Book review: Bligh by Anne Salmond

This book is in stores now and is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Everyone knows about Captain Bligh. We all saw at least one of the movies. And would Mel Gibson or Marlon Brando lie?

Perhaps not lie, but there seems to have been a few omissions.

Even in the brief introduction to this book I discovered the new (to me anyway) fact that Bligh was the master of one of the ships on Captain Cook’s third voyage. He was introduced to pacific peoples as “Cook’s son” for a dose of instant mana. And I discovered also that he was an acquaintance of Sir Joseph Banks and a pioneer ethnographer of the Pacific peoples.

Anne Salmond is an academic, and has produced an academic book, based on detailed research including some new sources. These include, most interestingly, some unguarded letters from Bligh to his wife Elizabeth (Betsy). It’s hard to avoid speculating about the contents of her replies, if she ever wrote back. He was clearly a warm family man, and Betsy was a loyal supporter not only through the mutiny and its aftermath, but during his later, by no means trouble-free, career.

Bligh made three voyages to the Pacific. The mutiny occurred during the second voyage, and naturally from then on the mutiny, his tremendous feat of seamanship in reaching Timor, and the aftermath of courts-martial and personal reactions occupy a good deal of Bligh’s attention, and the book. His subsequent career, as a combat captain in the navy and as Governor of New South Wales, is covered, but in less detail.

Why the mutiny? Well, maybe Fletcher Christian and his crew preferred the creature comforts of Tahiti to the discomfort of a very small ship, sent on a mission that really needed something larger. Salmond certainly seems to think that this was a factor. But how much blame attaches to Bligh himself?

The atmosphere of life on the Bounty comes alive in Salmond’s writing. So does the character of Bligh. A kind comment would be to call him irascible. He was subject to what were called “violent tornados of temper”. He suffered from severe headaches, he was a miser, and made sure to be as comfortable as possible himself. But for his time he was a relatively enlightened naval officer, looking after his crews’ welfare, and resorting to the cat less often than many captains at the time. He comes across as possibly bi-polar, but a man of his class and time, who knew his duty and would carry it out.

The book focusses on Bligh, but also seeks to illuminate the culture of the islands, especially of Tahiti. The mutiny is placed in context: there were other mutinies, and the great fear among the English ruling class was that the French revolution would spread. Some even feared that the mutiny, and the general unrest in the Navy, was the start of the “contagion”.

This is a big book. In places it is difficult going because of the sheer number of characters and places involved. It has a full set of notes and extensive bibliography, as would be expected. The production values are good. There’s a lot of text, some coloured plates and half-tone drawings, but it couldn’t be described as “well illustrated”.

So I, like so many other readers, am forced into a reassessment of Bligh. Any reader trying to understand this complex character is reminded just how easy it is to get history wrong through simplification and focussing on the easy stories. How many other characters, both good and bad, need the same sort of thorough-going carefully researched reassessment?

I came away from the book with a feeling that I understood both Bligh and his two worlds much better. But one reading isn’t enough – I intend to re-read in a little while because I’m sure that there is much more to get out of it. And I won’t read it straight through next time, but rather focus on specifics. A lot of the book’s value would be lost if it was read simply “for the story”.

I also came away distrusting the movies. How disappointing.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

 by Anne Salmond
Published by Penguin Group (NZ)
ISBN 9780670075560 (Hardback) and ISBN 9781742287812 (Ebook)