Vice Admiral William Bligh, (9 September 1754 – 7 December 1817) was an officer of the British Royal Navy and a colonial administrator. His naval career was contemporary with that of Jane Austen’s brothers and the Austen family no doubt followed the details of his unusual history through the London papers.
A historic mutiny occurred during his command of HMS Bounty in 1789; Bligh and his loyal men made a remarkable voyage to Timor, after being set adrift in the Bounty’s launch by the mutineers. Fifteen years after the Bounty mutiny, he was appointed Governor of New South Wales in Australia, with orders to clean up the corrupt rum trade of the New South Wales Corps, resulting in the so-called Rum Rebellion.
Bligh was born in Tinten Manor in St Tudy near Bodmin, Cornwall, to Francis Bligh and his wife Jane. He was signed for the Royal Navy at age seven, it being common to sign on a “young gentleman” simply to gain experience at sea required for promotion. In 1770, at age 16, he joined HMS Hunter as an able seaman, the term used because there was no vacancy for a midshipman. He became a midshipman early in the following year. In September 1771, Bligh was transferred to the Crescent and remained in the ship for three years.
In 1776, Bligh was selected by Captain James Cook for the position of sailing master of the Resolution and accompanied Cook in July 1776 on Cook’s third and fatal voyage to the Pacific. Bligh returned to England at the end of 1780 and was able to give details of Cook’s last voyage.
Bligh married Elizabeth Betham, daughter of a Customs Collector (stationed in Douglas, Isle of Man), on 4 February 1781. The wedding took place at nearby Onchan. A few days later, he was appointed to serve in HMS Belle Poule as Master (senior warrant officer responsible for navigation). Soon after this, in August 1781, he fought in the Battle of Dogger Bank under Admiral Parker. For the next 18 months, he was a lieutenant in various ships. He also fought with Lord Howe at Gibraltar in 1782.
Between 1783 and 1787, Bligh was a captain in the merchant service. Like many lieutenants he would have found full-pay employment in the Navy hard to obtain with the fleet largely demobilised at the end of the War of American Independence. In 1787, Bligh was selected as commander of the Bounty. He rose eventually to the rank of Vice Admiral in the Royal Navy.
In 1787, Bligh took command of the Bounty. In order to win a premium offered by the Royal Society, he first sailed to Tahiti to obtain breadfruit trees, then set course for the Caribbean, where breadfruit was wanted for experiments to see whether it would be a successful food crop for slaves there. The Bounty never reached the Caribbean, as mutiny broke out on board shortly after the ship left Tahiti.
The voyage to Tahiti was difficult. After trying unsuccessfully for a month to round Cape Horn, the Bounty was finally defeated by the notoriously stormy weather and forced to take the longer way around Africa (Cape Agulhas). That delay caused a further delay in Tahiti, as he had to wait five months for the breadfruit plants to mature sufficiently to be transported. The Bounty departed Tahiti in April 1789.
Since it was rated only as a cutter, the Bounty had no officers other than Bligh himself (who was then only a lieutenant), a very small crew, and no Marines to provide protection from hostile natives during stops or enforce security on board ship. To allow longer uninterrupted sleep, Bligh divided his crew into three watches instead of two, placing his protégé Fletcher Christian—rated as a Master’s Mate—in charge of one of the watches. The mutiny, which took place on 28 April 1789 during the return voyage, was led by Christian and supported by eighteen of the crew. They had seized firearms during Christian’s night watch and surprised and bound Bligh in his cabin.
Despite being in the majority, none of the loyalists put up a significant struggle once they saw Bligh bound, and the ship was taken over without bloodshed. The mutineers provided Bligh and eighteen loyal crewmen with a 23 foot (7m) launch (so heavily loaded that the gunwales were only a few inches above the water). They were given four cutlasses, enough food and water to reach the most accessible ports, a quadrant and a compass, but no charts, sextant or Marine chronometer. The launch could not hold all the loyal crew members, so four were detained on the Bounty for their useful skills; they were later released at Tahiti.
Tahiti was upwind from Bligh’s initial position, and was the obvious destination of the mutineers. Many of the loyalists claimed to have heard the mutineers cry “Huzzah for Otaheite!” as the Bounty pulled away. Timor was the nearest European outpost, so Bligh and his crew first made for Tofua, to obtain supplies. However, they were attacked by hostile natives and John Norton, a quartermaster, was killed. Fleeing from Tofua, Bligh did not dare to stop at the next islands (the Fiji islands), as he had no weapons for defense and expected hostile receptions.
Bligh had confidence in his navigational skills, which he had perfected under the instruction of Captain Cook. His first responsibility was to survive and get word of the mutiny as soon as possible to British vessels that could pursue the mutineers. Thus, he undertook the seemingly impossible 3,618 nautical mile (6,701 km) voyage to Timor. In this remarkable act of seamanship, Bligh succeeded in reaching Timor after a 47-day voyage, the only casualty being the crewman killed on Tofua. Several of the men who survived this ordeal with him soon died of sickness, possibly malaria, in the pestilential Dutch East Indies port of Batavia, the present-day Indonesian capital of Jakarta, as they waited for transport to Britain.
To this day, the reasons behind the mutiny are a subject of debate. Many believe that Bligh was a cruel tyrant whose abuse of the crew led them to feel that they had no choice but to take over the ship. Others argue that the crew, inexperienced and unused to the rigours of the sea and, after having been exposed to freedom and sexual license on Tahiti, refused to return to the “Jack Tar’s” life of an ordinary seaman. They were led by Fletcher Christian in order to be free from Bligh’s acid tongue. This view holds that the crew took the ship so they could return to comfort and ease on Tahiti.
The Bounty’s log shows that Bligh resorted to punishments relatively sparingly. He scolded when other captains would have whipped, and whipped when other captains would have hanged. He was an educated man, deeply interested in science, convinced that good diet and sanitation were necessary for the welfare of his crew. He took a great interest in his crew’s exercise, was very careful about the quality of their food, and insisted upon the Bounty being kept very clean. He tried (unsuccessfully) to check the spread of venereal disease among the men.J. C. Beaglehole has described the major flaw in this otherwise enlightened naval officer:
“[Bligh made] dogmatic judgements which he felt himself entitled to make; he saw fools about him too easily … thin-skinned vanity was his curse through life … [Bligh] never learnt that you do not make friends of men by insulting them.”
Popular fiction often confuses Bligh with Edward Edwards of HMS Pandora, who was sent on the Royal Navy’s expedition to the South Pacific to find the mutineers and bring them to trial. Edwards is often made out to be the cruel man that Hollywood has portrayed Bligh as being. Clearly that kind of portrayal should be regarded as a mere caricature. Indeed, the 14 men from the Bounty who were captured by Edwards’ men were confined in a cramped 18′ × 11′ × 5′8″ wooden cell on the Pandora’s quarterdeck. Yet, when the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, 3 prisoners were immediately let out of the prison cell to help at the pumps. And finally Captain Edwards did also give orders to release the other 11 prisoners, to which end Joseph Hodges the armourer’s mate went into the cell to knock off the prisoners’ irons. But before he could finish the job, the ship sank very quickly. Eventually 4 of the prisoners and 31 of the crew died during the wrecking. More prisoners would likely have perished, had not William Moulter, a bosun’s mate, unlocked their cage before jumping off the sinking vessel.
In October 1790, Bligh was honourably acquitted at the court-martial inquiring into the loss of the Bounty. Shortly thereafter, A Narrative of the Mutiny on board His Majesty’s Ship “Bounty” was published. Of the 10 surviving prisoners, eventually brought home in spite of the Pandora’s loss, four were acquitted, due to Bligh’s testimony that they were non-mutineers that Bligh was obliged to leave on the Bounty due to lack of space in the launch. Two others were convicted because, while not participating in the mutiny, they were passive and did not resist. They subsequently received royal pardons. One was convicted but excused on a technicality. The remaining three were convicted and hanged.
The following is a letter to Bligh’s wife, written from Coupang, Dutch East Indies, (circa June 1791) in which the first reference to events on the Bounty is made.
My Dear, Dear Betsy, I am now, for the most part, in a part of the world I never expected, it is however a place that has afforded me relief and saved my life, and I have the happiness to assure you that I am now in perfect health… Know then my own Dear Betsy, that I have lost the Bounty…on the 28 April at day light in the morning Christian having the morning watch. He with several others came into my Cabin while I was a Sleep, and seizing me, holding naked Bayonets at my Breast, tied my Hands behind my back, and threatened instant destruction if I uttered a word. I however call’d loudly for assistance, but the conspiracy was so well laid that the Officers Cabbin Doors were guarded by Centinels, so Nelson, Peckover, Samuels or the Master could not come to me. I was now dragged on Deck in my Shirt & closely guarded – I demanded of Christian the case of such a violent act, & severely degraded for his Villainy but he could only answer – “not a word sir or you are Dead.” I dared him to the act & endeavoured to rally some one to a sense of their duty but to no effect… The Secrisy of this Mutiny is beyond all conception so that I can not discover that any who are with me had the least knowledge of it. It is unbeknown to me why I must beguile such force. Even Mr. Tom Ellison took such a liking to Otaheite [Tahiti] that he also turned Pirate, so that I have been run down by my own Dogs… My misfortune I trust will be properly considered by all the World – It was a circumstance I could not foresee – I had not sufficient Officers & had they granted me Marines most likely the affair would never have happened – I had not a Spirited & brave fellow about me & the Mutineers treated them as such. My conduct has been free of blame, & I showed everyone that, tied as I was, I defied every Villain to hurt me… I know how shocked you will be at this affair but I request of you My Dear Betsy to think nothing of it all is now past & we will again looked forward to future happyness. Nothing but true consciousness as an Officer that I have done well could support me….Give my blessings to my Dear Harriet, my Dear Mary, my Dear Betsy & to my Dear little stranger & tell them I shall soon be home…To You my Love I give all that an affectionate Husband can give – Love, Respect & all that is or ever will be in the power of your
ever affectionate Friend and Husband
Strictly speaking, the crime of the mutineers (apart from the disciplinary crime of mutiny) was not piracy but barratry, the misappropriation, by those entrusted with its care, of a ship and/or its contents to the detriment of the owner (in this case the British Crown).
After his exoneration by the Court Martial inquiry into the loss of the Bounty, Bligh remained in the Royal Navy. From 1791 to 1793, as master and commander of HMS Providence and in company with HMS Assistant under the command of Nathaniel Portlock, he undertook again to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies. The operation was successful, and breadfruit is a popular food in the West Indies to this day. During this voyage Bligh also collected samples of the ackee fruit of Jamaica, introducing it to the Royal Society in Britain upon his return. The ackee’s scientific name Blighia sapida in binomial nomenclature was given in honour of Bligh.
In 1797 Bligh was one of the captains whose crews mutinied over “issues of pay and involuntary service for common seamen” during the Spithead mutiny. Despite receiving some of their demands at Spithead, disputes over navy life continued among the common sailors. Bligh was again one of the captains affected during the mutiny at the Royal Navy anchorage of Nore. “Bligh became more directly involved in the Nore Mutiny”, which “failed to achieve its goals of a fairer division of prize money and an end to brutality.” It should be noted that these events were not triggered by any specific actions by Bligh as they “were widespread, [and] involved a fair number of English ships”.
As captain of HMS Director, at the Battle of Camperdown on 11 October 1797, Bligh engaged three Dutch vessels: the Haarlem, the Alkmaar and the Vrijheid. While the Dutch suffered serious casualties, only 7 seamen were wounded in Director.
Bligh went on to serve under Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801, in command of HMS Glatton, a 56-gun ship of the line, which was experimentally fitted exclusively with carronades. After the battle, Bligh was personally praised by Nelson for his contribution to the victory. He sailed Glatton safely between the banks while three other vessels ran aground. When Nelson pretended not to notice Admiral Parker’s signal “43” (stop the battle) and kept the signal “16” hoisted to continue the engagement, Bligh was the only captain in the squadron who could see that the two signals were in conflict. By choosing to fly Nelson’s signal, he ensured that all the vessels behind him kept fighting.
Bligh had gained the reputation of being a firm disciplinarian. Accordingly, he was offered the position of Governor of New South Wales on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks (President of the Royal Society and a main sponsor of the breadfruit expeditions) and appointed in March 1805, at £2,000 per annum, twice the pay of the retiring Governor Philip Gidley King. He arrived in Sydney on 6 August 1806, to become the fourth governor. During his time in Sydney, his confrontational administrative style provoked the wrath of a number of influential settlers and officials. They included the wealthy landowner and businessman John Macarthur and prominent Crown representatives such as the colony’s Principal Surgeon, Thomas Jamison, and senior officers of the New South Wales Corps. Jamison and his military associates were defying government regulations by engaging in private trading ventures for profit: Bligh was determined to put a stop to this practice.
The conflict between Bligh and the entrenched colonists culminated in another mutiny, the Rum Rebellion, when, on 26 January 1808, 400 soldiers of the New South Wales Corps under the command of Major George Johnston marched on Government House in Sydney to arrest Bligh. A rebel government was subsequently installed and Bligh, now deposed, made for Hobart in Tasmania aboard HMS Porpoise. Bligh failed to gain support from the authorities in Hobart to retake control of New South Wales, and remained effectively imprisoned on the Porpoise from 1808 until January 1810.
Shortly after Bligh’s arrest, a watercolour illustrating the arrest by an unknown artist was exhibited in Sydney at perhaps Australia’s first public art exhibition. The watercolour depicts a soldier dragging Bligh from underneath one of the servants’ beds in Government House and with two other figures standing by. The two soldiers in the watercolour are most likely John Sutherland and Michael Marlborough and the other figure on the far right is believed to represent Lieutenant William Minchin. This cartoon is Australia’s earliest surviving political cartoon and like all political cartoons it makes use of caricature and exaggeration to convey its message. The New South Wales Corps officers’ regarded themselves as gentlemen and in depicting Bligh as a coward, the cartoon declares that Bligh was not a gentleman and therefore not fit to govern.
Of interest, however, was Bligh’s concern for the more recently arrived settlers in the colony, who did not have the wealth and influence of Macarthur and Jamison. Looking at the tombstones in Ebenezer and Richmond cemeteries (areas being settled west of Sydney during Bligh’s tenure as Governor), it is instructive to note the number of boys born around 1807 to 1811 who were named “William Bligh XXXXX” (family name).
Bligh was eventually permitted to sail from Hobart. He arrived in Sydney on 17 January 1810 to collect evidence for the coming court martial in England of Major Johnston. He departed to attend the trial on 12 May 1810, arriving on 25 October 1810. The following year, the trial’s presiding officers sentenced Johnston to be cashiered, a form of disgraceful dismissal that entailed surrendering his commission in the Royal Marines without compensation. (This was a comparatively mild punishment which enabled Johnston to return, a free man, to New South Wales, where he could continue to enjoy the benefits of his accumulated private wealth.) Bligh was court martialed twice again during his career, being acquitted both times.
Soon after Johnston’s trial had concluded, Bligh received a backdated promotion to Rear Admiral. In 1814 he was promoted again, to Vice Admiral of the Blue. Significantly perhaps, he never again received an important command, though with the Napoleonic Wars almost over there would have been few fleet commands available. He did, however, design the North Bull Wall at the mouth of the River Liffey in Dublin. Its purpose was to clear a sandbar by Venturi action. As a result of its building. North Bull Island was formed by the sand cleared by the river’s now more narrowly focused force. Bligh also charted and mapped Dublin Bay.
Bligh died in Bond Street, London on 6 December 1817 and was buried in a family plot at St. Mary’s, Lambeth (this church is now the Garden Museum). His tomb, notable for its use of Lithodipyra (Coade stone), is topped by a breadfruit. A plaque marks Bligh’s house, one block east of the Garden Museum at 100 Lambeth Road, near the Imperial War Museum.