William Bligh

WilliamBligh

William Bligh

1754-1817. He was born at Plymouth, Devon, on 9 September 1754, the only son of Francis Bligh of Tinten Manor, St. Tudy, Cornwall, who was a Plymouth customs officer from a long-established Cornish family, and of his second wife, Jane Pearce, a widow who was in her forty-first year at the time of Bligh’s birth.

In July 1762 Bligh’s name was entered as a captain’s servant to the books of the Monmouth 70, Captain Charles Saxton, the ship being paid off a year later. He first went to sea in July 1770 as an able seaman aboard the sloop Hunter, Commander John Henshaw, on which vessel he was rated a midshipman in the following February. During September he joined the Crescent 36, Captain John Corner, going out to the Leeward Islands where Captain Corner died in November 1772, being succeeded by Captain Charles Thompson. The Crescent remained on that station until she was paid off in 1774.

Rejoining Commander Henshaw aboard the sloop Ranger 8 in September 1775, Bligh passed his lieutenant’s examination on 1 May 1776 but was not immediately commissioned. Instead he was appointed sailing-master of the Resolution by Captain James Cook, and he joined the great explorer’s two year voyage of discovery which departed England that July. His firing upon a native canoe at Hawaii was most unfairly blamed in some quarters for Cook’s death on 14 February 1779, and the Resolution returned to England in October 1780.

In March 1781 he was appointed sailing master of the Belle Poule 36, Captain Phillip Patton, being present at the Battle of the Doggersbank on 5 August, and on 5 October he was commissioned lieutenant after moving to the Berwick 74, Captain John Ferguson. On 1 January 1782 he was appointed to the Princess Amelia 80, Captain Billy Douglas, and after joining the Cambridge 74, Captain Hon. Keith Stewart on 19 March he served at the Relief of Gibraltar on 18 October, eventually leaving this ship on 13 January 1783.

Bligh then spent four years in the merchant service during which time he made two voyages with a family friend, Fletcher Christian, before being appointed to the Bounty, a 250 ton vessel purchased by the navy which was bound for Tahiti to collect breadfruit intended for cultivation in the slave plantations in the West Indies. Leaving England in December 1787 with Christian serving as a masters’ mate, the Bounty arrived at Tahiti in October of the following year. For five long months she remained at this paradise island, and whilst his men became acclimatised to its delights Bligh’s own vulnerable temper deteriorated with the stress brought on by the immensity of his undertaking.

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The mutiny on the Bounty

Returning to sea, the disturbed Christian was prevailed upon to lead a mutiny on 28 April 1789 and Bligh was cast adrift with eighteen of his men. Forty-one days later, in a display of supreme seamanship and courage, and after a voyage of 3,618 miles in the tiny launch, the outcasts landed safely at Timor. From here Bligh departed for England in the packet Vlydte, reaching home on 14 March 1790. Unfortunately he neglected to inform the Admiralty of the names of the innocent men who had remained on the Bounty following the mutiny, and as a result some unwarranted deaths occurred when the Pandora 24, commanded by the tyrannical Captain Edward Edwards, was sent out to bring the mutineers home to face justice.

In the meantime Bligh was quickly advanced to the rank of commander on 14 November 1790, being appointed to the brig Falcon, and a month later on 15 December he was posted captain of the Medea 28 for purposes of rank only.

In August 1791 he sailed once more for the Society Islands, this time aboard the Providence 16, escorted by the Assistant 6, Commander Nathaniel Portlock, and with the main purpose of the voyage being to transport breadfruit and other plants to the West Indian colonies. After delivering these in early 1793 to St. Vincent and Jamaica he returned home in September, bringing with him two natives from Tahiti, although one died shortly after arrival in England. He earned a gold medal from the Society of the Arts in recognition of the discoveries he had made on his voyage but spent the next eighteen months out of employment.

In April 1795 he was appointed to the recently purchased East Indiaman Warley 24, this vessel being renamed the Calcutta 50, and he commanded her off Scotland where in October he displayed a great deal of common sense in quashing a mutiny of seamen aboard the Defiance 74, Captain Sir George Home, at Leith.

He was appointed to the Director 64 on 7 January 1796 but suffered in health for much of the rest of the year on the inclement North Sea station where his ship was based. During the Nore mutiny which erupted on 12 May he was ordered by the mutineers to confine three of his officers, and on 23 May was thrown off the ship himself, although he was admirably active in securing pardons for those of his men sentenced after the affair. He showed distinguished conduct in command of Director at the Battle of Camperdown on 11 October, incurring casualties of seven men wounded and battering the Dutch flagship Vrijheid into surrender. He remained in command of her until July 1800 whilst serving on the North Sea station.

On 13 January 1801 Bligh replaced Captain George Stephens aboard the ex-Indiaman Glatton 56 when Admiral Sir Hyde Parker’s fleet was in the process of departing for the Baltic, thereby being present at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801. His ship lost eighteen men killed and thirty-seven wounded, and he was complimented for his efforts in the engagement by Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson. He then transferred to the Monarch 74 to replace the late Captain James Mosse, much to the disappointment of the ship’s officers who felt that having commanded the ship in the battle Lieutenant John Yelland should have been rewarded with a promotion. On 7 May the Monarch was paid off at the Nore, and Bligh thereafter commanded the Irresistible 74, flagship of Rear-Admiral Bartholomew Samuel Rowley, in the Channel until July 1801.

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Captain Bligh fought with distinction at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801

On 2 May 1804, Bligh was appointed to the Warrior 74 in the Channel, but was bought to a court-martial following an intemperate outburst when one of his officers, Lieutenant John Frazier, refused duty because of a leg injury. The resultant court-martial took place aboard the San Josef 80 at Torbay between 25 and 26 February 1805 under the presidency of Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Cotton, and although he was allowed to return to the Warrior Bligh was reprimanded for tyranny and advised to moderate his language. He left the vessel shortly afterwards in May.

Bligh was next appointed captain-general and governor of New South Wales, a position secured for him by his friend, Sir Joseph Banks, and he departed for the Antipodes in February 1806 aboard the storeship Porpoise 12, Acting-Captain Joseph Short. Typically he soon became embroiled in controversy, especially when he imprisoned Lieutenant William George Carlile Kent, a later commander of his pennant ship Porpoise, for various charges of which he was subsequently acquitted in England. In 1809 Bligh was forcibly deposed from the governorship in a dispute with army officers over his reforms and their illegal trafficking, and he remained imprisoned until March of the following year. The principal army officer was later charged over this deposition and cashiered. On 12 May 1810 Bligh departed for England aboard the Hindostan 56 which had brought out his successor, and upon returning to England he took the trouble to complain to the Prince Regent over the future king’s remarks about him in a letter leaked to the press.

Bligh became a rear-admiral on 31 July 1810, a vice-admiral on 4 June 1814, and retired to his home at the Manor House in Farningham, Kent. He died of cancer at Bond Street, London on 7 December 1817 and was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary-at-Lambeth in Lambeth Palace Road alongside his wife, who had died five years before.

On 4 February 1781 at Douglas on the Isle of Man he married Elizabeth Betham, the daughter of an esteemed scholar, and a woman of superior intellect. They had issue six daughters, four of whom were living unmarried with Bligh at the time of his death, whilst two younger sons died in infancy. He was distantly related to other Bligh officers serving in the navy, and also had lived in Durham Place, which has since been integrated into Lambeth Road

Blight was of a stocky build. Irascible, nervous, and prone to outbursts of violent temper, he was eager to please and sought favourable relationships, although he was impossible to know and understand. He looked to the welfare of his men yet could not foster relationships with his officers, and thus was considered to be ill mannered. He admitted to a hot temper, authoritarian nature and harsh language out of a zeal for the service, although this was later diagnosed as a possible mental disorder. Forever known as the ‘Bounty Bastard’, he was nevertheless far from the tyrant portrayed in fiction and film, as could be illustrated by an incident at the end of his second breadfruit cruise when his crew cheered him over the side at Woolwich. He was much denigrated by the Heywood and Christian families for their own purposes of rehabilitating their kinsmen, and this slander in part fostered his appalling reputation.

The brave Bligh was an outstanding seaman and one of the most skilled officers in the fleet, with Nelson praising him for these qualities. A man of science, he was a brilliant hydrographer and navigator, and became a Fellow of the Royal Society. Vice-Admiral Hon. Keith Stewart was his early patron, securing his promotion to lieutenant out of a kindness for his father. He was a friend of Rear-Admiral James Burney who edited his narrative of the Bounty mutiny, and of Sir Joseph Banks, whom he often visited. His ‘Narrative of the Mutiny’ was regarded as a self-serving justification of his own conduct. From 1797-1800 he did a great deal of hydrographic work for the Admiralty, and in 1803 sounded the entrance to the Schelde River.