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.