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Captain William Bligh 1754 - 1817

William Bligh was born in St Tudy at Tinten Manor on 9th September 1754, the son of a customs officer. From a very early age his parents decided on a Naval career for their son and so at the age of 9 he was appointed to be the personal servant of an officer on a Royal Navy man-of-war. This was not an unusual practice in those days as it allowed young boys to gain the necessary 6 years qualification as soon as possible. By the time he was 15 he had become well versed in science and mathematics and had also become adept at drawing and writing.

For the next few years he served on numerous ships, gaining experience and knowledge until at the age of 23 he was appointed Master on HMS Resolution, commanded by Captain James Cook. Captain Cook was taking his third research voyage to the South Seas and it is a tribute to Bligh's skills that he should be taken on as Ships Master on this major research project at such an early age. By all accounts Cook had personally requested his attendance on the vessel. The Ships Master was responsible for the navigation of the ship and Bligh had become skilled in navigation and cartography.

Cook had a strict regimen of regular crew exercise, regular bathing, clean laundry and the consumption of limes and sauerkraut to stave off scurvy, a condition caused by a deficiency of Vitamin C in the diet and a major cause of death on board ship during long term voyages up to this time. It was this regimen that Bligh was to take with him when he eventually took his own command and also one of the causes of the famous mutiny as we shall see later. The Resolution was the first European vessel to reach Hawaii and it was here that tragically Cook was killed after a disagreement with the natives. Upon the Resolution's return to England the ship's log was published, but Bligh's name was not mentioned and the maps that he had made were attributed to officers. At this time Bligh was a non-commissioned officer having made his way up through the ranks, and it is a reflection of the class system at this time that promotion to commissioned officer rank could only be gained by being a son of an established Naval officer or by connections to one. Bligh now embarked on a course to gain his commission, and so in 1781 he married Elizabeth Betham, daughter of the Collector of Customs for the Isle of Man and later that year he was commissioned to the rank of lieutenant. He subsequently served on a number of vessels as Lieutenant until in 1787 he was appointed Commanding Lieutenant of HMS Bounty.

It was planned that the Bounty would take a cargo of Breadfruit from the Tahitian Islands to the West Indies in an experimental transplanting of a species from one part of the world to another, and the first time this had been tried. The voyage was planned by Joseph Banks, President of The Royal Society who had sailed with Captain Cook on his 1768 voyage to Tahiti , and who was keen to attempt the transplantation of this species in order to provide a basic food source for slaves in the British West Indies . The planned course for the Bounty would be to sail to Tahiti , where they would take on their cargo of Breadfruit, then proceed westward to Northern Australia where they would map the uncharted Endeavour Straits and from there on to The West Indies, at least that was the plan. Several sons of gentry volunteered for the voyage including Peter Heywood and Fletcher Christian who were the sons of prominent Isle of Man families. The admiralty did not allocate any Royal Marines to the ship and neither did they promote Bligh to Captain, so when the ship set sail Bligh was still a lieutenant.

The Bounty set sail for Tahiti in December 1787 and after failing to round Cape Horn due to bad weather proceeded on the longer easterly route. At Van Diemens Land (now Tasmania) Bligh took on fresh fruit and vegetables which he traded for ships supplies, a deviation from the normal practice of buying dry food from European trading posts but much healthier for the crew. However suspicions arose amongst the crew that Bligh was embezzling ships funds. In October 1788 the Bounty reached Tahiti to take on the Breadfruit plants which took about six weeks. However the wind was not favorable for the next stage of the journey and Bligh decided to remain in Tahiti until the wind conditions improved. Over the next four months Bligh's attempts to impose naval discipline became increasingly more difficult, most of the crew had succumbed to the islander's hospitality and in particular their women, in short they had ´gone native´.

The Bounty finally got under way on 4th April 1789, but the indiscipline he had encountered at Tahiti led to Bligh becoming increasingly liable to fly into rages with his crew and in particular with Fletcher Christian. Christian was accused of cowardice and then theft leading him to prepare to jump ship. On the 28th April Christian and four others confronted Bligh in his cabin and the outcome was that Bligh and 18 crewmen who remained loyal to him were cast adrift in the ships launch. The Bounty then returned to Tahiti with the mutineers.

Bligh was cast adrift on the open ocean, and under most circumstances to almost certain death, however there now followed one of the most remarkable navigating feats in maritime history. Bligh's boat was only 23ft long by 6ft 9ins wide but after first landing on the island of Torfoa (one of the Friendly Isles) he decided to sail for the Dutch held island of Timor, a distance of some 3618 nautical miles. Using dead reckoning and armed only with a sextant as a navigational aid and with only meager rations Bligh safely brought his crew to landfall without any loss of life on June 14 th . Meanwhile the mutineers realizing that the navy would eventually start searching for them decided to move from Tahiti to a deserted island. Some finally settled on the Pitcairn Islands and were not found until 1808, only one of their number still surviving. Today many descendants of the mutineers still live on the island. Ten Bounty mutineer crew members were brought back to Britain in 1793, of which six were court-martialled and three hanged.

Bligh returned to Britain in 1790 and was cleared of all blame for the mutiny, paving the way for the resumption of his naval career, becoming Captain of the sloop HMS Falcon, followed by appointments to HMS Medea and HMS Providence. In 1792 he returned to Tahiti and successfully transplanted breadfruit to the West Indies . He was commander of HMS Director at the Battle of Camperdown and in 1801 took part in the Battle of Copenhagen for which he was commended for bravery by Admiral Lord Nelson. Also in 1801 he was elected a fellow of The Royal Society for his services to botany and navigation. In 1800 he undertook a survey of Dublin Bay and advised on the placement of quay walls to facilitate the scouring of the channel by the ebb tide. His complete report can be seen in the records of Dublin Port and Docks board.

In 1805 he was sent to New South Wales in Australia as governor, but his oppressive nature led him into contention with the settlers. It was his attempt to end the use of rum as a currency in the province that led to a rebellion in Sydney in 1808, the so-called Rum Rebellion. Bligh was deposed by Major George Johnston of the 102nd Foot and imprisoned for two years, finally returning to England in 1811. He was cleared of all blame and Johnston was courts-martialled and cashiered (dismissed from the Army). Bligh was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue and in 1814 became Vice Admiral of the Blue.

In his last years he lived in Farnham in Kent and on 7th December 1817 died in Bond Street at the age of 64. He is buried in Lambeth churchyard together with his wife with whom he had six daughters.

The name of Captain William Bligh is forever linked with that of HMS Bounty and the mutiny that took place in Tahiti in 1787. Our perceptions of the captain have been brought to us by numerous books and three major Hollywood movies, most of which would seem to cast Bligh in the role of oppressor and the mutineers as heroes. The truth, or at least as much as can be gleaned from this perspective is probably somewhere in between. The strict discipline imposed on his men on board ship was the same as that practiced by Captain Cook, but Cook was a more imposing figure and was probably more respected because of it. Despite the mutiny Bligh had a long and distinguished naval career, he was a master navigator and made a great contribution to our botanic knowledge.

Resources

Captain William Bligh - Wikipedia Entry

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