Dirty Linen

Patrick O’Brian

  • Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the ‘Bounty’ by Greg Dening
    Canto, 445 pp, £7.95, April 1994, ISBN 0 521 46718 7
  • Admiral Satan: The Life and Campaigns of Suffren by Roderick Cavaliero
    Tauris, 312 pp, £29.95, May 1994, ISBN 1 85043 686 X

Both these books are concerned with the sea in the days of the sailing Navy and with the nature of command, so much enhanced in distant waters when communication with government might take half a year rather than half a minute. Drake executed Doughty in Patagonia without a qualm; or at least without being disturbed for doing so when he came home.

Mr Bligh’s Bad Language deals primarily with the mutiny of the Bounty, weaving the account in and out of an ethnographical discussion of life aboard men-of-war and of the political and spiritual life of the Polynesians, with great emphasis on their ideas of the sacred and of sacrifice.

The tale of the Bounty is familiar, but it is not always accurately told, much less filmed, so perhaps it is worth restating the main lines. In 1787, Lieutenant William Bligh, RN, aged 33, was given the command of HM Armed Vessel Bounty of 215 tons and four four-pounder guns, a merchantman bought by the Navy Board and fitted up with the help of Sir Joseph Banks, who was then guiding Kew towards its glorious future, as a floating conservatory to carry young breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies, there to provide cheap food for the African slaves. The ship, the voyage and the appointment were all unusual. Bligh’s father was a minor customs official; the boy did not really go to sea until he was nearly 16, and then he spent his early days as a midshipman in the Hunter, a humble ten-gun pink, rather than in a rated ship, where he would have had many companions of the more conventional naval type who, at a formative age, might have taught him more about their language and ways than ever he learnt. It is true that he moved on to the Crescent, which though called a frigate was in fact a captured French privateer; and from this very modest height he sank to the Ranger, a snow that carried only eight little three-pounders and that harried smugglers off the Isle of Man. In 1776, having served his time as a midshipman, he passed his examination for lieutenant; but he was not of the usual commissioned officer material, or so the examining captains thought. In any case, he was not given a commission, but became a master, that is to say a warrant officer chiefly responsible for navigation, of wardroom rank but subordinate to all lieutenants, a station that carried almost no hope of advancement but that probably satisfied Bligh’s ambitions. As master of the Resolution he sailed with Cook on the great man’s last voyage, which took him to Tahiti among other places. Cook was satisfied with his seamanship, navigation and surveying.

Unlike some of his shipmates, Bligh was not promoted when Resolution came home; but he was re-employed, and when his ship, the frigate Belle Poule, distinguished herself at the Battle of the Dogger Bank in 1781, he was given a lieutenancy. A lieutenancy, but of course no command, and with the war over very little likelihood of one, or even of employment. The Bounty was a godsend to him, for although during the peace he had been sailing a connection’s merchantman to the West Indies, a master-mariner’s status was not to be compared to that of a King’s officer. Quite how or why he was given the ship is not known, since he had not yet met Sir Joseph Banks, the prime mover in the scheme and later his patron. On the other hand, the Admiralty was aware that there were few officers who knew the South Seas, and of those few not all would accept so small a ship.

So Bligh was appointed. The glory went to his head and he made an absurd request to be promoted master and commander, a rank that then stood between lieutenant and post-captain: absurd, because it was foreign to naval tradition, and Cook himself had made his first voyage as a lieutenant. The glory went to his head and stayed there: although he had been a good subordinate, he was a wretched commander, and by the time the Bounty reached Tenerife, a fortnight after sailing, he was scarcely on speaking terms with his officers. He did not get on with the ship’s people, either, though for a long while he was friends with Fletcher Christian, who belonged to a good family in Cumberland, who had sailed with him on some of his merchant voyages, and whom he rated first AB, then midshipman, then master’s mate and acting lieutenant.

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