of the mutiny: “The Mutiny is over. Bligh has been thrust into his launch …. [He] is hoarse from his own angry shouting.” The analysis of events began immediately: “In his mind [Bligh] had already begun to write his Narrative of the Mutiny.” He honed in on the temptations of Tahiti, the “finest Island in the World”, where the “alurements of dissipation are more than equal to anything that can be conceived”.

That debate over the causes of the mutiny has been going ever since. “Who can – who would want to – end it?” Dening asks. At the time of writing that book, there was a healthy academic interest in Bligh and the Bounty. The story – frequently depicting Bligh as a flogging, violent leader – had captured the popular imagination, in poetry, novels and stage productions. Film took it to a wider audience; the first production screened in 1916, and the mutiny has been retold in many subsequent screen versions.

In the intervening years, neither academic nor public interest has waned. “Poems, pantomimes, popular journalism, films and novels as well as … scholarly studies” tell and retell the story of the mutiny on the Bounty, Anne Salmond notes in her contribution to this debate,  Bligh: William Bligh in the South Seas.

Salmond’s is one of a clutch of recent academic treatments of Bligh and the Bounty. Add to this an ongoing and varied depiction in popular culture – from an episode of The Simpsons to an interactive website run by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – and the result is an enduring fascination with the people, the mutiny and the aftermath of the events in the South Seas in 1789.

Each telling, of course, is a product of its time. “An age of indiscipline, like our own … will slander men and institutions of power,” Dening argues: “Look to Mr Bligh’s bad language … and all that may mean.” Salmond makes little more than passing reference to the scholarly tellings – she is more interested in the versions of the participants at the time – but she picks up the argument about bad language. Bligh was certainly known for his “virtuoso displays of invective”, she confirms, but the reasons for the collapse of his command of the Bounty were more complex.

Eager to prove himself and put into effect all he had learned while Cook’s master on the Resolution (including avoiding some of Cook’s erratic behaviour towards the end), Bligh was desperate to make the perfect voyage. But, as Salmond points out, this was a man of great contradiction; in some respects, her work is a study in the complexities of human nature under stress. A loving family man and a good mentor for younger men, Bligh was also “seriously flawed” as a commander: “he had a gift, almost amounting to genius, for insulting and infuriating his immediate subordinates”.

This alone was not enough to explain what happened. Bligh’s “bad luck and bad language proved to be an inflammable combination,” Salmond argues. She offers a close analysis of extensive and highly detailed preparations for the Bounty’s voyage to the Pacific to obtain supplies of breadfruit (and other botanical items). Under the watchful and interfering eye of Joseph Banks, the Bounty was transformed into a “floating greenhouse”. Accommodation and other space on the smallish ship were given over to plant cultivation, while crew and captain were thrust together in an uncomfortable squeeze below deck, cramped even by naval standards, Salmond adds. Tardy actions, as well as stinginess on the part of the Admiralty, added to the difficulties. Although she does not name it as such, there seems to have been a fair amount of what we would call bad project management running alongside the bad language and the bad luck.

Salmond traces the process of assembling the crew, highlighting the tightly-knit world of connections among 18th-century seafaring and political families, keen for their young men to serve in these voyages of discovery. The vessel was undermanned, and there was a lack of officers – let alone senior ones – to support Bligh. Such decisions were critical, as Salmond shows, but for readers unversed in how such ships operated, the differences in the various positions and their duties, and the hierarchy on board, some of the issues on the Bounty are difficult to comprehend. A fuller discussion of the arrangement of the “wooden world” would have been useful in allowing readers to understand the implications of decisions and actions, whether of Bligh, the crew who stayed with him, Christian and the mutineers, or the subsequent legal actions.

The mutiny and its aftermath are explored, as Salmond follows Bligh’s epic travails in the launch, the experiences of the mutineers in the Pacific, the voyage of the ill-fated Pandora  and its detention, under appalling conditions, of the mutineers who were captured or returned voluntarily. Everyone involved had a different take on the events, of course, and Salmond relays these versions in some detail, especially those of the small group of mutineers eventually called to account for their actions. The changing reception of Bligh and the accepted/acceptable version of the story are examined, usefully set against the backdrop of European geopolitics and the state of Britain’s navy. This wider context is important, casting a political and politicised light on the public world in which the aftermath of the mutiny was played out.

The events before and after the mutiny naturally loom large. This is more than just another account of that oft-told story, however, or another biography of Bligh, although all the major markers of his life and career are mentioned, particularly his under-rated (and at the time, unacknowledged) skill as a surveyor and hydrographer. Salmond’s focus is on Bligh the ethnographer. For her, the Bounty story is where the “historical and mythic trajectories of Britain and the South Seas intersect, transforming lives on the island as well as on board the ships and back on Europe’”.

Salmond aims to illuminate the world of the South Pacific islands, and the changes those societies were undergoing during almost two decades of visits from European vessels. She wants to pull into view the “Pacific protagonists” of the Bounty story and other voyages around this time, showing how the women and men of Tahiti and other places helped shape what happened. Seen in this way, Bligh sits firmly within Salmond’s wider oeuvre. It is the third in a perhaps unanticipated trilogy, following on from The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas (2003), and Aphrodite’s Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti (2009).

Bligh becomes, in consequence, a detailed account – through the eyes of Europeans – of society and culture in Tahiti, most notably, but also other places visited by Bligh (and others). As Salmond notes, Tahiti was already part of “shipboard lore” when Bligh first sailed into a “European dream” at Vaitepiha Bay with Cook in 1777. From that time, Bligh showed himself to be a close observer of life in the places he visited on all his voyages. He asked questions, took part in local customs, and entered into friendships and alliances with families, with all that entailed. He made some interesting choices, and a fuller consideration of some of these would have helped throw light on later events; we do not learn the reasons for Bligh’s lengthy fiction of presenting himself to the Tahitians as Cook’s son, nor why he went out of his way to hide the facts of Cook’s death.

Bligh was an avid collector of information and recorder of what he saw, aided by his growing con-fidence in the language; his skills as an ethnographer were superior to those who had come before, and many who would come later, Salmond argues. All manner of social custom and behaviour made it into Bligh’s journals: observations on food preparation, crop growing, rituals surrounding births, marriages, sexual habits, deaths and funerals; he was interested in dance, religion, family structure, child-rearing, the delicate world of deep friendships, the complicated family and tribal alliances. He also attempted to look at Tahitian practices from the local context or at least to go beyond his initial reaction to what he saw and experienced. This was especially so with aspects of dance and other rituals that included an overtly sexual element – the primness of other observers is largely absent in Bligh.

Bligh was increasingly aware of the growing influence of Western culture and the changes island life was undergoing as a result of his own and other visits. He noted these changes, whether major, such as the impact of communicable diseases or more subtle, such as the adoption of eating utensils. His prolonged stays and repeat visits enabled him to record the incorporation of European features into dance or rituals, and to see how Western stories, especially those around Cook, could become part of island lore. Importantly, we also gain some insight into how Tahitians began to view the visits, particularly when they saw the effects of the spread of venereal and other diseases.

The complex relationships being forged on Tahiti played an important role in life on the Bounty. As Bligh’s shipboard relationships broke down and he became disillusioned and impatient with his shipmates, so too did his appreciation of being on the island, and his friendships with Tu and ’Itia, in particular, grew. As Salmond shows, the disconnection between his different worlds was part of what lay behind Bligh’s increasing verbal assaults (as well as greater use of the lash) on the crew – and thus one of the causes of the mutiny.

The result of Bligh’s observations, and those of others who visited around the time, is a unique view into a Pacific world on the cusp of great change. At times, the detail and arrangement of events, personalities and quotidian matters is considerable, interrupting the flow of the work. Some material is repeated in a number of places – descriptions of ’Itia or discussions of the symptoms of yaws and venereal disease, for example. The recordings might, as Salmond notes, be “irreplaceable observations”, but such a close recounting can also overwhelm.

This is a major study, especially for those wanting to go beyond the “bad language” interpretation of Bligh. Through the emphasis on Bligh’s skill as a seaman and as an observer of life in the “South Seas”, a richer portrait of this man emerges; the portrayal of island life provides a more rounded view of events on the Bounty, taking in the encounters of two worlds. It is unfortunate, then, that the publishers did not make a better job with the book. The nasty paper flattens any detail in what are generally mean little images clearly selected to illustrate key moments in this story; even the more generously sized images lose all definition. Salmond takes care to show the significance of Bligh as a mapmaker and hydrographer, but we simply cannot appreciate this in unreadable reproductions of his charts, such as that of Van Diemen’s Land. Salmond, Bligh and the Tahitians all deserve better.


Bronwyn Dalley is a Wellington historian. 

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category