Bligh’s daugh­ter bursts to life

Gov­er­nor Bligh and the Short Man: A Novella

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Liam Dav­i­son Liam Dav­i­son

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)

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