03 May 2010

History written by those with the greater clout

Bligh's tombe (left) at the Museum of Garden History

For no good reason at all I went through some old posts on a defunct blog of mine Plant Pron and Pussycats yesterday and came across some photos of the Museum Garden History. Actually there was a good reason for me looking at the old blog – I was thinking of resurrecting it and using as the photo dump it was originally set up to be.

But I digress. The Museum of Garden History is located in the former church St Mary at Lambeth, just across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament. Appropriately, the churchyard (now a garden) contains the grave of gardener and naturalist John Tradescant. Of greater relevance, to this post anyway, the churchyard is the last resting place of one William Bligh

Charles Laughton as Bligh - the popular image

Think of William Bligh and the Mutiny on the Bounty springs to mind. Think of an image of Bligh and I daresay Charles Laughton or Trevor Howard hoves into view. In the mind of most people Bligh is a brute if not an out and out sadist.

The truth is of course, he was nothing of the sort. He was no saint; he was a rather unpleasant man with a hot temper acid tongue, It was this acid tongue that led to his downfall, not any brutality.

The real Bligh

Bligh was a superb sailor and navigator (He had been Master of the Resolution. Cook’s vessel for his third and final voyage of discovery). He was not a flogging captain. Examination of his logs showed that he was far, far more sparing of the lash than his contemporaries. His reputation as a fighting captain is beyond reproach as his conduct in the great fleet actions of Camperdown in 1797 and Copenhagen in 1801 will testify.

Bligh and loyal crew at the start of their epic journey to safety

While the Bounty is imprinted on the national memory, Bligh’s 3,618 nautical mile journey from Tofua to Coupang in the Dutch East Indies in a jolly boat (the smallest of a ship’s boats) in which he lost just one of the 18 loyal crew members is not well remembered.

Bligh’s suffered a second mutiny, the so-called “Rum Rebellion” in New South Wales in 1808. Bligh was governor, he ran up against pretty unpleasant local interests, especially within the New South Wales Corps. Many of Bligh’s actions were far from laudable but again he was more sinned against than sinning. acid tongue and bad temper also contributed. The Rum Rebellion marked the end of Bligh’s career. Although promoted to Rear Admiral and then Vice Admiral he never saw any further significant service.

A Rum Rebellion cartoon - Propaganda to besmirch Bligh's reputation

Bligh is a flawed character but his reputation as a tyrant is utterly unwarranted. This reputation was put in place by his enemies – Fletcher Christian was far better connected that Bligh and it was these connections, particularly his brother Edward, that ensured Bligh’s reputation was traduced.

Meanwhile, other truly tyrannical captains rest in their graves (or at the bottom of the sea) unremarked and unforgotten. Who remembers Hugh Pigot or the Hermione Mutiny of 1797? Now there is someone who deserves Bligh’s mantle.

Then again history is written by the victors and by those who have the clout


James Higham said...

Utter propaganda of course as Bligh would not have hidden like that

The soldiers reported that he did hide under the bed, it was included in the formal charge against him and his answer to the "cowardice" part was that he was trying to elude his captors so he could rally support later.

He didn't dispute the hiding, just the reason for it. The NSW Corps were a pretty frightening bunch.

Liz Hinds said...

That's interesting, jams.

Claude said...

You're so right, Jams. That's why I'm rushing to write my Childhood History . The title? J'étais là. (I was there.) If left to my sisters, the story of my early life would be disastrous...Yet, all I remember from it are moments of glory. Rira bien, qui rira la dernière! ;-)

jams o donnell said...

I would go with Bligh's take, Having stood firm on quarterdecks at Camperdown and Copenhagen there is no way he would have cowered from the Rum Corps, however much of a scary rabble they were

Thanks Liz

Haha Claudia, O can imagine that you had many great exploits and triumphs

susan said...

Always educational, Jams. That was a good one.

jams o donnell said...

Glad you found it interesting Susan

Sean Jeating said...

Didn't there a lady claim one or two years ago, a bogman found, was the body of Fletcher Christian?
Ah, probably it happened in a novel I heard about but wouldn't feel attracted to read it.
Charles Laughton's great, hm?

Enjoyed reading this, Jams. Thanks.

jams o donnell said...

Thanks Sean. I don;t recall hearing this. A couple of well preserved specimens were found in Ireland a few years back but they were from different times.... and Ireland is half a world away from Pitcairn!