Anne Salmond interview

by Geraldine Johns / 03 September, 2011
The historian's new biography finds that the victim of the mutiny on the Bounty was a passionate man who threw himself into events without caution.
Dame Anne Salmond, photo David White

Perhaps he should have quit while he was ahead. The allure of Tahiti – all warmth, women and the beneficence of a high chiefly friend granting privileged entrée to that society – was surely a temptation to Captain William Bligh. By his own description, it was “the Paradise of the World”. But no, back he went to sea and all the terror and deprivations that end-of-the-earth adventure brought with it once more.

That he would eventually secure himself a place in history after his mutinous Bounty crew let him loose in a launch to make his way across the Pacific Ocean is abundantly documented: in film, stage, poetry and print. But 220 years on, the spirit of Bligh came knocking, unexpectedly, at Dame Anne Salmond’s door. Her fascination with the bits about him that had not been traversed has now emerged in a rich and handsome work of 500-plus pages: Bligh: William Bligh in the South Seas.

“Bligh is someone who has been mythologised, especially with the movies on him that so many have seen,” says Salmond. “Right from the beginning, he’s been a mythic figure – almost from the time he came back to Britain.” She likens her latest subject to Odysseus. “Probably something of that extremity of his experience, but also the passionate man: the fact he was someone who threw himself into all of this without caution. “And so the things that happened because of that, they teach you about what is, in a curious way, the edges of being human. And relationships. Bligh’s out there in uncharted waters – in more ways than one.”

Bligh may have seemed a natural subject choice for the author of The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas. He was Cook’s protégé. Salmond also wrote Aphrodite’s Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti and declares an enduring, and endearing, relationship with that country. But she did not set out to complete the triumvirate. “Not at all. I wasn’t intending to write a book about Bligh.” Not, at least, until she discovered the void in the account of the third and fatal voyage by Cook to Tahiti, with a young Bligh as master on board the Resolution.

What started out as a journey a-chock with promise – Cook and crew, intoxicated with their own swagger, are heaped with adulation on arrival and treated with reverence in the ensuing weeks – ended with the lonely brutal death of the captain on shores where he had once been welcomed. Cook’s shocking end also marks the beginning of both Salmond’s immersion in the business of Bligh and the emergence of the persona Bligh became.

Certainly, he felt a searing rage when he read the official version of the account of Cook’s death, says Salmond. By his estimation, the inaccuracies and rewriting of history were such that he was moved to pen his own annotations. “You can tell from the quotes. You get the sense of somebody who is incandescent about what happened.” Bligh’s own journal of the voyage was lost with the Bounty. He was outraged that in an attempt to find a scapegoat for Cook’s death blame was laid at the wrong feet. Cowardice of some of the crew was a huge contributor to the demise of his commander, Bligh believed. Also, Bligh justly felt he was not getting the recognition or reward he deserved for his work on the Resolution, his support of Cook or his cartography skills. Hence the fevered annotations.

“This is not like anything else that I’ve ever come across in the history of Cook’s voyages … this was something that transfixed [Bligh],” says Salmond. The rage, it seems, was never assuaged. Nor his thirst for the sea – whatever perils ensued. He was, emphatically, a paradoxical character: a loving, besotted husband and father; a man of mercurial temperament and a biting tongue to his crew. It is as if he speaks two languages – his heart-touching letters to wife Elizabeth, aka Betsy (“I love you dearer than ever a Woman was loved – You are, nor have not been a moment out of mind – Every joy and blessing attend you my Life”), sit against the lexicon used on board – not only towards his mutinous crew (a “Tribe of Armed Ruffians”) but to those who stayed with him. One midshipman he deemed a “worthless impudent scoundrel”. He would, years later, say this of a gunner: “a damn’d long pelt of a bitch.”

John Russell's Captain William Bligh, 1791

There is an image of Bligh at the point when the mutiny is executed – “up on deck, bare-arsed in his nightshirt, followed by [mutineers] Churchill, Smith and Burkitt, their bayonets pointing at his back” – that suggests a man, at the very least, at his most vulnerable. But even after being bundled into a launch with 18 crew – it had a maximum capacity of 15 and was built for short journeys only – and left to a perilous voyage, he still maintained his bluster. “Never fear, my lads, you cant [sic] all go with me … I’ll do you justice if I ever reach England!”

Do we make men like that any more? “I would say in New Zealand I don’t think we do,” says Salmond, “because there would be very few people who’d had the kind of hardship at so young an age as was almost routine in the Royal Navy at that time. “And that’s one of the things that strikes you: just how young some of them are – just kids – and there they are, on a ship, going around the world. And then there’s nothing to rescue you. If you get into trouble, who’s going to come? There’s no way of letting people know. And so ships would just vanish. It’s amazing that more ships weren’t lost in that early period of exploration in the Pacific.”

No GPS, no Victim Support, no OSH, no welfare. Nobody to calm you down and patch you up. But the rough rites of sea passage did not cow Bligh, who went to sea when he was 15, any more than they did his master. “Certainly, he was very courageous, and so was Cook. They had that in common. And a kind of contempt for people who weren’t. “I think some men in that period were happiest when at sea. It became their world and the place where they knew how to be and they revelled in the stretch.”

Even in his darkest hours, Bligh seemed most at peace. After being cast off the Bounty, he notes in his journal: “In the midst of all I felt an inward happiness which prevented any depression of my spirits, conscious of my own integrity and anxious solicitude for the good of the Service I was on. I found my mind wonderfully Supported, and began to conceive hopes notwithstanding so heavy a Calamity, to be able to recount to King and Country my misfortune.” That “misfortune” is succinctly described thus in a letter to Betsy: “I have been run down by my own Dogs.”

He must have been mad to go back for more, which indeed he did post-mutiny? Salmond does not think so, adding that it is “quite dangerous” to project yourself in the past and assume you know what is going on. “In a way, one of the things that appeals to me about Bligh – one of the reasons I got fascinated by him – is he is unguarded,” she says. “It’s that whole passionate man thing. It’s the extremities, if you like.”

He has got under her skin to the extent she talks about him in the present tense. Bligh “is not a safe person. He’s someone who throws himself into life without being careful.” Who knows what career he would find for himself today. He’d probably have to be an explorer again, says Salmond. “He’d be one of those people doing extreme things.” On second thoughts, maybe space travel or the SAS would have been one of the modern-day job possibilities.

Certainly, he would not be short of a few employable attributes. “He can write well, he can sketch, he’s a very good ethno­grapher – the best of that period.” And a fine seaman, too.

A pity, then, about his interpersonal skills, which never seemed to acquire any polish. Years after the Bounty and after Bligh had relinquished his post as governor of New South Wales, Bligh’s successor, Lachlan Macquarie, described him thus: “Bligh is most certainly a most disagreeable Person to have any dealings, or Publick business to transact with; having no regard to his promise or engagements however sacred, and his natural temper is uncommonly harsh, and tyrannical in the extreme. He is certainly generally detested by high, low, rich and poor, but more specially by the higher Classes of People.”

Salmond says she went into the book – which took three years of meticulous research, including some lengthy international email exchanges with Bligh scholar Rolf Du Rietz, to finish – with no expectation of what she might discover about her subject. Upon completion, she believes what never changed in him was the fury that made him annotate the official account of Cook’s third voyage. “He never lost that absolute sense of outrage at things that were unjust. Possibly I liked that in him, in a funny sort of way.”

BLIGH: WILLIAM BLIGH IN THE SOUTH SEAS, by Anne Salmond (Penguin/Viking, $65), released August 30.

NB: Here is Radio New Zealand National's interview with Salmond on Saturday Morning with Kim Hill:
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