Monday, January 2, 2012

Bad Language

Dear Blogging:

I have been reading Mr. Bligh's Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty (Cambridge UP, 1994) over the past week or so, and I thought you might want to learn some more about it. I remember how much you like boats, after all!

Now, you remember the story of the mutiny on the Bounty, right? It's an ugly one. At the bidding of Royal Society President, Joseph Banks, and other power-brokers, William Bligh is commissioned to travel to Tahiti, acquire a cargo of germinating breadfruits and then transport them back to Jamaica where they will serve as a cheap and sustainable source of calories for the slaves working on British sugar plantations. Sadness of sweetness and all that.

Bligh is keen to make a quick passage from Britain to Tahiti and so he tries to sail south and west around Cape Horn. After weeks of grueling effort, this project goes completely pear-shaped, so he sails east. But, because of this delay, the Bounty arrives at Tahiti past the breadfruit's germinating season. Fearing that his vegetable cargo will all die on the journey, Bligh keeps the boat anchored in Tahiti's Matavai Bay for  five months.

While this was good for the breadfruit, it was even better for the crew who had a lusty time mixing it up with the Tahitian ladies. However, once they are back under sail and subjected to the rigors of life at sea, so the familiar story goes, the crew quickly lost patience with Bligh. A cruel, tactless disciplinarian, Bligh and his liberal use of the lash prompted the famous mutiny by Fletcher Christian who exiled Bligh and those faithful to him to a small launch. Christian eventually takes the Bounty off to Pitcairn island where he meets his end.

By Greg Dening's celebrated revision, this standard history misses much of the story. Rather than being a cruel sadist, Dening shows how Bligh was actually one of the least violent naval leaders in the British Pacific of his time. A sub-chapter and extensive quantitative data in the notes go to make the point that Bligh only flogged a fraction of the 20% of sailors on British ships in the Pacific who received a taste of the whip for their troubles. So, if it wasn't an excess of discipline that prompted the mutiny, what was it? Part of Dening's argument is that Bligh and his ship confused the boundaries of legitimate authority as eighteenth century sailors would have recognized it. If never capacious, the distinguishing exclusivity of the captain's private quarters aboard the Bounty were seriously compromised once colonized by Banks's breadfruits. Further, by serving as both commander and "purser" (or entrepreneurial outfitter) of the Bounty, Bligh split his loyalties. And while he might appear more humane in punishing with wicked insults instead of whips, Bligh's eponymous "bad language," Dening claims, critically undermined his standing as the kind of Enlightenment gentleman to whom the crew would implicitly give its allegiance.

Some of the book (I'll confess to you, dear Blogging) reads as a bit old fashioned in that early nineties sort of way with lots of self-conscious reflection on the craft of the historian and the polysemic nature of texts, etc. Much—or at least the chapter on the death of Capt. Cook on Hawaii—reads as a large piece of debt to the work of Marshall Sahlins. And I haven't yet reached the end. But, a good read nonetheless.

Love -

Sanford Sanchez

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