Bligh’s daughter bursts to life
Governor Bligh and the Short Man: A Novella
By Peter Cochrane Penguin eBooks, $3.99
HISTORY has been unkind to William Bligh, though perhaps not unfair. Defined largely by the events of 1789 as ‘‘ that Bounty bastard’’, his accomplishments as surveyor and naval commander tend to be overshadowed by the legacy of his hot temper and foul tongue.
If one mutiny were not enough, the debacle of the Bounty was followed by his involvement in mutinies at Spithead and Nore before his ill-fated appointment as governor of NSW in 1805, which ended with Australia’s only military coup.
While not solely to blame for the unpopularity of his actions, Bligh was cursed with a thin-skinned vanity and was quick to berate fools with his magnificently bad language. It’s his bizarre, acrimonious relationship with one such fool that provides the focus of Peter Cochrane’s engaging imaginative intervention into a little-known footnote to Australia’s history.
Captain Joseph Short, a querulous man in his own right, was given command of the convoy of six ships carrying the newly appointed governor to NSW. His instructions from Admiralty put him in command of the convoy, although he was to put himself under Bligh’s authority once they reached NSW.
Bligh saw things differently. As governor of the colony and commander-in-chief of all British naval vessels on his station, Bligh believed he had supreme command over the convoy and over the intolerable Short.
Neither man was prepared to concede. The 71/ month voyage from Portsmouth to Sydney Cove descended into a farcical display of self-destructive one-upmanship and petty recrimination, with allegations and counterallegations reported back to authorities by both parties.
The personalities are more interesting than the protocols, and Cochrane takes advantage of the closed and claustrophobic world of the voyage for full dramatic effect. A widely published historian, he takes the liberty of presenting the novella in the form of a primary source and creates one of the most marvellously aggrieved and vindictive characters you are likely to encounter in history or fiction.
The emotional stakes of the voyage were heightened by both Bligh and Short being accompanied by family. Short travelled with his heavily pregnant wife and seven children, Bligh with his eldest daughter, Mary, the wife of his lieutenant, John Putland.
Cochrane recounts the journey through the jaundiced, vitriolic pen of Mary, who keeps a journal addressed to her sister sealed in a pickling jar. In truth, the only surviving record of the journey in Mary’s hand was a single letter addressed to her mother and sisters while at sea, but Cochrane’s deft imaginative entry into her consciousness reveals as much about his research as his skills as a writer.
Mary records the ‘‘ unvarnished truth’’ of the vile vendetta waged against her beloved Papa and husband by the scheming, vulgar little man who lacks even the foresight to recognise that he is nothing but a low-bred vassal of the vice-regal personage, her father. She endures the misery and privations of sea travel: the mal de mer, her fear of drowning, the wretched, claustrophobic conditions of life aboard ship, all exacerbated by separation anxiety for her beloved Putland, who is removed to Short’s ship to be victimised as a surrogate for the absent Bligh.
Bligh’s renowned hubris and bull-headed determination are matched by his daughter’s selfimportant indignation and desire for vengeance. Between them, they write up no fewer than nine separate charges to be brought against Short for his courtmartial, ranging from appropriating rope to drunkenness and disobedience. Each is duplicated in Mary’s careful hand for safekeeping and the vindication of her ever ‘‘ constant, kind and sober Papa’’.
Despite the measured gentility of Mary’s prose, practically every line of her compellingly unreliable account is loaded with indignation and resentment. She metaphorically stamps her feet at the injustice of it all, barely restraining her anger and, at one point, revealing herself as truly her father’s daughter by letting the word ‘‘ bugger’’ spill from her pen.
There is an absurd sort of humour about the narration as the stand-off between the two men escalates and their actions border on the ludicrous. Bligh claims omnipotence by being present in two places at the one time; Short places himself under arrest as a show of defiance; there is a ridiculous tit-for-tat over the fate of a favourite little pig that might grace somebody’s table. Beneath the humour, though, runs the pathos of a devoted daughter witnessing the unravelling of a beloved father.
Penguin is publishing the novella as an eBook after its shortlisting in the Griffith Review Novella Project last year. I hope there’s truth to reports Cochrane is also working on a longer story about Bligh and his daughter.
Portrait of Mary Putland (nee Bligh)