Books reviewed by Paul Talbot

Bligh Master Mariner by Rob MundleBligh Master Mariner

by Rob Mundle
published by Hachette Australia
RRP $49.95 (368pp; 240mm x 160mm). Hard Cover.

There would be many people whose view of William Bligh would be coloured by his infamous claim to fame as victim in the mutiny on the Bounty. Hollywood had a couple of goes at painting Bligh as a foul tempered tyrant who got what he deserved from Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers. My earliest memory is of the brutal and rubber-lipped Charles Laughton, as Bligh, opposite the ruggedly handsome and brooding Marlon Brando’s mutinous Christian.
Stand that alongside his downfall when Governor of New South Wales (succeeding Darling and preceding Lachlan Macquarie) at the hands of John Macarthur and the Officers of the ‘Rum Corps’ and Bligh’s reputation seems tarnished beyond any redemption. How on earth had the British Government appointed such a man to this fledgling colony?
Rob Mundle has taken a somewhat contrary view of the redoubtable William Bligh in this biography, Bligh Master Mariner. Of course, Mundle is well remembered for his account of the ’98 Sydney-Hobart, Fatal Storm. And he has turned his pen to biographies before, with such notable subjects as Bob Oatley, Alan Bond and Sir James Hardy. So while his works to date have reflected a more contemporary outlook, it was with a touch of inspiration that his publisher commissioned him to look more closely at William Bligh.
In the process, Mundle has, like other authors who have gone down this path, come away with a story that “... embraces the romance of the sea, bravery in battle, the adventure of exploration under sail and the cost of having the courage of your convictions”. Not, I am sure you will agree, the conventional view of Captain Bligh.
Combining research into other works on Bligh and his times, together with getting a sense of the man from his correspondence, Mundle says he did not set out to write a complete account of Bligh’s life, but has focussed instead on the remarkable nature of the skill his subject showed as arguably one of the world’s greatest navigators and seaman.
Bligh Master Mariner introduces young William as a 7-year-old joining HMS Monmouth as a cadet, but, because of an outbreak of peace, young William soon disappeared from view. He re-emerged some time later to be appointed as sailing master aboard Cook’s Resolution for the fateful “third voyage”. And it was under Cook’s wing that Bligh matured as a navigator of renown and attracted the notice of Joseph Banks, later to become a mentor and supporter.
Mundle sidles up to Bligh’s voyage on the Bounty with a short history of his prior ships and commands. And it is with some sense of anticipation that the reader attacks Part II and Bligh’s appointment with destiny on his voyage to Tahiti to find breadfruit plants to take to the Caribbean.
Well the rest, as they say, is history. Our author takes a pretty close look and Bligh’s management of his ship and the shocking (for the day) outcome of his crew’s actions. Although, without the mutiny, as Mundle notes, Bligh’s amazing feat of seamanship in saving the loyal members of his crew would never have happened.
Subsequent outstanding actions in various battles, including under Lord Nelson, secured for Bligh the poisoned chalice of his appointment to the lofty position of Governor of New South Wales, setting him on a collision course with John Macarthur.
Rob Mundle is not sidetracked from his general thesis by the disastrous outcome of Bligh’s Governorship. Bligh’s return to England is marked by Joseph Banks’ support, recognition of his years as a successful naval commander and his appointments as Admiral of the Blue and Vice Admiral.
No matter the popular view of Bligh, the man was a sailor of extraordinary ability.