What would the Tahitians say?

Joyce Chaplin

  • Bligh: William Bligh in the South Seas by Anne Salmond
    California, 528 pp, £27.95, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 520 27056 5

The breadfruit is native to a number of Pacific islands, and is nowadays grown more widely in the tropics. It has never become a global commodity in the same way as other exotic foodstuffs – coffee, tea, sugar, bananas – even though it requires less labour than sugar or tobacco to grow, needs no more refrigeration than bananas for its transport and can be tinned or preserved.

Its stubborn resistance to globalisation has a long history. In 1789, a failed mission to transplant the fruit to the British West Indies resulted in a celebrated disaster. Two years earlier, William Bligh had been given command of the small armed vessel Bounty and ordered to cram it with as many Tahitian breadfruit saplings as it could carry before sailing to the Caribbean, where they were to be grown to feed slaves. En route to Tahiti, Bligh gave frequent demonstrations of his short temper, foul mouth and tendency to micromanage: a bad combination. He went berserk for instance after he tried to substitute pumpkin for bread rations midway across the Atlantic and the men objected. ‘You damn’d infernal scoundrels,’ he yelled. ‘I’ll make you eat grass before I have done with you!’ Tahiti offered a respite from his shipboard tirades, but a temporary one. Not four weeks into the ship’s return voyage, Fletcher Christian, who had been Bligh’s protégé and family friend, led a mutiny as a desperate solution to the abuse that Bligh had started dealing out again at sea. ‘I have been in Hell for this fortnight past,’ Christian told his former patron, just before he forced him, with 18 men perceived to be his creatures, into a small launch and set them adrift.

Amazingly, Bligh’s party fared better than the mutineers. With minimal navigational instruments, no charts and scant provisions, including ‘a few Cocoa Nutts and some Breadfruit, but the latter useless’, Bligh managed to reach the Dutch East Indies, 3600 miles away. Only 13 of the men survived. On his return to London, Bligh was court-martialled but exonerated. The Bounty meanwhile had gone back to Tahiti, and most of her sailors decided to stay there. The remainder, including Christian, fearing arrest, wanted to find an island less likely to be visited by Europeans. They recruited Tahitian friends, especially women whom they regarded as wives; other Tahitians stowed away on the ship. The small group, still with dangerously few women for the number of men, settled on Pitcairn Island, burned the Bounty and sank into perpetual and violent quarrels. Subsequently, a British ship sent to Tahiti apprehended those Bounty sailors who had remained there and fetched them back to Portsmouth for trial. Three were hanged for mutiny. The colony on Pitcairn was discovered by American whalers in 1808: only one of the mutineers was still alive. Christian had evidently been murdered by the Tahitians, who were tired of being treated as slaves by their erstwhile white companions.

The Bounty mutiny remains an ambiguous event. Each of its main actors had a life or death interest in interpreting events to his own advantage, and many and competing contemporary accounts survive. Both Bligh and Christian had their partisans, and still do. Because the British had recently conceded defeat in the American War, and given that the French Revolution broke out as the mutineers went on trial, reactions to the case were conditioned by debates over authority and liberty. Bligh, especially, was easy to lampoon either as the tyrannous product of an ancien régime or as a petty maritime Bonaparte. As part of the mutiny’s resonant afterlife, three Hollywood films (1935, 1962 and 1984) have dramatised it. Just as some people argue over whom to blame for it (a brutal Bligh? a conniving Christian?), others dispute the different versions of the 18th century implied, on the one hand, by Clark Gable’s starchily decent Mr Christian and, on the other, by Mel Gibson’s tattooed Man of Feeling, dripping with sweat.

Among the many published accounts of the incident, Greg Dening’s Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the ‘Bounty’ (1994) is the one to beat.[*] Dening, an anthropologist, analysed the mutiny as an incident in cultural history, a microhistorical moment in shifting standards of human behaviour. He demonstrated that Bligh’s men did not hate him because he was a flogger: the captain ordered the lash infrequently, against the prevailing naval tradition. But in the ship’s cramped quarters his ‘bad language’ proved just as intolerable. He had it coming even if he wasn’t a bad man. Dening’s scholarly reassessment of Bligh echoes his gradual rehabilitation on film.

In her new biography, Anne Salmond endorses the near consensus that Bligh was defeated by an impossible task. She also makes a case that the tubby Englishman (only about five feet tall) should be remembered as something other than a mini-Napoleon. Above all, she insists that the Bounty mutiny was ‘an episode in the history of the world, not simply the history of the West’. On this last and perhaps most important point, however, she suggests rather than exhausts the Tahitian side of the story, and may not do justice to the implications of the new globalisation of commodities, of which the breadfruit mission was a part.

The 18th-century romanticisation of Polynesia as another Eden, all luscious fruit and naked Eves, was not just an abstraction, but also a potential building block of empire. The British authorities imagined that several parts of the Pacific were likely to have (overlapping) uses. Furs from the Pacific Northwest could be traded for tea in China; lumber could be cut and flax cultivated by convict labour for naval stores in New South Wales. The illusion of limitless tropical food that needed no tending, as seemed to be the case for coconuts and breadfruit (which obligingly grew on trees), impressed empire-builders. They were becoming aware of the material limits of their old Atlantic colonies, particularly the islands in the West Indies that had been shorn of trees, overhunted and reduced to monoculture, and whose native inhabitants had been replaced by enslaved, underfed Africans. Breadfruit was not primarily intended for the slaves who cultivated the old Caribbean crop of sugar, but for those who were to be set to work a new crop, cotton, for which there was rising industrial demand.

These imperial projects were examples of the even bigger shifts involved in what Alfred Crosby has called ecological imperialism. This irreversible rearrangement of the natural world – a global reshuffling of plants, animals, people and microbes – was the handiwork of all European empire-builders, whatever their differences with each other. It’s the reason maize (from the Americas) is today a staple in South Africa, cattle (from Europe) supply steaks in Argentina, and syphilis (origin unclear) travelled everywhere. Today, long after decolonisation removed many of imperialism’s civil iniquities, the material legacies of ecological imperialism proliferate.

Ecological imperialism may not seem an obvious way to attempt to explain the mutiny. An emphasis on the natural elements of the story does not displace the human actors, however, but rather highlights their relations with one another, especially their different responses to alien foodstuffs. It’s interesting that Bligh should have wrangled with his men over whether pumpkin could replace ship’s biscuit, just as it’s interesting that access to coconuts and yams on the return journey should have helped precipitate the mutiny. And more interesting still that the breadfruit thrown into the open launch Bligh sailed to the Dutch East Indies was deemed ‘perfectly useless’, given that it had been expected to be the latter-day equivalent of the scriptural loaves and fishes.

Each of the three individuals centrally involved in the breadfruit scheme, Pomare, Joseph Banks and Bligh, had reasons for favouring a redistribution of the world’s material resources. All three had known Captain Cook, whose three voyages into the Pacific had staked out a British claim to the region and whose contacts in Tahiti made that island a keystone of Anglo-Polynesian relations. Pomare, also known as Tu, was a leading man on Tahiti, who, through war and diplomacy, had been uniting the island’s chiefdoms into one kingdom. His contacts with British visitors, especially Cook, gave him leverage over competing chiefs both in the form of an alliance with George III and as a source of European manufactured goods. Banks had sailed on Cook’s first voyage, which had included a long stop on Tahiti. He had brought back from the Pacific a prodigious array of natural specimens, though that was just a start, as far as he was concerned. Once he became president of the Royal Society, he used his position to collaborate with the navy on many imperial projects in botany and agriculture. Finally, there was Bligh, who had served on Cook’s third journey and whose hyper-touchiness about his own authority might have resulted from disgust that Cook’s men had not done enough to protect their commander from the attack by Hawaiian warriors that killed him.

Because Bligh was known to Pomare and knew something of Tahitian society, Banks recommended him to the Admiralty as leader of the breadfruit expedition. Honoured by his selection, Bligh acquiesced in parts of the plan that should have given him pause. Banks was determined to maximise the space reserved on board for specimens – the Bounty was to be a floating greenhouse with just about enough room for sail-handling – and Bligh agreed to relinquish the space ordinarily given to a ship’s captain for his private cabin in order to accommodate yet more specimens. Because the small vessel was rated as a cutter, she carried no marines, the soldiers charged with keeping sailors in line. Bligh was the only commissioned officer aboard. In short, Banks and the Admiralty were hoping that several of the usual mechanisms for reinforcing a captain’s command would be unnecessary, and that everyone on board – united in a grand botanical project – would cheerfully forfeit even more space and privacy than was usually the case.

Bligh was better on land than at sea. To bolster his authority among the Tahitians, he forbade any of his men to disclose news of Cook’s death in Hawaii: the chain of contacts between the British and the islanders must seem to remain unbroken, especially if Bligh was to be regarded as a son of ‘Tute’ (Cook) and friend of ‘Pane’ (Banks), as well as a representative of George III. The English explained their agricultural mission to the Tahitians and, although it was the pre-harvest season of scarcity on the island, the local people supplied food and helped the sailors stock a breadfruit nursery. Bligh and Tu exchanged names and became taio, or partners, in a ceremonial friendship. The other Englishmen formed taio too. Most also acquired female sexual partners. (Bligh did not.) The English watched the festivities that opened the season of plenty and reciprocated with displays of fireworks. It was an indication of the Tahitians’ regard for Bligh that they invited him to several sacred performances that they hadn’t revealed to other Europeans.

Salmond stresses Bligh’s abilities as an ethnographic observer, which she says he had begun to acquire on Cook’s third voyage, although his journal for that is now lost. Certainly, he described Tahitian language, material culture and ceremonial events far more thoroughly than was typical. And his presence coincided with an important event in Tahitian history, the installation of a new high chief, Pomare II, with ceremonies that recognised how the British had helped his lineage achieve victory over its enemies. The Tahitians were uneasy with the Britons, who ate prodigious numbers of pigs and coconuts, and now demanded food to take away, but they were getting something important out of the intermittent and disruptive British visits, and were careful to make Bligh feel welcome. Salmond describes the dishes he was offered, including puddings made of taro or plantain or breadfruit, frequently finished off with coconut cream. It’s a reminder that while the British were determined to turn breadfruit into a mere commodity, the Tahitians had embedded it into a cuisine, i.e. a whole cultural system. Bligh’s notes on the treats he was given are evidence of that cultural grounding, and of his gratitude for their hospitality.

Salmond’s Bligh is very much the diplomat. On Tahiti, he was a patient dinner guest, an indulgent host and a charmer who always remembered to ask after an old friend’s health and family. As his Tahitian improved and his friendships got closer, he took more elaborate notes. Like any good ethnographer, he recorded genealogies and naming practices. In one strikingly informal conversation (it’s hard to imagine Cook doing this), he asked a woman called ‘Itia to tell him how Tahitian women gave birth. By way of demonstration, she squatted down, leaning against an attendant while he pressed down on her belly. Bligh described, in contrast, how Englishwomen strained to deliver while flat on their backs. ‘Itia found that posture hilarious, but also dangerous, and recommended her way – ‘Here, let them do this and not fear and the Child will be safe.’

In her account of his domestic life, Salmond emphasises Bligh’s gift for intimacy, especially with women. His correspondence with his wife, Elizabeth, is full of affection. ‘My Dear Dear Love and My Dear Children,’ he begins one letter, assuring his wife: ‘I love you dearer than ever a Woman was loved.’ Not that dear ‘Betsy’ was fooled into thinking that her husband had no steel in him. To a family friend, she confided: ‘One of Mr Bligh’s last injunctions to me was desiring me to write to you, and as I am a very obedient wife, especially when I like the commands imposed, I now sit down with pleasure to obey him.’ Mrs Bligh was probably the only person subject to Bligh’s command who was allowed to joke about it, perhaps even tease him.

Yet this new depiction of Bligh can but deepen the mystery of his mutiny-inciting ‘bad language’. Why would a man who valued affectionate relations at home, and who dealt so well with strangers and cultural outsiders, be so incompetent at negotiating relationships that lay somewhere between the familial and the unfamiliar? There is still something unresolved here, something about changing norms of masculine identity and behaviour in the long 18th century that, if fully explained, would chart the multiple and competing demands on manhood that Bligh could never quite navigate.

It’s not clear what his inter-cultural diplomacy actually achieved. Alert and sensitive observer of Pacific cultures he may have been, but the Anglo-Polynesian alliance was fragile. When subsequent British travellers delivered the news that Cook had long since died, and that Bligh had withheld the truth, the Tahitians were understandably put out. They had been treated like children, told lies and forced to believe that a long-buried grandfather still cared about them. When Bligh returned to Tahiti in 1791, on a second breadfruit expedition (no mutiny this time; saplings duly delivered), his old Tahitian contacts were not quite so delighted to see him. The Pomare-British alliance was all of a piece with the friendships and marriages between the Bounty sailors and Tahitians. Most of the lovers of the Englishmen never saw them again, or, if they followed them to Pitcairn Island, rather regretted it. For these reasons, it would be valuable to have a fuller explanation of the Bounty affair from the Tahitian perspective.

Above all, it would be valuable to know how the Tahitians regarded the impact of ecological imperialism, which hit their island hard. Venereal diseases, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases had become established, and the population was estimated to have declined from 200,000 in 1772 to 30,000 by the time of the Bounty visit. The reverse was then occurring in England: only five years after Bligh landed his saplings in the West Indies, Malthus would publish his thesis on the dangers of England’s burgeoning population, contrasting it to non-European populations that were in steep decline. Certainly, Bligh was not blind to other forms of damage being done to the island. He noted that the small Polynesian pigs had been displaced by their larger European cousins. Introduced goats were gnawing away the island’s greenery; introduced cats killed Polynesian rats. Perhaps the first European visitors could not have foreseen the material damage they would do to the islands, but the next ones knew what had happened there. Their insistence on the unending plenty to be had from the Pacific seems deliberately obtuse.

[*] Reviewed by Patrick O’Brian in the LRB of 4 August 1994.