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William Bligh

naval Captain most often remembered for the "Mutiny on the Bounty"

William Bligh

William Bligh was born in Tinten Manor, St. Tudy, Cornwall, on September 9, 1754, the only child of Francis Bligh, a boatman and land waiter in the customs service, and Jane Balsam Pearce Bligh.

Early Career

Bligh began his naval career as a Captain's Servant aboard the H.M.S. Monmouth on July 1, 1762, formally joined the Royal Navy as an Able Seaman on the Hunter on July 27, 1770, and became a Midshipman on that ship on September 5, 1770. A year later, he transferred to H.M.S. Crescent and spent three years learning navigation and seamanship. He made several important hydrographic surveys during his training, which were submitted to the Admiralty. After transferring to H.M.S. Ranger, he continued to learn his craft, showing outstanding proficiency, and passed his Lieutenant's examination on May 1, 1776.

On March 17, 1776, Bligh was selected by Captain James Cook for the position of Sailing Master of the Resolution, which set sail for the Pacific in June. While crossing the southern Indian Ocean, Cook discovered a small island, which he named Bligh's Cap. Over the next year, Cook and his men touched at Tasmania, New Zealand, Tonga, and Tahiti, and also explored the southern coast of Alaska and the Bering Straight. The purpose for his operations off Alaska was a failed search for the Northwest Passage. Sailing south from Alaska, the expedition "discovered" the Hawaiian Islands, and Cook was killed there during an altercation with the natives. During the fighting, Bligh was instrumental in recovering Resolution's foremast, which had been taken ashore for repairs. With Cook dead, Captain Charles Clerke of Resolution's sister ship Discovery took command, and a final attempt to find the Northwest Passage was attempted. Throughout the voyage, Bligh performed well and lived up to his reputation as a skilled navigator and a chartmaker. The expedition returned to England in October 1780.

On February 4, 1781, Bligh married Elizabeth Betham, of Glasgow, daughter of a customs officer on the Isle of Man and niece of Duncan Campbell, merchant, shipowner and contractor in charge of convict hulks in the Thames. The couple ultimately had six daughters; twin boys were born in 1795, but both died within days of their birth.

Shortly after his marriage, Bligh was appointed as Master on the Belle Poule, which took part in an action with a Dutch convoy at Dogger Bank in April. Bligh’s handling of the ship during that action led to an appointment in September to the Berwick. After serving only a few months on this vessel, he transferred to the Princess Amelia, and, in March 1782, to the Cambridge. In October 1782, the Cambridge left Britain as part of Lord Howe’s fleet to relieve Gibraltar from siege by France and Spain. After being paid off in January 1783, Bligh was placed on half pay and took his wife and daughter back to the Isle of Man. Elizabeth’s uncle offered him employment in his merchant fleet and, for four years, Bligh commanded several vessels in that fleet. In 1787, while commanding the Britannia, he took onto his crew a young gentleman named Fletcher Christian. Christian was carried as a volunteer Midshipman, but the two men became friends while sailing to the West Indies twice.

The Bounty

In May 1787, Bligh was informed that he had been recommended to the Admiralty by Sir Joseph Banks (botanist on Cook’s first voyage) to command an expedition to the Pacific to transport breadfruit to the West Indian plantations. The Navy Board purchased a vessel called the Bethia, which was then adapted at Deptford for the transportation of the plants. Renamed H.M.S. Bounty, it was ready for service in August 1787. Bligh was to be the only commissioned officer and had no Marines appointed to the ship. Fletcher Christian was rated as Master’s Mate for the voyage.

The Bounty set out from Deptford in October 1787 for Spithead, where Bligh was due to receive his final orders from the Admiralty. They were delayed in arriving, however, and the crew lost three weeks of good sailing weather. They finally departed Portsmouth on December 23. Bligh’s orders were to approach Tahiti from Cape Horn and head for the West Indies via the Cape of Good Hope, but Bligh knew that rounding Cape Horn would be difficult, especially with the delay in departure. They reached Cape Horn in March 1788, but the ship made little progress from there due to fierce weather. By April, eight out of the thirteen seamen were ill and not able to attend their duties, and on April 22 Bligh decided to abandon the Horn and set sail for the Cape of Good Hope instead, arriving there May 22. After a stay of 38 days to make repairs and re-stock supplies, the ship set sail again. On August 20, the ship arrived at Adventure Bay, in what is now Tasmania. While there, the first rumblings of discontent amongst the warrant officers surfaced, with William Purcell, the ship’s Carpenter and a warranted officer, challenging Bligh’s authority after refusing to hoist water, which was ordinarily a seaman’s job. In early September, the Bounty left Tasmania and headed towards Tahiti. After the incident with Purcell, Bligh kept a strict eye on his men. He came into dispute with the other Warrant Officer, the Master, John Fryer, who refused to sign the ship’s books. Bligh made him publicly sign them, creating greater tensions.

The Bounty finnally arrived at Matavai Bay at Tahiti on October 26, 1788. The business of taking the breadfruit seedlings began and the ship remained at the island for six months. During this period, the crew were able to enjoy the hot climate, food and company of the natives. On April 4, 1789, HMS Bounty left Tahiti to proceed to the West Indies with the breadfruit.

Three weeks after departure, on April 27-28, 1789, the tensions that had been growing over the last year finally erupted when a relatively minor dispute led to Fletcher Christian leading a band of seaman to take over the ship. Bligh and eighteen of the crew were set adrift in the launch, with a few provisions. Bligh’s skill as a navigator came to the fore, as he was able to navigate the launch 3,618 miles to Timor, off the coast of Java, without a chart. They arrived on June 14, in a considerably weak state of health. After recuperating, Bligh purchased a schooner to take them back to Britain, arriving there on March 14, 1790. After a short illness, he was placed in temporary command of H.M.S. Cambridge, although he remained listed as being in command of the Bounty. As a normal naval procedure when a commanding officer has lost his ship, Bligh had to face a court martial on October 22, 1790, but was acquitted and promoted to Captain on December 15, 1790.

voyages of the Bounty, its mutineers, and Bligh
voyages of the Bounty, its mutineers, and Bligh

Second Breadfruit Expedition

In 1791, Bligh was given command of H.M.S. Providence, with which he was to make another attempt to transplant breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies. Since he was now a Captain, Bligh was provided with far more officers than he had had for his previous voyage, as well as a party of Marines, carried by H.M.S. Assistant. The ships left Spithead on August 3, 1791, and arrived at Tahiti on April 9, 1792. On the way he charted part of the south-east coast of Van Diemen's Land during a stay at Adventure Bay, which he had earlier visited with Cook and with the Bounty. He made valuable observations there, at Tahiti, at Fiji and in Torres Strait. They remained in Tahiti until July and left with over 2,600 breadfruit plants. They arrived at St. Helena in December and deposited some of the plants, before continuing on to the West Indies, arriving at St. Vincent on January 23, 1793. They continued on to Jamaica, where they remained until June, and, after a short delay caused by the outbreak of war with France, returned to Britain on August 7.

Although this voyage had been successful, Bligh returned home to a tarnished reputation. While he was away, the surviving mutineers from the Bounty had been returned to England. At their trial, the mutineers defended their actions by reciting a long list of abuses committed by Bligh. The trial ended before Bligh returned from his second breadfruit expedition and he was, therefore, not given a chance to address the mutineers' accusations. He was subsequently placed on half pay and remained unemployed for eighteen months. In 1794, he was awarded the Society of Arts gold medal for the discoveries made during the voyage.

"Post-Breadfruit" Naval Career

In March 1795, Bligh was appointed to H.M.S. Warley, which was renamed Calcutta. He was serving under Admiral Adam Duncan in the North Sea, based at the Nore, when, in October 1795, the crew of the Defiance mutinied. Bligh was ordered to embark 200 troops and take them alongside the mutinous ship in order for the troops to take it over. The threat of the soldiers ended the mutiny.

In January 1796, Bligh left the Calcutta to join the Director. In February 1797, the Spithead Mutiny erupted when the fleet refused to put to sea over grievances of the sailor's pay. This mutiny ended with Lord Howe personally intervening in the sailor's plight, but by then the discontent had spread to other fleets. Bligh's ship was at the Nore for a refit in May 1797 when the mutiny spread to that fleet. Each of the fleet's crews issued their demands to their Captain. Demands were not met and the ringleaders of the mutiny clashed with Bligh over his refusal to allow the ship's arsenal to be handed over to his crew. From then, Bligh's removal from the ship became a demand from the mutineers and this was accomplished on May 19 by Matthew Hollister. The Government was not in a mood to accede to the more politically motivated mutineers at the Nore, however, and Bligh was subsequently sent on a secret mission to Yarmouth to see Admiral Duncan and gather intelligence on the state of the fleet and whether loyal ships could be used against the mutineers. On May 30, the crew of the Director overthrew the mutineers on board their vessel, beginning a wave of similar actions on other ships. Bligh returned to his ship on June 16, and then persuaded the Admiralty to pardon the majority of the Director's mutineers. Of those who were excluded from the pardon, none were hanged.

Bligh next saw action when the Director participated in the Battle of Camperdown against the Dutch fleet on October 11, 1797. Bligh's handling of his ship during the battle was noticed by Admiral Adam Duncan, who commended his actions to the Admiralty. Bligh continued to command the Director until July 1800, when he was put on half pay.

On March 13, 1801, Bligh took command of H.M.S. Glatton and joined Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson's squadron off the Dutch coast. He distinguished himself during the Battle of Copenhagen, on April 2, 1801, after which Nelson gave him a glowing testimonial. After the battle, Bligh transferred to the Monarch and returned to Britain, undertaking a personal favor for Nelson by taking a set of Copenhagen porcelain to Sir William and Lady Hamilton in London. On his return, he was transferred to the Irresistable. Copenhagen was his last naval battle. In May, with the Peace of Amiens, he was put on half pay and returned to London to live with his wife and six daughters. He was also elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his distinguished services in navigation and botany.

In 1803, Bligh was briefly employed on hydrographic surveying around Dungeness, and in the following year worked for the Hydrographic Office. On May 2, 1804, he was appointed to H.M.S. Warrior. The ship was undermanned and not of a quality that Bligh would have liked, and he clashed with his Lieutenant, John Frazier. Frazier was court martialled for neglect of duty but the charges were dismissed. Frazier then demanded that Bligh be court martialled for improper behavior towards himself, and that trial was held February 25-26, 1805. The court found the charges to be part proved and Bligh was reprimanded, but he continued in command of the Warrior.

Governor of New South Wales

On March 15, 1805, Bligh was offered the post of Governor of New South Wales (Australia). After hesitation, Bligh accepted. He did not sail until February 1806, leaving behind his wife, who staunchly looked after his interest while he was away, and five daughters, but accompanied by Mary, his eldest, and her naval husband, Lieutenant Putland. Bearing special instructions that included, among other things, to curb the traffic in spirits which was still rife in the colony, he reached Sydney on August 6, 1806, and found the colony to be in great distress, caused partly by the disastrous Hawkesbury floods, partly by the falling off in ships arriving with supplies and convict labor after the renewal of the Napoleonic wars, and partly by the increasing influence of local trading sharks. Bligh at once organized the distribution of flood relief and promised settlers that the government stores would buy their crop after the next harvest. On October 4, 1806, he issued new port regulations to tighten up the government's control of ships, their cargoes, including spirits, and their crews, including possible escaping convicts. On January 3, 1807, he ordered that all promissory notes should be drawn "payable in sterling money," a regulation which would prevent any repetition of a legal dispute from the preceding year over the value of a note expressed in wheat. On February 14, he reissued the often-broken order about illicit stills, and forbade under stringent penalties the bartering of spirits for grain, labor, food, or any other goods. To improve the appearance of Sydney, Bligh ordered those said to be illegally occupying certain town sites to move, and questioned the leases of others.

While Bligh was making marked improvements to life in New South Wales, he was also making enemies in the New South Wales Corps, whose leaders complained about Bligh's interference in its concerns and abuse of its members. In January 1808, the Corps, led by Major George Johnston, marched on Government House and arrested Bligh on a claim that "insurrection and massacre" were imminent because Bligh was planning "to subvert the laws of the country" and "to terrify and influence the Courts of Justice." For more than a year after his arrest Bligh, remained in confinement in Sydney, refusing to promise to sail to England if liberated. In February 1809, he agreed to go if placed in the Porpoise, but when on board he broke his word on the ground that it had been extorted by force. On March 17, he sailed to the Derwent, hoping for the support of Lieutenant-Governor David Collins, but Collins refused to denounce the rebel government and relations soon became strained. Notwithstanding his promise not to meddle in local affairs, Bligh interfered with boats on the river, stirred up local animosities, and became such an intolerable nuisance that Collins felt compelled to forbid local boats to approach the Porpoise. Bligh stayed at the Derwent until Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived in Sydney. He returned to Port Jackson on January 17, 1810, but did not finally sail for England until May 12. Reaching England on October 25, 1810, Bligh was soon involved in the court martial of Johnston. Although Johnston was ultimately convicted, the court found that "novel and extraordinary circumstances" offered some extenuation of his conduct, suggesting that Bligh was not entirely free from blame.

Later Life

Bligh was promoted to Rear-Admiral of the Blue in 1811, to Rear-Admiral of the White in 1812, and to Vice-Admiral of the Blue in 1814, but his days of active service were over and he was not given the opportunity to fly his flag on board ship. He lived in Lambeth for a time and gave valuable evidence to the 1812 select committee on transportation, but after the death of his wife in April 1812 and the grant of a pension in April 1813 he moved to Farningham, Kent. He died on December 7, 1817, and was buried next to his wife in the churchyard of St Mary's, Lambeth. His six surviving daughters inherited his estate, including grants he had received in New South Wales.


Australian Dictionary of Biography

See Also

James Cook
Northwest Passage
Horatio Nelson
Pitcairn Islands

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This page was last updated on September 09, 2018.