Garden reveals other side of notorious Captain Bligh


August 17, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Virginia creeper has engulfed the brick wall in the garden behind the Church of St. Mary-at-Lambeth. London's warm summer has dried the grass in the center, though it remains bright in the shade by the huge sycamores, which also muffle the roar of the trucks coming off Lambeth Bridge.

It is not only a garden, but a cemetery. The remains of a few famous people are here, but most were not well-known. There is one man widely regarded as a villain, but he may have been miscast by history.

The church is not really a church either, or no longer serves as one. It is a museum to the most mundane of activities. Gardening.

People everywhere garden, and in surprising numbers, especially in Britain.

Some years back a study commissioned by The Sun learned that the preferred recreation of the people in and around Baltimore was gardening. They liked to plant things, to consume their produce and give the surplus to friends, maybe to brag a little about their skills in the back yard.

That gardening would have a history might seem a little obvious. That someone would amplify this observation, organize a museum about this ancient activity, identify its pioneers, so to speak -- well, that hints at the inclination of the British people to classify knowledge, arrange and categorize it. It reveals their genius. It makes clear why they would produce someone like Charles Darwin.

John Tradescant and his son, also John, were not of Darwinian stature. But they did make contributions to science and especially to the greening of England.

They were the first men to hunt plants in foreign lands in an organized way -- and for the purpose of transplanting them here. They brought plants in the 18th century from North Africa, Russia and America. John Tradescant the younger brought the tulip tree, smoke bush and the locust tree from the American colonies. He also brought Virginia creeper, so prominent today in the garden behind the Church of St. Mary-in-Lambeth.

Both of the Tradescant plant hunters are interred in a gray sarcophagus. Other members of the family are there with them.

Nearby is another family's tomb, that of William Bligh. That Captain Bligh is buried here is not inappropriate. In addition to being the designated victim of the world's best-known mutiny, Captain Bligh moved quite a few plants.

The inscription on his tomb describes him as "The celebrated navigator who first transplanted the bread fruit trees of Otaheite [Tahiti] to the West Indies, bravely fought the battles of his

country, and died beloved, respected, and lamented, on the 7th day of December, 1817, aged 64."

Beloved? Respected? Lamented? The words repudiate the popular image of the man.

It was on his way back from Tahiti after collecting the breadfruit plants that Fletcher Christian and his accomplices seized the Bounty and put Captain Bligh and 18 of those loyal to him adrift in a small boat.

Mutinies at sea were common in the 18th century, but this one was different for several reasons:

* First, it succeeded. Some of the mutineers made it to Pitcairn Island, where they settled and where their descendants live today.

* Second, Captain Bligh navigated his boat 3,700 miles to safety.

* Third, he was turned into one of history's arch villains, mainly by the Christian family's revilement and through a book on the mutiny written in 1831 by John Barrow.

The story of Captain Bligh's cruelty has been perpetuated in further books and films. But to others, such as the historian J. E. Chandler, Captain Bligh "has been a much maligned man."

In any event, Captain Bligh's career picked up after the mutiny.

He served under Adm. Horatio Nelson at the battle of Copenhagen, and he received a commendation from Britain's premier naval hero. He governed New South Wales and retired with the rank of vice admiral of the blue.

As for the breadfruit, Captain Bligh returned to Tahiti a second time and completed this mission, although the purpose of it was not the sort to cover him with glory, as he was serving the needs of West Indian planters who wanted a cheap food to feed their slaves.

Captain Bligh, of course, was only carrying out orders.

Perhaps that should have been part of his epitaph.

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