William Bligh

William Bligh

Bligh, William, 1754-1817, British admiral. He is chiefly remembered for the mutiny (1789) on his ship, the Bounty, but he had a long and notable career. He was sailing master on Capt. James Cook's last voyage (1776-79). Later he was a commander in the French wars, then (1805-8) governor of New South Wales, where he was briefly imprisoned (1808) by army mutineers in the so-called Rum Rebellion. Bligh was made a rear admiral in 1811 and a vice admiral in 1814. A brave and able officer, he was handicapped in dealing with men by his difficult temper.

See J. Barrow, The Mutiny of the Bounty (1989); S. McKinney, A True Account of Mutiny Aboard His Majesty's Ship Bounty (1989).

Vice-Admiral William Bligh FRS RN (9 September 1754 – 7 December 1817) was an officer of the British Royal Navy and a colonial administrator. He is best known as the "Captain Bligh" of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, where the literature chronicled in part the real history.

The mutiny was against his captain's command, and he is well remembered for the remarkable voyage he made to Timor, after being set adrift by the mutineers in the Bounty's launch, an extraordinary feat of navigation and survival against odds, by any informed measure. Many years after the Bounty mutiny, he was appointed Governor of New South Wales in Australia, with a brief (instructions and authority) to clean up the corrupt rum trade of the NSW Corps. This culminated in the Rum Rebellion led by Major George Johnston working closely with John Macarthur.

Early life

Bligh was born in St Tudy near Bodmin in Cornwall to Cornish parents, named Francis and Jane Bligh (née Balsam) . He was signed up for the Royal Navy in 1761, at the age of seven, in the same town. It was common practice to sign on a "young gentleman" simply in order to rack up the required years of service for quick promotion. In 1770, at the age of 16, he joined HMS Hunter as an able seaman, the term being used only because there was no vacancy for a midshipman. He became a midshipman early in the following year of 1771. In September 1771, Bligh was transferred to the Crescent and remained on that ship for three years.

In 1776, Bligh was selected by Captain James Cook for the position of Sailing Master on the Resolution and accompanied Captain Cook in July 1776 on Cook's third and fatal voyage to the Pacific. He reached England again at the end of 1780 and was able to give further details of Cook's last voyage.

Bligh married Elizabeth Betham, the daughter of a Customs Collector (stationed in Douglas, Isle of Man), on 4 February 1781, at the age of 26. The wedding took place at nearby Onchan. A few days later, he was appointed to serve on HMS Belle Poule as its master. 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 on various ships. He also fought with Lord Howe at Gibraltar in 1782.

Between 1783 and 1787, Bligh was a captain in the merchant service. In 1787 Bligh was selected as commander of the Bounty. Bligh would eventually rise to the rank of Vice Admiral in the Royal Navy.

Naval career

William Bligh's naval career consisted of a variety of appointments and assignments. He first rose to historical prominence as Master of HMS Resolution, under the command of Captain Cook. Bligh received praise from Cook during what would end up to be Cook's final voyage. A summary is as follows:
Date(s) Rating/Rank Ship (# of guns)
1 July 1761–21 February 1763 Ship's Boy and Captain's Servant HMS Monmouth (64)
27 July 1770 Able Seaman HMS Hunter (10)
5 February 1771 Midshipman HMS Hunter
22 September 1771 Midshipman HMS Crescent (28)
2 September 1774 Able Seaman HMS Ranger
30 September 1775 Master's Mate HMS Ranger
20 March 1776–October 1780 Master HM Sloop Resolution (12)
14 February 1781 Master HMS Belle Poule
5 October 1781 Lieutenant HMS Berwick (74)
1 January 1782 Lieutenant HMS Princess Amelia (80)
20 March 1782 Lieutenant HMS Cambridge (80)
14 January 1783 Joins Merchant Service
1785 Commanding Lieutenant Merchant Vessel Lynx
1786 Lieutenant Merchant Vessel Britannia
1787 Returns to Royal Navy
16 August 1787 Commanding Lieutenant HM Armed Vessel Bounty
14 November 1790 Commander HMS Falcon (14)
15 December 1790 Commander HMS Medea (28)
16 April 1791–1793 Commander (28)
16 April 1795 Commander HMS Calcutta (24)
7 January 1796 Captain HMS Director (64)
18 March 1801 Captain HMS Glatton (56)
12 April 1801 Captain HMS Monarch (74)
8 May 1801–28 May 1802 Captain HMS Irresistible (74)
Peace of Amiens (March 1802–May 1804)
2 May 1804 Captain HMS Warrior (74)
14 May 1805 Appointed Governor of New South Wales
27 September 1805 Captain HMS Porpoise (12), voyage out to NSW
Governor of NSW 13 August 1806–26 January 1808
31 July 1808 Commodore HMS Porpoise (12), Tasmania
3 April 1810–25 October 1810 Commodore HMS Hindostan (50), returning to England.
31 July 1811 Appointed Rear Admiral of the Blue (backdated to 31 July 1810)
4 June 1814 Appointed Vice Admiral of the Blue
Date(s) Rating/Rank Ship (# of guns)

Travel of Bounty and small boat after mutiny. Data key:Pre-mutiny travel
• 1) 1788-08-21: Tasmania, Adventure Bay
• 2) 1788-10-26: Taiti, first arrival; •  1789-04-04: leaving for England
• 3) Palmerston
• 4) Tofua
• 5) 1789-04-28: mutiny
Christian's travel with Bounty to Pitcairn Islands:
• 6) Tubai, then 1789-07-06: Taiti, second arrival.
• 7) 1789-07-16; Tubai
• 8) 1789-09-22: Taiti, third arrival. •  1789-09-23: final leaving
• 9) 1789-11-15: Tongatabu
• 10) 1790-01-15: Pitcairn. 1790-01-23: burning Bounty
Bligh party's boat travel:
• 16) Tonga
• 17) 1789-06-14: Timor

The voyage of the Bounty

In 1787, Bligh took command of the Bounty. In order to win a premium offered by the RSA 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 leaving 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 long way around the Cape of Good Hope. That delay resulted in a further delay in Tahiti, as they had to wait five months for the breadfruit plants to mature enough 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 inhabitants during stops or to enforce security on board ship. To allow longer uninterrupted sleep, Bligh divided his crew into three watches instead of two, and placed his protégé Fletcher Christian — rated as a Master's Mate — in charge of one of the watches. The mutiny, which broke out during the return voyage on 28 April 1789, was led by Christian and supported by a third of the crew, who had seized firearms during Christian's night watch and then surprised and bound Bligh in his cabin.

Despite being in the majority, none of the loyalists seemed to have put up any significant struggle once they saw Bligh bound, and the ship was taken without bloodshed. The mutineers provided Bligh and the eighteen of his crew who remained loyal with a 23 foot (7 m) launch (so heavily loaded that the sides were only a few inches above the water), with four cutlasses and food and water for a few days to reach the most accessible ports, a sextant and a pocket watch, but no charts or compass. The launch could not hold all the loyal crew members, and four were detained on the Bounty by the mutineers for their useful skills; these 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. Bligh and his crew did make for Tofua first, to obtain supplies. There they were attacked by hostile natives and a crewman was killed. After fleeing Tofua, Bligh didn't dare stop at the next islands (the Fiji islands), as he had no weapons for defense and expected further 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 3618 nautical mile (6701 km) voyage to Timor. In this remarkable act of seamanship, Bligh succeeded in reaching Timor after a 47-day voyage, with the only casualty being the crewman killed on Tofua. Ironically, 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, as they waited for transport to Britain.

To this day, the reasons for the mutiny are a subject of considerable debate. Some believe that Bligh was a cruel tyrant whose abuse of the crew led members of the crew to feel that they had no choice but to take the ship from Bligh. Others believe that the crew, inexperienced and unused to the rigours of the sea and, after having been exposed to freedom and sexual excess on the island of Tahiti, refused to return to the "Jack Tars" existence of a seaman. They were "led" by a weak Fletcher Christian and were only too happy to be free from Bligh's acid tongue. They believe that the crew took the ship from Bligh so that they could return to a life of comfort and pleasure on Tahiti. Bligh returned to London arriving in March 1790.

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 them. The flaw in this otherwise enlightened naval officer was, as J.C. Beaglehole wrote: "[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 was allegedly every bit the cruel manthat Bligh was accused of being; the 14 men that he captured were confined in a cramped 18' x 11' x 5' 8" wooden cell on the Pandora's quarterdeck. When the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, 4 of the prisoners and 31 of the crew were killed. The prisoners would have all 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 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.

Bligh's Letter to his Wife

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 mentioned.

My Dear, Dear Betsy,

I am now 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 28th 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 & endeavored 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. 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 Wm Bligh.

[* The Blighs' fourth child, another daughter, born a few months after Lt. Bligh sailed from England]

The Second Breadfruit Voyage

After his exoneration by the Court Martial inquiry into the loss of the Bounty, Bligh remained in the British navy. From 1791-1793, as master and commander of and in company with HMS Assistance, 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.

Subsequent career

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". It was at this time that he learned "that his common nickname among men in the fleet was 'that Bounty bastard'."

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 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.

As captain of HMS Director, at the Battle of Camperdown, 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 was offered the position of Governor of New South Wales by Sir Joseph Banks and appointed in March 1805, at £2,000 per annum, twice the pay of the retiring Governor Philip Gidley King. He arrived in Sydney in August 1806, to become the fourth governor. There he suffered another mutiny, the Rum Rebellion, when, on 26 January 1808, the New South Wales Corps under Major George Johnston marched on Government House and arrested him. He sailed to Hobart in HMS Porpoise, failed to gain support to retake control of the colony and remained effectively imprisoned on board from 1808 until January 1810.

Bligh sailed from Hobart and arrived in Sydney on 17 January 1810 to collect evidence for the upcoming Court Martial of Major George Johnston. He departed for the trial in Britain in HMS Porpoise on 12 May 1810 and arrived on 25 October 1810. The Court Martial sentenced Johnston to be cashiered, a form of disgraceful dismissal that entailed surrendering his commission in the Royal Marines without compensation. Soon after, Bligh received a backdated promotion to Rear Admiral, and in 1814 he was promoted again, to Vice Admiral of the Blue.

Bligh designed the North Bull Wall at the mouth of the River Liffey in Dublin. Its purpose was to clear a sandbar by venturii action. As a result of its building the north bull island was formed by the sand cleared by the river's more narrowly focussed 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 Museum of Garden History.) His tomb, notable for its use of Coade stone, is topped by a breadfruit. A plaque marks Bligh's house, one block east of the Museum.


  • Christopher Lloyd, St.Vincent & Camperdown, B.T. Batsford Ltd., London, 1963.
  • Atlas of Maritime History. ISBN 0-8317-0485-3.
  • G.P. Bom Hgz, D'VRIJHEID, Amsterdam, 1897.
  • Gavin Kennedy, Bligh,

Further reading

  • Alexander, Caroline. The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, Viking Penguin, 2003, hardcover, 512 pages, ISBN 0-670-03133-X.
  • Bligh, William. The Bounty Mutiny: Captain William Bligh's Firsthand Account of the Last Voyage of HMS Bounty. St Petersburg, Florida: Red and Black Publishers, 2008. ISBN 978-1-934941-06-5
  • Conway, Christiane (2005). Letters from the Isle of Man - The Bounty-Correspondence of Nessy and Peter Heywood. The Manx Experience. ISBN 1-873120-77-X.
  • Dening, Greg. Mr Bligh's Bad Language: passion, power and theatre on the Bounty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992). Reprinted 1994 in the Canto series, ISBN 0-521-46718-7.
  • McKinney, Sam. Bligh: A True Account of the Mutiny Abord His Majesty's Ship Bounty, International Marine Publishing Company, 1989, hardcover, 210 pages, ISBN 0-87742-981-2.
  • Mackaness, George. The life of Vice-Admiral William Bligh, R.N., F.R.S. [New and rev. ed.]. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, [1951].
  • Schreiber, Roy. "Captain Bligh's Second Chance: An eyewitness account of his return to the south seas by Lt George Tobin", UNSW Press, 2007, paperback, 208 pages, http://www.unireps.com.au/isbn/0868408468.htm.
  • Toohey, John. Captain Bligh's Portable Nightmare, London: Fourth Estate, 1999. ISBN 1-84115-078-9.

External links

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