Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On William Bligh

There is a curious movement afoot to restore the reputation of the villainous Captain Bligh. Two books, The Bounty, by Caroline Alexander, now a decade old, and a new book, Bligh:William Bligh In The South Seas,  by Anne Salmond, both postulate that Bligh was hard done by, not a bad chap at all.  The latter book was favorably reviewed in The London Review Of Books (24 May 2012).  Both books ignore the best book on the Mutiny, which is What Happened On The Bounty, by Bengt Danielsson, published in 1962. Danielsson, the only non-Norwegian on the KON TIKI, settled in Tahiti, where he and his wife wrote Love In The South Seas, among other books.  Although Danielsson does not entirely trash Bligh, his is the only non-fiction book which takes into consideration the oral evidence gathered from Tahitian people concerning the Mutiny.

The British establishment spin-doctors who actually promoted Bligh from Lieutenant to Captain after the court-martial were the same Royal Society scoundrels who falsified the accounts of Cook's Hawaiian journals (see To Steal A Kingdom by Michael Dougherty (Island Style Press, Hawaii, 1992).  Dougherty's account of Hawaiian history, cultural history, and the disgraceful exploitation of the Hawaiian people is enlightening, names names, discloses motives.  His well-researched and accurate text is widely read and studied in Hawaii.   
Bligh needed to reinforce his megalomania by making the long voyage in the open boat, thus proving he was one of the world's best navigators.  Other than the Tahitians (who navigated the entire Pacific by "dead reckoning" - i.e. no sextant nor compass, just the stars above) he may well have been, but he could have sailed less than a thousand miles to the island of Tubuai, a place he had anchored in before, but insisted to the men in his boat that Tubuai was a cannibal island.  True, Tubuai was against the prevailing trade winds, but the Bounty mutineers had returned there for supplies, and it would have not been an overwhelmingly difficult journey.  Fletcher Christian had expected Bligh to make for the Tongas, an easy voyage, but Bligh was obsessed with returning to England to report the mutiny, and he knew that he'd have to wait well over a year or more for a British ship at Tubuai or the Tongas, whereas if he could make the Dutch East Indies, Timor, he would have an excellent chance of finding a British ship to immediately take him to London.

12 of the men on Bligh's boat died before reaching London, and Bligh was not present at the trial of those mutineers who remained on Tahiti and were either eventually captured or gave themselves up.  The evidence he gave was simply in a written statement.  This resulted in the execution of three of the mutineers: Thomas Burkett, Thomas Ellison, and John Millward.  These three had no family connections to save them from the gallows, were only working-class seamen. 

In fact, after his promotion, there were two other subsequent mutinies against Bligh, in 1804, when he was given only a "reprimand" for "tyranny and  unofficer-like conduct and ungentlemanly behaviour" and in 1806, after he was appointed Governor of New South Wales and held prisoner in his residence for a year during the infamous "rum rebellion" in Australia.  After he returned to England he was promoted to Vice-Admiral and made a Fellow of the Royal Society!   He died in 1817 and is buried in St. Mary's churchyard in Lambeth.

The first clear evidence of what I can only call Bligh's insanity (seemingly a compulsive-obsessive disorder) was his attempt to reach Tahiti by sailing around Cape Horn, risking both his ship and the lives of the men under his command.  He had to turn back and went around Good Hope, the usual route, losing several months, which is why he had to anchor in Tahiti for five months during the South Pacific hurricane season to collect the uru (breadfruit) with which the British imperialists wanted to feed the slave population of the West Indies.  Of course, Bligh himself was in a closet sexually, which explains why he refused to participate in any of the "amorous pastimes" (as Danielsson puts it) of the open-hearted people of Polynesia.

(I had sent this information to the London Review Of Books as a riposte to their favorable review of the new book on Bligh,  but of course they declined to publish.  What the LRB does often publish are the nasty ravings of one of its editors, Andrew O'Hagen, who takes great pleasure in trying to sully the reputation of his fellow Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, and his noble life and fine writings of the South Seas during the last years of his life, saying, for example, that Stevenson was really a homosexual (the "evidence" for this being his dandyish mode of dress) and that his Jekyll and Hyde was really a book about Stevenson's hidden homo-erotic life.  Recently, in the June 2, 2012 issue of that journal, he took delight in criticising Hemingway, ostensibly for becoming an alcoholic, but actually for the manliness and courage in wartime of his activities, falsifying what Hemingway did and did not do, and then denigrating  not only his great and lasting literary achievments, but his deep friendship with Fitzgerald.  I do find it irksome that people who can't write their way out of a paper bag so easily find establishment outlets for their jealousy and bile.  In the same way, writers of literary Theory, which came primarily from France, epitomised the condescending nature of academicians in Britain and in the U.S. who rapidly took it up, defaming creative efforts they themselves obviously aspired to but could not achieve.)