- - Wednesday, November 30, 2011

BLIGH: WILLIAM BLIGH IN THE SOUTH SEAS
By Anne Salmond
University of California Press, $39.95, 528 pages, illustrated

Poets are remembered for their finest writings, painters for their most vivid canvases. The fate of their mediocre work is to be forgotten. Military men are judged differently. They are expected always to perform competently but are as likely to be remembered for their defeats as for their victories. So it was with Gen. George A. Custer, and so it was with a prominent British seaman, Capt. William Bligh, whose name is forever associated with the mutiny on one of his ships, the Bounty.

Is Bligh a victim of history, or was he truly the monster portrayed in Hollywood? His career is the subject of an exhaustive study by New Zealand historian Anne Salmond.

Bligh was not born to the sea; his father was a customs clerk. But the navy was one of the few professions in Britain where a man with no money or connections could make good, and Bligh made the most of it. He rose to the rank of lieutenant and commanded one of Capt. James Cook’s ships on Cook’s third and last voyage to the South Seas.

In 1787, the admiralty chose to send a vessel to the South Seas to investigate the feasibility of transplanting breadfruit from that region to the West Indies. The choice of commander fell on Bligh, who was both an accomplished navigator and a veteran of one of Cook’s voyages.

The 220-ton Bounty left for Tahiti in December 1787 and arrived there 10 months later. Despite extremely cramped living conditions - much of the hold had been reserved for breadfruit - morale appears to have been good. So was the food, by Royal Navy standards. The author notes that Bligh “flogged his men less often than almost any other British commander in the Pacific during this period.” But there was a problem: “Bligh had a vicious tongue, and he did not hesitate to humiliate those who failed to meet his exacting standards.”

The gathering of breadfruit kept the Bounty in Tahiti for nearly six months, and during this period, discipline collapsed. Navy life could not compete with the temptations of an island paradise, where the women were friendly, alluring and sexually uninhibited. Bligh deplored the steady rise in venereal disease among his crew and lashed out at his officers, especially Fletcher Christian, for not maintaining discipline.

Curiously, Bligh got along well with the Tahitians. Like Capt. Cook, he participated in their rituals and learned their language. The Bounty’s long stay in Tahiti enabled Bligh to form real friendships with some of the tribal elders.

His crew was a different matter. By the time the Bounty left Tahiti in April 1789, Ms. Salmond writes, the ship was an emotional powder keg. And security was fragile, for Bligh did not have the usual complement of marines to back up his authority.

Just before dawn on April 28, Bligh was pulled from his bunk by five men led by Christian. It was a bloodless coup. The mutineers had planned to put Bligh and anyone who supported him into one of the ship’s boats, but there were so many Bligh loyalists - mutiny, after all, was a capital offense - that 18 men accompanied him on what could only be considered a very uncertain venture.

Bligh took charge of the 23-foot longboat, and the voyage that ensued would be his finest hour. He rationed the boat’s meager supplies and navigated his overloaded craft some 3,600 miles to the Dutch colony of Timor. Over a period of 48 days, Bligh sailed uncharted waters with minimal navigation aids, yet he reached Timor without losing a man. It was a feat of navigation rarely matched in maritime history.

Bligh returned to London a hero, but he was intent on vengeance. Railing against the mutineers as “villains” and “pirates,” he urged the admiralty to send a ship to scour the South Seas. Fourteen mutineers were captured eventually, of whom four died in a shipwreck on the voyage home. Four others were released in Britain upon Bligh’s testimony that they were not true mutineers. Of the remainder, three were hanged and three pardoned.

A court-martial acquitted Bligh of any fault in the loss of the Bounty. He went on to a distinguished career in the Royal Navy, achieving the rank of vice admiral and serving for a time as governor of New South Wales. Ms. Salmond’s judgment, however, is an unflattering one. Bligh was not a victim of history. “Obtuse to the point of cruelty, he had little empathy, except for his family and a few young proteges; and no gift for the arts of political management …. As an insecure man … Bligh had a gift, almost amounting to genius, for insulting and infuriating his immediate subordinates.”

Thus, the mutiny on the Bounty was an accident waiting to happen.

John M. Taylor’s books include a biography of his father, “An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor” (Presidio, 2001).