Devoted readers may remember that we launched the CLC project in July 2009 with 475 titles, commemorating the 475th anniversary of King Henry VIII’s licence to the university to print all manner of books. (Meanwhile, the University and the Press were busy with an octocentenary and a 425th anniversary, and there was a little worldwide excitement about Charles Darwin too.) Since then, many more titles have entered the programme, on subjects ranging (as we like to say) from anthropology (or indeed agriculture) to zoology, and originally published between the early eighteenth and the early twentieth century.
We were not, of course, going to let just any old book be the 5000th: a short list was drawn up of possible candidates for this signal honour, and after much debate, we decided on William Bligh’s Voyage to the South Sea, for the Purpose of Conveying the Bread-fruit Tree to the West Indies.
This volume actually contains two books. Bligh published a very short ‘Narrative of the Mutiny’ in 1790, which gave his account of the events on H.M.S. Bounty on the day of the mutiny, and of his subsequent voyage with the loyal crew members, and drew admiration for his remarkable feat of seamanship in piloting his small boat (illustrated in the book) for over 3,500 miles, with little water and food, and inadequate navigational tools, to safety. The second book (which comes first in the reissued volume) is a longer treatment of the topic, containing some duplicate material (including the plan of the boat), and describes the whole expedition, from the planning stage onwards to the arrival of Bligh and his seaman in Batavia.
This work contains many of the features that we seek when reissuing books in the Collection. Firstly, it is a first-hand account by one of the protagonists in one of the most (in)famous incidents in the history of the Royal Navy. Secondly, it is one of a number of works about the early exploration and exploitation of the South Pacific which we have reissued: others include Kippis’s Life of Captain James Cook, Bougainville’s Voyage around the World, Flinders’s account of his voyage around the coast of Australia, and the journal of Joseph Banks during the Endeavour voyage. Thirdly, original editions of the books are rare (and eye-wateringly expensive).
It was of course Sir Joseph Banks who had proposed that the Navy fit out a ship to bring bread-fruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies, as a cheap source of food for slaves. Bligh seemed a good choice for its commander: he had taken part in Cook’s last (and fatal) expedition, and thus was one of the relatively few naval officers who had actually sailed in the southern ocean. He had also made his way through the ranks (like Cook himself), and was a thoroughly skilled navigator. However, he also seems to have been self-centred, petty, of limited imagination, and a hopeless manager of his crew.
It has been demonstrated (not least by a Cambridge book, Mr Bligh’s Bad Language) that by the standards of his time, Bligh was not a particularly cruel commander in terms of the traditional naval punishment of flogging – his problems were an uncontrollable temper and a complete intolerance of anything which smacked to him of incompetence. He would assault both officers and men with offensive and humiliating tirades whenever anything, however trivial or accidental, happened in a way he did not want, undermining the officers, and making for anything but a happy ship.
Whether the underlying cause was the wish of many of the sailors to return to the island paradise of Tahiti, concern about food and water rations (drinking water being allegedly diverted to the breadfruit plants), or a deterioration of the previous friendly relations between Bligh and Fletcher Christian (who had been shipmates and friends of long standing) has long been a subject of dispute. Bligh himself suggests that ‘the women at Otaheite’ were the motivation, but insists that the mutiny came from nowhere, on a voyage which had ‘advanced in a course of uninterrupted prosperity’. He accuses Christian, as the ringleader, not only of mutiny (still punishable by death in the UK until 1998) but also of personal treachery: ‘that very day, he was engaged to have dined with me; and the preceding night, he excused himself from supping with me, on pretence of being unwell; for which I felt concerned, having no suspicions of his integrity and honour’.
The crisis undoubtedly brought out the best in Bligh: undaunted, resolute and a brilliant navigator, he succeeded in taking his open boat and 18 men over 3,500 miles to safety in Dutch Timor with the loss of only one man. (Sadly, others, including Banks’s own botanist, David Nelson, died of fever in the notoriously unhealthy Dutch colony.) In 1791 the expedition was repeated, successfully this time, though pointlessly, as when the breadfruit trees were brought to fruit in the Caribbean, the slaves refused to eat the the fruit.
After this, Bligh was involved in two further insurrections – the Nore, in 1797, where he vigorously defended his own crew against accusations of involvement – and an act of insubordination by one of his lieutenants in 1804, which resulted in a court martial which reprimanded Bligh and ordered that in future he be ‘more correct in his language’. Banks’s influence acquired him the governorship of New South Wales in 1805, but again he seems to have quarrelled with everyone he met, and ended up effectively mutinied against and kept prisoner on board a ship for the best part of two years, until he was recalled to England. Lachlan Macquarie, his successor, remarked that Bligh ‘certainly is a most disagreeable Person to have any dealings, or Publick business to transact with; … and his natural temper is uncommonly harsh, and tyrannical in the extreme’. By this time he had reached the rank of rear- and then vice-admiral, but his career was effectively at an end. He died in 1817, and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Lambeth, now the Garden History Museum.
In 1831, Sir John Barrow published an even-handed account of the Bounty mutiny (his Admiralty post gave him access to all the official papers relating to the event and the subsequent trials of some of the mutineers), but Bligh’s own narrative cannot be beaten as the story of a remarkable voyage, and a remarkable, though deeply flawed, man. It remains to be seen whether we will have an equally good book as our 10,000th!