Saturday, July 6, 2013

Governor Bligh and the Short Man, by Peter Cochrane

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Historian Peter Cochrane’s highly enjoyable novella tells the story of Governor Bligh’s stormy journey to New South Wales upon the Lady Madeline Sinclair. Bligh travelled with his daughter, Mary Putman, and it is through her eyes that we see this trip, in the form of Mary’s journal. With a fair amount of wit and drama, Mary relates the stand-off between Captain Short and her father Governor Bligh as they come to blows over whose authority should prevail on the high seas.

The subject of this short novel, a spat between two volatile characters, Governor Elect William Bligh and Captain Short, has fascinated Australian historian Peter Cochrane for some time. Rather than write this episode up as a straight historical account, Cochrane has taken the somewhat unusual path of turning it into a novella. Choosing a format popular with women writers of the early twentieth century, Governor Bligh and the Short Man is composed as a journal, written by Bligh’s daughter, intended not for publication but as a private correspondence with her sister, Harriet.

In 1806, William Bligh sailed with his daughter Mary on the Lady Madeline Sinclair for New South Wales. The commander of the convoy was Captain Short, who sailed upon the Porpoise. A power struggle ensued between the two men as to who was ultimately in authority. Matters were somewhat confused by the Admiralty, who had not properly defined who had ultimate authority during the voyage. Some of the scenes where each man tries to rather pompously define his own jurisdiction to the other are quite comical. This drama on the high sea is mixed with a fair amount of farce and humour.

A Clash of Wills

One big tug of war between the two men during the journey is over Mary’s husband, Lieutenant John Putman. He is stationed on the Porpoise with Captain Short, but Mary wants her with him on the Lady Madeline Sinclair. Putman’s health is not the best and Mary is justifiably concerned for his welfare. After repeated petitions from Bligh, Captain Short refuses to give Putman up. Bligh and Mary are both dumfounded by Captain Short’s blunt and contemptuous attitude. They constantly marvel that Short doesn’t realise that Bligh is soon to be Governor of New South Wales, and that the Captain will be living under his government. Surely it makes far more sense to play your cards right?

Meanwhile, the convoy continues it tumultuous journey. Mary describes the many dangers and discomfits of sea travel, the sea sickness, the poor provisions and not least, the rough behaviour and salty language of the sailors. These descriptions contrast nicely with Mary’s memories of her family life at home in England as she fondly writes of family members and her beloved lap dog, Bon Bon.

The Historian as Novelist

An historian turned novelist does discombobulate the reader somewhat. What is fact and what is fiction? Isn’t it the historian’s job to stick to the facts? How much does the imagination influence the historian’s approach? Thankfully all these questions magically floated away once I started reading and became absorbed in Mary’s story. Cochrane does a great job of capturing an early 18th century woman’s style ( I only have the likes of Jane Austen, Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth to go by, I must admit). He ads quite a few nice turns of phrase, many of them rather witty, that must have been popular expressions at the time. These linguistic touches add a piquancy to the text. The reader also sees Mary Putland’s social status and pretentions. It’s quite obvious that she knows herself to be the daughter of a politically important person. She’s also a dutiful daughter and a reasonably intelligent witness of all around her. Cochrane has been clever enough to write her as a reliable witness who sometimes may allow her prejudices to influence her judgements.

As Mary’s voyage came to an end, with the Lady Madeline Sinclair closing in on New South Wales, I started to feel sorry that the story was soon to finish. I wanted to see how Mary got on in New South Wales, her impressions and reflections. Perhaps my only criticism is that the book is too short!

Governor Bligh and the Short Man caught me by surprise: I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much. Peter Cochrane nicely captures the voice and tone of an early 19th century English woman writing home about her adventures. The historical facts of the story, the personalities, cultural aspects and other details of life on board a 19th century ship, work together to create a story that is informative, nicely paced and a regular page turner. I do hope that Mary Putland returns to her pen soon for a second installment.

Governor Bligh and the Short Man, by Peter Cochrane. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780143569633 RRP: $9.99