William Bligh of Bounty fame (or notoriety) died on 7 December, 1817.
While many people recognise his name from feature films and other sources, few know much about the real details of his life and naval career. He is of interest to Cook people as he sailed on Cook’s Third Voyage in Resolution as master of the ship. During that voyage, Bligh made many surveys and drew many charts. After the voyage, he was unhappy that Henry Roberts, his deputy, was asked to prepare the charts for publication. Bligh was not asked to participate, nor given credit for having undertaken the surveying and producing the original drawings.
Bligh was born at Tinten Manor near St. Tudy in Cornwall on 9 September, 1754, the only son of Francis and Jane Bligh. His father was a customs officer at Plymouth, and it was his mother’s second marriage. William was an only child. In 1762, he was listed as a captain’s personal servant, aged twelve, in HMS Monmouth. However, it is doubtful that he actually went to sea at this time. He was probably “earning time”, a common practice in those days. From 1769, he served as an able seaman (AB) and a midshipman in HMS Hunter under John Henshaw. In 1771, Bligh transferred as a midshipman to HMS Crescent, captained by John Corner.
During this period Bligh learned the basics of seamanship on his way to becoming an accomplished sailor. In September, 1775, he joined HMS Ranger, where he again served under Henshaw. She operated in the Irish Sea, and frequently visited the port town of Douglas, on the Isle of Man. It is here that Bligh probably met Elizabeth Betham, his
future wife, for the first time.
While with Ranger, Bligh passed his master’s examination. He also passed his lieutenant's examination on 1 May, 1776, but did not receive his commission at that time. His reputation must have become widely known, as, in March 1776, James Cook, preparing for his third voyage of exploration to the Pacific Ocean, chose the young sailor to be master of Resolution, even though Bligh was still only 21. Bligh joined Resolution on 20 March.
Bligh’s role was to oversee the day-to-day operations in Resolution. He also assisted with the navigation and charting during the voyage, as they explored the islands and coastlines of the northern Pacific Ocean. The voyage ended in 1780, and the official account edited by Captain James King appeared in 1784.1 Bligh felt that his contributions were not properly reflected in it, so he annotated his copy of King’s published narrative,
None of the Maps and Charts in this publication are from the original drawings of Lieutenant Henry Roberts; he did no more than copy the original ones from Captain Cook, who besides myself was the only person that surveyed and laid the coast down, in the Resolution. Every plan & Chart from C. Cook's death are exact Copies of my Works. Wm. Bligh.
J. W. Croker, Secretary to the Admiralty, 1809-1827, also wrote in the same copy, adding,
This copy of Cook’s last voyage belonged to William Bligh Master of the Resolution who has made some marginal notes, which must be read with grains of allowance for his temper and prejudices. He afterwards became a flag officer.
Bligh had not had a good relationship with John Gore, who had assumed command of the expedition after the deaths of James Cook and Charles Clerke. As a result Bligh was one of the few men not recommended for advancement after the voyage. Nor did Bligh have a good opinion of James King, who was given the task of writing the narrative of the voyage. That this was reciprocated was shown when King made no effort to involve Bligh with either the text or the charts, instead using Henry Roberts for the task. No log or journal by Bligh about this voyage has been found—he had probably taken them with him on the Bounty voyage, and (if so) they were probably lost with her.
Bligh married Elizabeth Betham on the Isle of Man in February, 1781. The short time between Resolution’s return to Britain, and the marriage, supports the idea that William and Elizabeth had known each other when Bligh was with Ranger.
With the help of Duncan Campbell, Elizabeth’s uncle, Bligh was appointed master of HMS Belle Poule, before being promoted to lieutenant, in September 1781, in HMS Berwick. He served as sixth lieutenant in HMS Cambridge from 1782 to 1783, before going on half-pay after the Treaty of Paris was signed, which signified peace, and allowed a reduction in the size of the navy.
Duncan Campbell was a wealthy ship-owner, who traded with the West Indies, where he owned several plantations. Bligh left the navy in 1783 to work on Campbell’s ships until 1787. While commanding Lynx, Britannia, and Cambrian on voyages to the West Indies, Bligh encountered Fletcher Christian. Christian served under him as midshipman, and then as gunner. The two men enjoyed a friendly relationship, with Bligh being a mentor to the younger man.
Joseph Banks saw breadfruit as a potential cheap and staple food for slaves on the plantations in the West Indies, and it was decided to transport some plants from the South Pacific where breadfruit had been found. A collier, Bethia, was purchased by the Navy Board for the breadfruit expedition, and renamed HM Armed Vessel Bounty. Banks knew Bligh well, and probably recommended him for the voyage. Bligh was given command of Bounty, sailing from Britain on 23 December, 1787. The small vessel carried only 44 men, with Bligh the only commissioned officer—no marines were aboard. Christian sailed in her as master’s mate.
After a very slow passage, Bounty eventually arrived in Tahiti in October 1788. Before departing from the island, the breadfruit trees had to be seeded and grown into saplings large enough to survive transportation, a process that would take several months. Bligh opted to remain at the island rather than use the time for exploring. This delay gave time for his men to form strong relationships with the islanders, so they were most reluctant to leave when needed. A few weeks after sailing from Tahiti, in April 1789, a mutiny took place off the island of Tofua, in Tonga, with Fletcher Christian being one of the leading mutineers.
Bligh and 18 members of the company loyal to him were set adrift in an open longboat on 28 April. His navigational skills enabled them to reach Timor, in Indonesia, in June, after a journey of 6,000 km over 47 days. This remarkable feat was a testimony to his seamanship skills. Bligh bought a schooner in Timor, renamed HMS Resource, and sailed her to Jakarta. He then took passage aboard Vlydte, a Dutch East Indiaman, back to Britain.
A court-martial took place at Spithead, on 22 October, 1790. Bligh was cleared, and he resumed his naval career. In December 1790, he was promoted to captain, and given command of the sloop HMS Falcon, followed by service in HMS Medea.
A second breadfruit voyage was commissioned, and Bligh was given command. HMS Providence left Spithead on 3 August, 1791, accompanied by HMS Assistant, under the command of Nathaniel Portlock, another of Cook’s men. They reached Tahiti, and successfully transported a cargo of breadfruit plants to Jamaica. The expedition arrived back in Britain in August 1793. Bligh’s reception was rather lukewarm, as the legacy of the Bounty voyage and subsequent trials of the mutineers were still prominent in the public imagination. Fletcher Christian’s brother, Edward, had been vocal in blackening Bligh’s name.
Despite the Bounty incident, Joseph Banks remained a supporter of Bligh, and, through his help, Bligh was given command of a transport, HMS Calcutta, in April 1795. He next took over HMS Director, a 64 gun ship, in January 1796. During this period, there were several mutinies in the Royal Navy and Director’s crew were not immune. When the problems had settled down, Bligh defended his men against further punishments. He remained captain of Director until 1800, taking part, in 1797, in the Battle of Camperdown.
Another short period on half-pay followed, during which Bligh surveyed Dublin Harbour. The entrance to the River Liffey and the port of Dublin was notorious for shifting channels and shipwrecks, and existing charts were of little use. The Admiralty appointed Bligh to carry out the work. He completed the survey in three months (October to December 1800), producing a chart, observations on tides, sailing directions and recommendations for work that could be done to improve Dublin harbour and other nearby places.
Bligh was then appointed captain of HMS Glatton (54 guns). He was designated second to Horatio Nelson for the Battle of Copenhagen in March 1801. Bligh acquitted himself well in the battle, and was commended by Nelson for his actions. However, Glatton was seriously damaged, and Bligh was given command of HMS Monmouth, which he returned to Britain.
Bligh was subsequently made captain of HMS Irresistible (74 guns), which he commanded until May 1802. From May 1804 until April 1805, Bligh captained HMS Warrior. Poor relations with his officers continued to dog him. Warrior’s second lieutenant, John Frazier, had Bligh court-martialled. Bligh was reprimanded, and told to be more correct in his language.
Banks then stepped in again, and recommended Bligh for the position of Governor of New South Wales. Bligh was initially reluctant, as it would mean separation from his wife. Banks prevailed, however, and, in February 1806, Bligh set off for the new colony. During the voyage out he had some disputes with Captain Short, the commander of the convoy.
Bligh was given special instructions to sort out corruption in the colony, and to curb trafficking in spirits. His actions, and the methods he employed, alienated many people to the point that Bligh was forcibly deposed in January, 1808. Major George Johnston and members of the NSW Corps arrested Bligh, and confined him to a ship, Porpoise. Under arrest, Bligh remained in the colony, refusing to give up power until the arrival of his replacement, Lachlan Macquarie, who finally arrived in December 1809. In May 1810, Bligh returned to England where he was cleared of all blame.
In 1794, Bligh was awarded the Society of Arts medal for his remarkable feat of navigation during the longboat voyage from Tonga to Timor. In 1801, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society for services to navigation and botany. Bligh was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue in 1811, and a Vice Admiral of the Blue in 1814.
Bligh lived in Rearden Street, Wapping, from 1785 to 1790. In 1794 he moved to No. 3 Durham Place (now 100 Lambeth Road), Kennington, being the first occupier of this new house. It is now a guesthouse.3 In the latter years of his life, he lived at the Manor House, Farningham, Kent.
Bligh died on 7 December, 1817, aged 64, in Bond Street, London, and left a will.4 He is buried in Lambeth churchyard. He was survived by his five daughters. His wife, Elizabeth, had died before him in 1812. Their twin boys, William and Henry, had died as babies in 1795.
The genus Blighia, which consists of some four species of evergreen tropical shrubs and trees, is named in his honour. Several places around the world are named for Bligh, including Bligh Island in Nootka Sound, British Columbia, and Bligh’s Island, in Prince William Sound, Alaska, both visited on Cook’s Third Voyage.
Bligh has not been served well by history, especially by Hollywood, which has made at least three movies about the Mutiny on Bounty, all of which have portrayed him as something of an old despot. The movies depict Bligh as a bad-tempered older man, while Fletcher Christian is shown as a good looking, dashing, put-upon younger man. Bligh was, in fact, only 34 at the time of the mutiny, and only 10 years older than Christian.
Sacred to the memory Of Mrs Elizabeth Bligh the wife of Rear Admiral Bligh Who died April 15th 1812 in the 60th year of her age
Her spirit soar’d to the heav’n the blest domain Where virtue only can his need obtain; All the great duties she perform’d thro’ life, Those of a child, a parent, and a wife
For many people, though, the movie versions are the abiding impressions they have of the two men.
While nobody questions Bligh’s seamanship skills, he had (to use modern parlance) poor people skills. He had a high opinion of himself and his own abilities, and he expected very high standards in men under his command. However, he often felt he was let down. His reactions, which could be very erratic, and his use of bad language, led to him being an unpopular naval captain and a governor. He actually punished people less than did Cook, but his temper and erratic nature lost him the respect of men under his command.
Bligh was never a paragon of virtue, but he was not the demon that Hollywood has shown. We should remember him, and celebrate his positive achievements.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 24, volume 40, number 4 (2017).
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