John Bligh

1770-1831. Born in Guildford, Surrey in August 1770, he was the only son of Commander John Bligh and of his wife Elizabeth Titcher. He was the nephew of Admiral Sir Richard Rodney Bligh, and the grandson of Captain Richard Bligh.

After an education at Guildford Grammar School Bligh entered the navy on 22 January 1780 as a captain’s servant aboard the Nemesis 28, commanded by his uncle, Captain Richard Bligh, serving off Ireland. He was next rated as a midshipman on the ex-Warspite 74, renamed the receiving and hospital ship Arundel, Commander John Reynolds, in August 1782 at Portsmouth.

In 1783 he joined the brig Trimmer 16 under his kinsman, Commander William Titcher, before this ship was paid off in April, and in the following year he was taken aboard the sloop Bulldog 14, Captain Edward Marsh, sailing to the St. Lawrence and Jamaica. In September 1786 Captain Marsh died of lockjaw after breaking his leg in falling from a horse at Jamaica, whereupon Bligh removed to the Camilla 24, Captain John Hutt, remaining on the Jamaican station until returning to England a year later.

Further service followed from October 1787 aboard the Portsmouth guard-ship Pégase 74, Captain Richard Bligh, and after she was paid off in February 1788, during which month Bligh passed his examination for lieutenant, he moved to another Portsmouth guard-ship, the Colossus 74, Captain Hugh Cloberry Christian.

In October 1788 he was one of many young officers who joined the Crown 64, Captain James Cornwallis, flying the broad pennant of Commodore Hon. William Cornwallis, and sailing for India in February 1789. Whilst on this station in 1791 he was promoted lieutenant of the Thames 32, Captain Thomas Troubridge, his commission being confirmed with the date of 25 June, and after returning to England at the end of the year he joined the Lizard 28, Captain Thomas Williams.

Bligh’s early career was linked closely to that of his patron, Admiral Lord Radstock

At the beginning of the French Revolutionary War in February 1793 Bligh was appointed to the Courageux 74, Captain Hon. William Waldegrave, with whom he saw much service, initially with the Mediterranean fleet under Vice-Admiral Lord Hood. The Courageux participated in Commodore Robert Linzee’s failed attack on San Fiorenzo on 1 October, and when she was taken in for repairs at Toulon Bligh served on the batteries ashore during the latter stages of the occupation of that port from August to December. He later returned overland to England to take up the post of first lieutenant aboard the Barfleur 98, Captain James Richard Dacres, which had been nominated the flagship of the promoted Vice-Admiral Waldegrave, and he returned aboard this vessel to the Mediterranean in the latter half of 1795.

After fighting at the Battle of St. Vincent on 14 February 1797 Bligh was appointed commander of the brig Kingfisher 18 on 8 March, in which vessel he captured the French privateer Le Général 18 off Porto on 29 March. Almost immediately he returned to England with Vice-Admiral Waldegrave aboard the frigate Flora 36, and he was posted captain on 25 April 1797 with his appointment to the eighteen-pounder frigate Latona 38. Unfortunately this vessel had been present at the commencement of the Spithead mutiny on 16 April, and had sailed around to the Nore without her then captain, Hon. Arthur Kaye Legge, to join the mutiny which had broken out there on 12 May. Just two weeks after taking command Bligh was also put ashore, but upon being reinstated he sailed on 30 May with Waldegrave, the commander-in-chief designate, for Newfoundland. He remained on this station until 1800, seeing further duty as flag-captain to his patron aboard the Romney 50 from July 1797, and then the Agincourt 64 from March 1798, before eventually arriving at Portsmouth from Madeira in February 1800.

During May 1801 Bligh was appointed to the Theseus 74 in the Thames, initially seeing duty in the North Sea and the Channel, and then sailing for Portsmouth in August with the intention of carrying the flag of Admiral Lord Radstock, the newly ennobled Waldegrave, to the East Indies. When this posting was cancelled due to the ending of hostilities the Theseus went out to Jamaica in February 1802 under the orders of Rear-Admiral George Campbell, where she remained throughout the peace.

On the renewal of war with France in 1803 Bligh was sent to command the blockade of San Domingo, and he soon decided to reduce the batteries covering the harbour of Fort Dauphin that were affording shelter to a number of small vessels which had avoided his capture at sea. After bombarding a fort at the harbour entrance into submission on 8 September he received the surrender of the Sagesse 28, and also that of the whole French garrison. Having been placed under the orders of Commodore John Loring, he then found himself negotiating with the black leaders when they threatened to pour red-hot shot onto the French ships in the harbour at Cap François, these vessels having failed to depart on 30 November under the terms of their capitulation. Bligh accordingly accepted the surrender of the French forces to the British, but on conveying this information to the Negro General Jean Jacques Dessalines, together with a refusal to give up certain officers to the mercy of the blacks, he had great difficulty in getting the surrender agreed. One unverified account stated that Bligh was taken into custody and threatened with death, but that upon considering the undoubted vengeance that would be unleashed by Loring’s squadron Dessalines soon released him and instead contented himself with butchering all of the French troops remaining in the hospital.

Bligh next sailed to Jamaica where he arrived in December 1803, and where he was almost immediately given ambiguous orders by Rear-Admiral Sir John Duckworth to attack the island of Curaçoa with a squadron of two sail of the line and two frigates. From 31 January he attempted in co-operation with the army to force the Dutch defenders into submission, but he was hampered by the lack of the necessary vessels to work inshore, and by an ineffective co-ordination with the troops. Once the attacking force was affected by an outbreak of dysentery it was decided to withdraw on 25 February.

The Battle of the Basque Roads, 1809

In July 1804 Bligh was appointed to the eighteen-pounder French-built frigate Surveillante 38 in succession to the late Captain William Catchcart, in order that the newly installed commander-in-chief at Jamaica, Vice-Admiral James Richard Dacres, could hoist his flag aboard the Theseus. During February 1805 he was sent to cruise off the Spanish Main where his boats took fifteen well-laden merchantmen at Campeachy under the fire of a battery, and he followed this success up with many others, including the destruction of the privateer Refusgo 3 off Havana on 3 May. He also landed on the island of San Andreas and forced the surprised Spanish defenders to flee to Cartagena. Leaving behind a garrison and the schooner Serpadon 6, which had been captured in March in the San Juan River, he appointed Lieutenant Stannard Travers as the ‘governor’ of the island. This officer later had to suppress a mutiny amongst a small portion of his crew, which resulted in two men being court-martialled and executed. On 9 July Bligh came across a twenty-six sail Spanish convoy off Havana which he entirely destroyed, and then with the assistance of the Fortunée 36, Captain Henry Vansittart, he drove off a Spanish 74. The Surveillante remained in the West Indies until June 1806 when she returned to England in escort of a two hundred sail convoy, eluding a force of six French sail of the line which had put to sea with the intention of raiding the British commerce. She was subsequently paid off at Deptford on 30 September.

Bligh remained unemployed until March 1807 when he joined the twenty-eight year old Alfred 74, in which ship he took an active part in the Copenhagen Expedition under the orders of Admiral Lord Gambier, superintending the landing of the troops and their supplies before the surrender of that city on 7 September.

He then sailed under the orders of Commodore Peter Halkett to support Rear-Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith off Portugal, arriving in December after the Portuguese Royal family had been evacuated on 29 November 1807. During July 1808 he was despatched to assist the inhabitants of Figueras repel the French, and his marines held the town until Brigadier-General Sir Arthur Wellesley arrived with the army. Bligh then supported the army on their march to Lisbon and was present at the Battle of Vimeiro on 21 August, which saw the French expulsion from Portugal. Next joining Admiral Sir Charles Cotton, he conveyed a surrendered Russian fleet to England under the orders of Rear-Admiral Charles Tyler in accordance with the Convention of Cintra, which had been signed on 30 August.

In January 1809 he was appointed to the Valiant 74, but in sailing out to join her in acting command of the Revenge 74 he fell in with Rear-Admiral Willaumez’s squadron of eight sail of the line which he preceded to the Basque Roads. He then assumed the command of the Valiant on 28 February, joining Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Stopford’s blockade of Willaumez. Following Captain Lord Cochrane’s assault on the anchored French at the Battle of the Basque Roads on 11 April Bligh rowed over to Admiral Lord Gambier’s flagship and obtained permission to take the Valiant, together with the Revenge 74 and Bellona 74, into the Roads. Here he supervised the destruction of the Ville de Varsovie 80 and Aquilon 74.

Remaining in the Channel, Bligh occasionally had Captain Alexander Robert Kerr do duty as an acting-captain on the Valiant whilst he was ashore on business. On 3 February 1810 his command captured the French ship Confiance 18 off Belleisle with a valuable cargo that personally earned him £14,014 in prize money. He remained with the Valiant until May when he resigned the command due to ill health.

On 4 June 1815 he was nominated a C.B. and on 19 July 1821 was advanced to the rank of rear-admiral. He retired to Fareham in 1823 and after many years of poor health he died on 19 January 1831 at his seat of Whitedale House, Hambledon, Hampshire.

Bligh was married on 31 May 1798 to Sarah Leeke of Yaxley Hall, Suffolk, and after her death at his then residence of Shidfield Lodge near Wickhan, Hampshire on 26 August 1807 he quickly sold that property and was remarried on 17 August 1809 to Cecilia Moultrie, the youngest daughter of Governor Moultrie. By his second wife he had five sons and three daughters.

He was well regarded for his steady nerve in action.

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