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Remarkable villain you'd want on your side

Bligh: Master Mariner, by Rob Mundle

We’ve all met someone who we admire but would never, under any0009251_bligh-master-mariner.jpeg circumstances, want to work for. Until, of course, it becomes a matter of life and death.

Captain William Bligh is the ultimate example: a man so infamously bad-tempered that he drove those around him to madness, with not only the crew of the Bounty rising up in their famous mutiny, but the colonists of New South Wales too. Yet he was also – as the new book Bligh: Master Mariner shows – a truly remarkable man: a warrior, cartographer and navigator who fought to save those under his command from terrible hardships.

This biography takes us through Bligh’s entire career, during which he took part in some of the most remarkable events of the age of exploration – from a south sea voyage with Cook to battling alongside Admiral Nelson.

Bligh’s time at sea started early, heading out from his hometown of Plymouth on the revenue boats with his father, an officer with HM Customs. He joined the Royal Navy as a seven-year-old cadet but was soon paid off when peace broke out; it wasn’t until he reached the ripe old age of fifteen that he rejoined the Navy as an able seaman and quickly moved through the ranks by impressing his superiors.

At twenty-one, he was appointed sailing master aboard HMS Resolution under Captain Cook thanks to his reputation as a navigator, surveyor and seafarer, and he began his journeys in the Pacific. Both Bligh and Cook, who each came from relatively humble origins, benefited from joining a Navy that held practical skill in high regard and put less emphasis on aristocratic origin than other institutions like the Army. The partnership was not to last, however. From a cutter, Bligh watched horrified as his captain was killed at Hawaii.

Bligh went on to marry the intelligent and beautiful Elizabeth Betham, to fight the French and the Dutch, and to help relieve the siege of Gibraltar. The bulk of the biography, however, tells the story of the mutiny on the Bounty and the incredible – but lesser-known – voyage that followed. After the mutiny, Bligh and 18 loyal men, with just five days’ food and no charts, were set adrift. Bligh then successfully navigated 3,500 nautical miles on a 47-day open boat voyage from Tonga to Timor – a feat unmatched until Shackleton.

Finally, the book goes into the details of Bligh’s later career, as he overcame ridicule and misfortune to once again serve his country in the Napoleonic Wars, fighting alongside Nelson at Copenhagen – only to suffer a mutiny once again as governor of New South Wales.

The author, Rob Mundle, has the journalistic skill to tell Bligh’s incredible story, though at times the book does lapse into being simply a record of what happened, and more about Bligh’s complex character could have been interspersed with the narrative elements. Mundle also has the advantage of family maritime heritage and his own time as a competitive yachtsman, sailing in many of the same waters that Bligh traversed, and this certainly comes through in the chapters on Bligh’s open boat Odyssey.

Those who already know Bligh’s story are bound to enjoy this readable account, and those who aren’t familiar with Bligh beyond the Bounty should take the opportunity to discover his remarkable life.

Bligh: Master Mariner
By Rob Mundle
Pen and Sword, £14.99
ISBN: 978 15267 82286

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