Friday, April 2, 2010
The End of William Bligh
The Mutiny on the Bounty may have just been a matter of bizarre happenstance. Nothing necessary or inevitable about it. In some respects that is why it makes such a good story. It could be retold well by the author of "Trainspotting".
What caused the mutiny on the Bounty? The seductions of Tahiti, Bligh's harsh tongue- perhaps. But more compellingly, a night of drinking and a proud man's pride, a low moment on one gray day, a momentary and fatal slip in a gentleman's code of discipline- and then the rush of consequences to be lived out for a lifetime. As Edward Christian wrote at the end of his Appendix, had his brother Christian "perhaps been absent from the Bounty a single day, or one ill-fated hour," the story might have turned out quite differently. How tempting, then, to imagine him safe returned to his native land, wandering the woods and by ways of the wild north country. Later tradition would have him working as as a smuggler, just over the Scottish border, but known "by the authority of his family", as one Scottish newspaper reported, to have died in 1804. By this account, Fletcher Christian lived to the middle age of forty. By other reports he either committed suicide, was murdered by the Tahitian women he kidnapped or died of illness not long after he arrived on Pitcairn's Island.
William Bligh, Vice Admiral of the Blue, dropped dead in Bond Street on a visit to his surgeon in 1817. He was sixty-three years old and had been living quietly with his daughters on a comfortable estate he had purchased in Kent. The cause of his death was probably stomach cancer. He did not live long enough to see the end of his own story.
He had known himself to be "notorious" and read countless cruel summations of his character that appeared unchecked in every variety of literature. Doubtless he knew he was said to have pushed "the discipline of the service to which he belonged to its extreme verge, goading into mutiny a crew of noble-minded fellows, the greater part of whom pined away their existence on a desolate island." In the final telling, he "was an unfeeling tyrant, and induced the mutiny by his harshness and cruelty." Over the years, Bligh's "cruelty" would be made brutally physical; a comparison was even made between the necessary atrocities committed by the French revolutionaries and the deeds of the mutineers; "we will merely draw a parallel by observing the excessive folly and tyranny of her government." Lieutenant Bligh, who had hoped to complete the Bounty voyage without a single flogging, would be transformed into "Captain Bligh of the Bounty", a sadistic bully who bloodied his men with the lash.
To none of these many specious charges did Bligh pay public attention; instead, he had doggedly carried on from commission to commission.* On hearing of his old commander's death, George Tobin, wrote to Bligh's nephew, Francis Godolphin Bond, offering both his condolences and a humane assessment of the man they had both served: "he has had a long and turbulent journey of it, no one more so, and since the unfortunate Mutiny on the Bounty, has been rather in the shade. Yet he was perhaps not altogether understood. He suffered much and ever in difficulty by labour and perseverance extricated himself."
Bligh was buried beside his wife in the same tomb in St. Mary's churchyard, Lambeth. Over the years, the churchyard fell out of use and became overgrown, and eventually was used as a rubbish dump. At length, some 170 years after Bligh's death, a renovation was begun and the covered graves and tombs at last dug out. In clearing the ground, excavators moved a large oblong block- and found themselves looking at the entrance to a vault. Four steps led down into an arched brick chamber, where stood a number of lead coffins, embellished with garlands and swags. The two standing side by side, less than two feet apart, contained the remains of William and Betsy Bligh, while tiny coffins at the back held the remains of twin sons, who had lived but a single day. The wooden coffin lids had collapsed, revealing the adult skeletons; that of Bligh still held tufts of mortal hair. Stunned, the intruders quickly conferred; photographs of Captain Bligh of the Bounty would fetch a very good price...
"No", recalled one, "we couldn't possibly do it." Replacing the lids, the exited the vault and sealed it. ( Duty; they had done their duty...)
Cleared and scrubbed, the inscription on the handsome monument could be read again. Beneath a miniature graven shield, crested with a knight's hand holding a battle axe, read a succinct summation of Bligh's life. Surmounting the whole, in letters that had once been gold, was a simple phrase:
"In coelo quies"- There is peace in heaven