English Naval officer
Thanks to the book Mutiny on the Bounty (1932) by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall, as well as many motion pictures on the subject, Captain William Bligh remains a symbol of arrogant power. The incident on the H.M.S. Bounty, when Bligh's crew mutinied and cast him and his supporters adrift on a boat in the Pacific, was not his last experience on the wrong end of an insurrection. Later, as governor of New South Wales, Australia, Bligh's authoritarian style helped to spark another revolt.
Bligh was born on September 9, 1754, in Plymouth. The son of a customs officer, he began his career at sea early, going away as a cabin boy at age seven. He joined the Royal Navy at 16, and by 22 Bligh had command of a ship, the Resolution, during part of the third voyage of Captain James Cook (1728-1779). By the time he returned in 1780—Cook was killed along the way—Bligh was a captain of recognized talents.
During the 1780s, Bligh commanded a number of ships in Britain's merchant marine, and on several voyages his first mate was Fletcher Christian. The latter, an intensely sensitive man with a taste for scholarship rather than seamanship, had been forced by the loss of his family's fortunes to seek a naval career. Though he was inclined to smart at insults from superiors, Christian got along well with Bligh. In 1787 the British government needed someone to command the Bounty on a voyage to Tahiti for breadfruit trees, which would be transplanted to the West Indies to provide cheap food for slaves. Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) suggested to Bligh that he command the expedition, and Bligh accepted.
The voyage was fraught with disaster, not least because neither the ship nor its crew was suited to their demanding mission. Bligh had at least learned from Cook how to forestall scurvy by supplying the men with lemon juice, and even kept a fiddler aboard to play while the men danced—a much-needed form of exercise. Morale lifted when the crew reached Tahiti, but from Bligh's perspective this was no comfort. Seduced as much by the languid tropical ambience of the place as by the beauty of its women—many of whom cheerfully gave themselves to the sailors—the crew became even less reliable. Bligh struggled through the six weeks in Tahiti, writing down his observations on Tahitian culture before setting sail once again.
On the night of April 28, 1789, a group of mutineers broke into Bligh's cabin, held a cutlass to his throat, and took over the ship. Leading the group was Christian, who had become increasingly dissatisfied with Bligh. The latter had lately taken to criticizing his painfully sensitive first mate, and Christian could no longer stand it. He and his mutineers set Bligh adrift in an open boat with 18 men who chose to accompany him.
The reality of the mutiny was quite different from the Hollywood version. Christian proved an incapable leader, and was later killed by Tahitians. By that time the mutineers had landed on Pitcairn Island near Tahiti, taking with them a number of Tahitian women, as well as a few Tahitian men they intended to enslave. They had burned the Bounty as a means of preventing retreat, but by the time a naval expedition found them, all but one of the men had been killed by the would-be Tahitian slaves. The one remaining man, John Adams, had become a fervent Christian, and had organized the community—which included the women and a larger gathering of children, descendants of the mutineers—along religious lines. The Admiralty resolved to leave Adams where he was, to provide an inspiration for South Sea missionaries.
As for Bligh and his loyalists, they underwent a grueling seven-week voyage of 3,618 mi (5,823 km) in the open boat before finally arriving, half-starving and half-crazed from thirst, on the Dutch colony of Timor in what is now Indonesia. Bligh was tried before a court martial and acquitted in 1790. Later, he went back to Tahiti to complete his original mission of transplanting the breadfruit trees.
Bligh commanded British vessels in action against Napoleon's navy at Camperdown and Copenhagen in the late 1790s and early 1800s, and faced another mutiny aboard the H.M.S. Nore in 1797. In 1801 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, but in 1805 he was reprimanded by the Admiralty for his abusive treatment of a junior officer.
Later, in 1805, Banks recommended Bligh for the governorship of New South Wales, and Bligh arrived in the colony the following year. He set out to suppress the rum traffic and the trade monopoly enjoyed by officers of the New South Wales Corps, and soon found himself at loggerheads with a faction led by John Macarthur. Bligh had Macarthur tried for sedition, so the officers deposed Bligh in what came to be known as the Rum Rebellion.
Later, Major George Johnson, the man elected by the officers to replace Bligh, was dismissed from the service. Bligh himself was exonerated by default, though a number of figures in the British government criticized his harsh leadership style, which in their view had helped precipitate the revolt. He later became an admiral before retiring to Kent, and died in London on December 17, 1817.
William Bligh (1754-1817) was an English naval captain and a colonial governor of New South Wales, Australia. Probably best known for his involvement in the mutiny on H. M. S. "Bounty," he had a career fraught with controversy.
William Bligh was born on Sept. 9, 1754, in Plymouth, where his father was a customs officer. At 7 Bligh went to sea as a cabin boy and in 1770 joined the Royal Navy. Between 1776 and 1780 he was master of the Resolution on Capt. Cook's third voyage. In 1787 the British government dispatched Bligh to Tahiti with the Bounty to collect breadfruit plants in order to provide cheap food for West Indian slaves. Reluctant to leave Tahiti, the crew, led by Fletcher Christian, mutinied soon after departing from the island and cast Bligh adrift together with 18 supporters. After an epic 6 weeks' voyage, Bligh reached Timor in the East Indies, having traveled 3,618 miles in an open longboat. Honorably acquitted by a court-martial in 1790, he returned to Tahiti and successfully introduced breadfruit plants into the West Indies.
Between 1795 and 1802 Capt. Bligh saw action against the French at Camperdown and at Copenhagen, where he was commended by Nelson. In the Nore mutiny of 1797 he was not charged with maltreating his crew and retained his command. Contributions to navigation and natural history resulted in his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1801. But Bligh's strong will, violent temper, and foul tongue totally eclipsed his attainments at times, and in 1805 he was reprimanded for using insulting language to a junior officer.
Sir Joseph Banks recommended Bligh's appointment as governor of New South Wales. Bligh arrived in 1806 with instructions to end the trading monopoly enjoyed by officers of the New South Wales Corps. The rum traffic was duly prohibited, other traders encouraged, and improved credit facilities offered to small farmers. But the officer faction resisted attempts to enforce the law, and Bligh soon collided with the fanatical John Macarthur, who represented the governor as a brutal tyrant bent on destroying the liberties and property rights of Englishmen. When Bligh had Macarthur tried for sedition, the officers conspired to replace the governor by Maj. George Johnston, senior officer on the station. After holding office for only 17 months, Bligh was deposed in what became known as the Rum Rebellion.
At a subsequent court-martial in London, Johnston was dismissed from the service and by implication Bligh was exonerated although criticized for tactless behavior. At a time when opposition which centered on the colony's courts could easily be construed as subversion, Bligh was an unfortunate choice for governor because he lacked political sense, and in endeavoring to uphold the law he precipitated a crisis.
Bligh subsequently became an admiral. He retired to Kent and died in London on Dec. 17, 1817.
Many books have been written about Bligh. Although Sir John Barrow, The Mutiny and Piratical Seizure of H. M. S. Bounty (1831; rev. ed. 1914), was not entirely unfavorable, until the 1930s Bligh was usually pictured as a brutal bully. The first substantial biography to portray Bligh in a sympathetic light was George Mackaness, The Life of Vice-Admiral William Bligh (2 vols., 1931; rev. ed. 1951), which contains an excellent bibliography. H. V. Evatt, Rum Rebellion (1938), brilliantly demolishes the case of the New South Wales conspirators. A highly critical account of Bligh's behavior on the Bounty is contained in Alexander Mckee, H. M. S. Bounty (1961). Madge Darby's intriguing Who Caused the Mutiny on the Bounty? (1965) exonerates Bligh and casts suspicion on Midshipman Edward Young. A brief but excellent introductory account which clearly indicates the main issues is John Bach, William Bligh (1967). J. C. Beaglehole, Captain Cook and Captain Bligh (1967), draws comparisons between their respective roles as commanders.
Allen, Kenneth S., That Bounty bastard: the true story of Captain William Bligh, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977, 1976.
Bligh, William, An account of the mutiny on H.M.S. Bounty, Gloucester: A. Sutton; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1981.
Hawkey, Arthur, Bligh's other mutiny, London: Angus and Robertson, 1975.
Hough, Richard Alexander, Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian: the men and the mutiny, London: Cassell, 1979.
Humble, Richard, Captain Bligh, London: A. Barker, 1976.
Kennedy, Gavin, Bligh, London: Duckworth, 1978.
Kennedy, Gavin, Captain Bligh: the man and his mutinies, London: Duckworth, 1989.
Schreiber, Roy E., The fortunate adversities of William Bligh, New York: P. Lang, 1991. □
J. A. Cannon