Monday, May 14, 2012

Captain Bligh by Anne Salmond

If one reads all the documents relating to mutiny on the Bounty, it is clear that Edward Christian’s vindication of his brother and his fellow mutineers was over-stated. Although Fletcher was capable and popular, his shipmates all agreed that he was susceptible to women, and no doubt his decision to take over the ship was influenced by his desire to return to Tahiti. And while Peter Heywood always insisted that George Stewart was a loyal officer who remained true to his captain, several of the Bounty’s men indicated that Stewart had sympathized with the mutiny. Indeed, according to John Fryer and James Morrison, Stewart had helped inspire the uprising suggesting to Christian that the ‘men are ripe for anything’. If Heyward’s defense of Stewart fails ( and it does seem far-fetched), then his account of his own conduct during the mutiny also falters. Since Stewart was his friend and mentor, it seems more likely that the younger midshipman followed Stewart’s example, and simply let the mutiny unfold.

At the same time, William Bligh was seriously flawed as a commander. Vain and ungenerous, he had a volatile temper and a biting tongue. Unlike his mentor Captain Cook, he lacked charisma or an imposing physical presence; and unlike Charles Clerke, he had no sense of humor. Obtuse to the point of cruelty, he had little empathy, except for his family and a few young protégés; and no gift for the art of political management. Often spoken of as a ‘passionate’ man, William Bligh had a violent temper that exploded when he was thwarted. Determined to silence his critics by making a perfect voyage in the Bounty, and then in the Providence, he was enraged by any lapses that threatened his record; and knew how to humiliate those responsible for such infractions. As an insecure man, prone to elaborate feats of self-justification, Bligh had a gift, almost amounting to genius, for insulting and infuriating his immediate subordinates. N.A.M. Rodger’s crisp verdict on the mutiny on the Bounty ‘ ‘Bligh was an outstanding seaman with an ungovernable temper and no idea about how to get the best out of his officers’, and Fletcher Christian was ‘an unstable young man who could not stand being shouted at’ gets close to the heart of the matter.

Compared with Captain Edwards, however, Bligh could be warm and engaging (especially to those who posed no threat to his reputation). In his domestic life, he was ardent and faithful, in stark contrast to many of his former shipmates (Molesworth Phillips, for example, the Resolution's lieutenant of marines was an infamous brute to his wife and a bully to his children; while James Burney, Phillip’s brother-in-law had a series of affairs, including an incestuous one with his half-sister). In this respect, he was more like Captain Cook than most of their comrades. Compared with George Vancouver (and almost every other British commander in the Pacific),too, Bligh was a paragon of restraint in his methods of discipline (flogging only 10 percent of the Bounty’s crew and 8 percent on board the Providence, compared with 25 percent on board Cook’s Resolution and 45% on board Vancouver’s Discovery, for instance). On the basis of these figures, his reputation for brutality – initiated by Edward Christian (although Christian did not accuse him of physical violence) and later elaborated into a popular myth of Bligh as an archetypal ‘flogging captain’ – was a triumph of rhetoric over reality.

William Bligh was a fine practical sailor and hydrographer, a gifted ethnographer, who gained some real insights into life in Tahiti. If he tormented his men, they knew how to pay him back with insolence and passive resistance. The responsibility for the breakdown in relationships on Board the Bounty cannot be sheeted home to Bligh alone, but must be shared by his officers, especially Georg Stewart and Fletcher Christian.

Under most circumstances, too, the tensions aboard the Bounty would not have led to a collapse of command, Unfortunately, the planning of the expedition by Joseph Banks and the Admiralty had been fatally flawed, placing Bligh and his officers under intolerable pressures. If the government had been more generous, or Banks had selected a larger ship for the breadfruit expedition, with a Great Cabin for her captain and room for her officers and crew, the atmosphere on board might have been different. If the Admiralty had sent his orders to Bligh in time for him to sail around the horn, his stay in Tahiti would have been brief, just a matter of weeks’; and shipboard discipline is unlikely to have unraveled. Had there been other commissioned officers on board, Fletcher Christian would not have been appointed as acting lieutenant, without a proper commission and dependent on the whim of a quick-tempered, verbally abusive commander. If there had been a contingent of marines ion board, fearful of being shot, the young officer is unlikely to have indulged himself with fantasies of mutiny and desertions. Like Frank Bond on the Providence, Christian would have been forced to swallow Bligh’s insults, and do his duty; and the mutiny would not have happened.

To make matters worse, by the time that the Bounty’s men were brought back to England, the French Revolution was unfolding; and the government and the Admiralty could not afford to admit their own part in the responsibility for the mutiny (along with that of Sir Joseph Banks, a close friend of King George III,)- [but when does the government EVER admit their responsibility in ANY disaster, French Revolution or not?] Instead, the Bounty sailors( those that survived the brutality of their captivity) were put on trial; and after the court martial, three of them were hanged from the yardarm. When public sympathy for the Bounty officers, especially for the well-connected Peter Heywood and Fletcher Christian, was aroused by their relatives, William Bligh became the scapegoat. At the same time, Bligh’s intemperate tirades were the sparks that ignited the mutiny, driving his subordinates to distraction. His bad luck and his bad language proved to be an inflammable combination.

At about this time in Britain, a number of influential Evangelical Christians who had read the official accounts of Cook’s voyages became inspired with the idea of taking the Gospel to the heathen in the Society Islands. AS Dr. Thomas Haweis, chaplain to the Countess of Huntington, explained:

… I cannot but feel a deep regret that so beautiful a part of Creation, and the inhabitants of those innumerable Islands of the Southern Ocean should be regions of the shadow of Death, the Dens of every unclean Beast, and Habitation of Cruelty literally devouring one another.

Enthralled by the idea of converting the “heathen’ inhabitants of the Pacific, Haweis spoke with Joseph Banks about taking missionaries to Tahiti on the second breadfruit voyage, and he must have been persuasive, because Banks agreed, providing that the government gave their permission. Haweis was also in touch with William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner, who helped to secure the government’s support for this proposal, as long as Haweis trained the missionaries and paid for their passage and equipment.

Dr Haweis already had two missionaries in mind, young men named Waugh and Price from the Trevecca Wesleyan college in Wales, but they refused to sail on the Providence unless they were given a pension in the event of their untimely return to England. After this had been arranged, they demanded to be ordained. When the Bishop of London refused because neither of these men had studied at Oxford or Cambridge, thy withdrew from the voyage. By this time Haweis had lost patience with them, remarking caustically, ’The event left me no regrets.’

Although by this time Banks was a baronet, the President of the Royal Society and a respectably married man, he looked askance at the Dissenters and their pious habits. During his youthful visit to Tahiti, he had reveled in the delights of the arioi society*; and one of their members, Ma’i, arrived in London in 1774, Banks and his close friend Lord Sandwich had introduced the young Ra’iatean to high society, taking him on jaunts into the country, where they diverted themselves with concerts, feasts and ladies of pleasure, scandalizing those who thought that they should be teaching Ma’i about Christianity, and how to read the Bible, As Sir Harry Trelawny had exclaimed to Revd Mr. Broughton of the Society for Promoting Christian knowledge: “I hint to you what has I doubt not, appeared to you as it does to me a strange and diabolical neglect – the non-babtism & and non-instruction of the Indian Omiah – he is brought here where the full light of the glorious Gospel shines unclouded – and what has he learned? Why, to make refinements on sin in his own country.” Horace Walpole, the British literary eminence, had remarked in a letter to Rev. William Cole in 1780: “How I abominate Mr. Banks and Dr. Solander who routed the poor Otaheitians out of the center of the ocean, and carried our abominable passions among them!”

Stung by these criticisms, one of Bank’s circle penned a pamphlet in which Ma’i was made to describe his encounter with a ‘Methodist preacher who told me that I had been damned to all eternity, had I not been so happy as to have heard the name of Christ and talked about Adam and Eve, and original sin.’ He also passionately defended Tahitian morality, arguing the lack of Christian charity in such blanket condemnations . Through Ma’i’s fictitious voice, the evangelicals were mercilessly lampooned and accused of preaching ‘the efficacy of faith without works, and doing much harm to the common people of England’.

No doubt this reflected Bank’s own private opinion. Sceptical of evangelical zeal, he was ‘little inclined to Conversions’. In a letter to Count William Bentinck on the ‘Manners of Otaheiti’, he had praised the Tahitians for their sexual tolerance, observing that there ‘the want of Chastity does not preclude a woman from the esteem of those who have it. . . yet are there women there as inviolable in their attachments as here’. . . .

During his Bounty visit to Tahiti, Bligh had delighted in local customs, describing their island as the “Paradise of the World’, and demonstrating real insight in his descriptions of Tahitian society. After the mutiny, however, he was quick to blame the island’s seductive women for leading his men astray, like the Sirens in the Odyssey or Eve before the Fall. In search for self-justification, Bligh showed no mercy towards the mutineers – those ‘pirates’, ‘wretches’ and ‘villains’ – and their island partners. It is also probable that before he sailed from England on the second breadfruit expedition, his attitude towards the Tahitians had been colored by contacts with Dr. Haweis and the other evangelical Christians, who saw the islanders as living under the dark shadow of Satan, and hoped to bring them to the light of God. The officers on board Bligh’s ships knew about the proposal to bring missionaries to the island, and as they sailed away from Tahiti, George Tobin pronounced his verdict on this pious scheme:

What the exact creed of the Tahitians is, it is not in my power to explain. Yet it is a good one, if faith and good works travel in amity with each other. In the latter, these islanders are “eminent beyond compare” They encourage a lesson of morality and good will among one another that puts civilization to blush.

Let us then – I still may be in error – in the name of Providence have done with missions of this kind. Take a retrospect of their sanguinary exterminating consequences in many a large portion of the world, and humanity will tremble. The Tahitian needs no conversion; he divides what he has with the stranger, as with his neighbor. He administers to, he anticipates their wants. Can he be taught more, and till retain these amiable and generous qualities?

No doubt Joseph Banks heartily agreed.

For evangelical Christians and increasingly for William Bligh, however, it was blasphemy to think of Tahiti as a Paradise on earth. “Ah!”, thought they, “you may sit under spreading trees, eating the golden bread-fruit, or drinking the sweet milk of the coconut: but how can you be happy when you know not of the Paradise above, nor of the Savior who can wash out your many crimes with his blood? For soon death will snatch you from your sunny isle, and bring you before the judgment-seat.

*The Arioi society of Tahiti consisted of a special class of entertainers whose purpose was as much spiritual as for amusement. According to Cook, every man and woman in the society were held in common to one another, and that sexual relationships between any two individuals rarely lasted more than two days or three days. As Moerenhout stated: "Who would not have wished to belong to a society, whose members only seemed to live and die to be happy?".The Arioi carried the idea of the sacredness of sex to extremes.

1 comment:

  1. The Captain, following the orders of the Admiralty, always confiscated the journals of all other crew members before they arrived home so that they could control the story of the expedition, almost like the Press does today, never contradicting on Tuesday or Weds. what they reported on Monday no matter what other or new facts subsequently came to light, creating the virtual reality of the official story