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William Bligh

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Preceded by  Philip Gidley King
Succeeded by  Lachlan Macquarie
Name  William Bligh

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Born  9 September 1754St Tudy, Cornwall, Great Britain (1754-09-09)
Resting place  St Mary-at-Lambeth, Lambeth, London, England
Occupation  Naval officer, colonial administrator
Died  December 7, 1817, London, United Kingdom
Spouse  Elizabeth Betham (m. 1781)
Children  Mary Putland, Anne Bligh, Jane Bligh, Elizabeth Bligh, Frances Bligh, Harriet Maria Barker, Henry Bligh, William Bligh
Parents  Francis Bligh, Jane Balsam
Books  The Mutiny on Board HMS Bo, Captain Bligh's Voyage, The Voyage of H M S B, The Voyage of the Bounty, Great Illustrated Classics
Similar People  John Macarthur, Charles Laughton, Lachlan Macquarie, Charles Nordhoff, James Norman Hall

The bounty 1984 anthony hopkins as william bligh best scenes

Vice-Admiral William Bligh (9 September 1754 – 7 December 1817) was an officer of the British Royal Navy and a colonial administrator. The Mutiny on the Bounty occurred during his command of HMS Bounty in 1789; Bligh and his loyal men reached Timor, a journey of 3,618 nautical miles (6,701 km; 4,164 mi), after being set adrift in Bounty's launch by the mutineers.


William Bligh Captain Bligh39s Second Voyage to the South Sea

Fifteen years after the Bounty mutiny, on 13 August 1806, he was appointed Governor of New South Wales in Australia, with orders to clean up the corrupt rum trade of the New South Wales Corps. His actions directed against the trade resulted in the so-called Rum Rebellion, during which Bligh was placed under arrest on 26 January 1808 by the New South Wales Corps and deposed from his command, an act which the British Foreign Office later declared to be illegal. He died in Lambeth, London on 7 December 1817.

William Bligh 1814 William Bligh watercolour Australia39s migration

Short documentary on captain william bligh of the mutiny on the bounty

Early life

William Bligh Mutiny on Board HMS Bounty The William Bligh Export

William Bligh was born on 9 September 1754 but it is not clear where. It is likely that he was born in Plymouth, Devon, as he was baptised at St Andrew's Church, Plymouth on 4 October 1754, where Bligh's father, Francis (1721–80), was serving as a customs officer. Bligh's ancestral home of Tinten Manor in St Tudy near Bodmin, Cornwall, is also a possibility. Bligh's mother, Jane Pearce (1713–68), was a widow (née Balsam) who married Francis at the age of 40. Bligh was signed for the Royal Navy at age seven, at a time when it was common to sign on a "young gentleman" simply to gain, or at least record, the experience at sea required for a commission. In 1770, at age 16, he joined HMS Hunter as an able seaman, the term used because there was no vacancy for a midshipman. He became a midshipman early in the following year. In September 1771, Bligh was transferred to Crescent and remained on the ship for three years.

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In 1776, Bligh was selected by Captain James Cook for the position of sailing master of Resolution and accompanied Cook in July 1776 on Cook's third voyage to the Pacific, during which Cook was killed. Bligh returned to England at the end of 1780 and was able to give details of Cook's last voyage.

William Bligh William Bligh National Geographic

Bligh married Elizabeth Betham, daughter of a customs collector (stationed in Douglas, Isle of Man), on 4 February 1781. The wedding took place at nearby Onchan. A few days later, he was appointed to serve on HMS Belle Poule as master (senior warrant officer responsible for navigation). Soon after this, in August 1781, he fought in the Battle of Dogger Bank under Admiral Parker, which at last won him his commission as a lieutenant. For the next 18 months, he was a lieutenant on various ships. He also fought with Lord Howe at Gibraltar in 1782.

William Bligh William Bligh Captain of Bountiful Mutineers

Between 1783 and 1787, Bligh was a captain in the merchant service. Like many lieutenants, he would have found full-pay employment in the Navy; however, commissions were hard to obtain with the fleet largely demobilised at the end of the War of American Independence. In 1787, Bligh was selected as commander of Bounty. He rose eventually to the rank of vice admiral in the Royal Navy.

William Bligh William Bligh

William Bligh's naval career involved various appointments and assignments. He first rose to prominence as Master of Resolution, under the command of Captain Cook. Bligh received praise from Cook during what would be the latter's final voyage. Bligh served on three of the same ships from Fletcher Christian's naval career.

William Bligh Leading by Proxy William Bligh ABC New England North West NSW

In the early 1780s, while in the merchant service, Bligh became acquainted with a young man named Fletcher Christian, who was eager to learn navigation from him. Bligh took Christian under his wing, and the two became friends.

The voyage of Bounty

The mutiny on the Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty occurred in the south Pacific on 28 April 1789. Led by Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, disaffected crewmen seized control of the ship, and set Bligh and 18 loyalists adrift in the ship's open launch. The mutineers variously settled on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island. Bligh meanwhile completed a voyage of more than 3,500 nautical miles (6,500 km; 4,000 mi) in the launch to reach safety, and began the process of bringing the mutineers to justice.

The first breadfruit voyage

In 1787, Bligh took command of Bounty. In order to win a premium offered by the Royal Society, he first sailed to Tahiti to obtain breadfruit trees, then set course for the Caribbean, where breadfruit was wanted for experiments to see whether it would be a successful food crop for slaves there. The notion that breadfruit had to be collected from Tahiti was intentionally misleading. Tahiti was merely one of many places where esteemed seedless breadfruit could be found. The real reason for choosing Tahiti has its roots in the territorial contention that existed between France and England at the time. The Bounty never reached the Caribbean, as mutiny broke out on board shortly after the ship left Tahiti.

The voyage to Tahiti was difficult. After trying unsuccessfully for a month to round Cape Horn, Bounty was finally defeated by the notoriously stormy weather and forced to take the longer way around Africa (Cape Agulhas). That delay caused a further delay in Tahiti, as he had to wait five months for the breadfruit plants to mature sufficiently to be transported. Bounty departed Tahiti in April 1789.

The mutiny

Because the vessel was rated only as a cutter, Bounty had no officers other than Bligh (who was then only a lieutenant), a very small crew, and no Marines to provide protection from hostile natives during stops or to enforce security on board ship. To allow longer uninterrupted sleep, Bligh divided his crew into three watches instead of two, placing his protégé Fletcher Christian—rated as a Master's Mate—in charge of one of the watches. The mutiny, which took place on 28 April 1789 during the return voyage, was led by Christian and supported by eighteen of the crew. They had seized firearms during Christian's night watch and surprised and bound Bligh in his cabin.

Despite being in the majority, none of the loyalists put up a significant struggle once they saw Bligh bound, and the ship was taken over without bloodshed. The mutineers provided Bligh and eighteen loyal crewmen a 23-foot (7 m) launch (so heavily loaded that the gunwales were only a few inches above the water). They were allowed four cutlasses, food and water for perhaps a week, a quadrant and a compass, but no charts, or marine chronometer. Most of these were obtained by the clerk, Mr Samuel, who acted with great calm and resolution, despite threats from the mutineers. The launch could not hold all the loyal crew members, so four were detained on Bounty for their useful skills; they were later released in Tahiti.

Tahiti was upwind from Bligh's initial position, and was the obvious destination of the mutineers. Many of the loyalists claimed to have heard the mutineers cry "Huzzah for Otaheite!" as Bounty pulled away. Timor was the nearest European outpost, 3,618 nmi (6,701 km; 4,164 mi) away. Bligh and his crew first made for Tofua, only a few leagues distant, to obtain supplies. However, they were attacked by hostile natives and John Norton, a quartermaster, was killed. Fleeing from Tofua, Bligh did not dare to stop at the next islands (the Fiji islands), as he had no weapons for defence and expected hostile receptions. He did however keep a log entitled 'Log of the Proceedings of His Majesty's Ship Bounty Lieut. Wm Bligh Commander from Otaheite towards Jamaica' which he used to record events from 5 April 1789 to 13 March 1790. He also made use of a small notebook to sketch a rough map of his discoveries.

Bligh had confidence in his navigational skills, which he had perfected under the instruction of Captain Cook. His first responsibility was to bring his men to safety. Thus, he undertook the seemingly impossible 3,618-nautical-mile (6,701 km; 4,164 mi) voyage to Timor, the nearest European settlement. Bligh succeeded in reaching Timor after a 47-day voyage, the only casualty being the crewman killed on Tofua. From 4 May until 29 May, when they reached the Great Barrier Reef, the 18 men lived on 112 pound (40 grams) of bread per day. The weather was often stormy, and they were in constant fear of foundering due to the boat's heavily laden condition. On 29 May they landed on a small island off the coast of Australia, which they named Restoration Island, 29 May 1660 being the date of the restoration of the British monarchy. Over the next week or more they island-hopped north along the Great Barrier reef—while Bligh, cartographer as always, sketched maps of the coast. Early in June they passed through the Endeavour Strait and sailed again on the open sea until they reached Coupang, a settlement on Timor, on 15 June 1789. Several of the men who survived this ordeal with him soon died of sickness, possibly malaria, in the pestilential Dutch East Indies port of Batavia, the present-day Indonesian capital of Jakarta, as they waited for transport to Britain.

Possible causes of the mutiny

The reasons behind the mutiny are still a subject of debate. Some sources report that Bligh was a cruel tyrant whose abuse of the crew led them to feel that they had no choice but to take over the ship. Other sources argue that Bligh was no worse (and, in many cases, objectively gentler) than the average captain of the era, and that the crew—inexperienced and unused to the rigours of the sea—were corrupted by the freedom, idleness and sexual licence of their 5 months in Tahiti, finding themselves unwilling to return to the "Jack Tar's" life of an ordinary seaman.

This view holds that most of the men supported Christian's prideful personal vendetta against Bligh out of a misguided hope their new captain would return them to Tahiti and allow them to live out their lives in hedonistic peace, free from Bligh's acid tongue and strict discipline. This rationale is supported by most modern historians and reinforced by the ultimate decision of 16 out of 24 of the active mutineers to demand Fletcher return them to Tahiti (despite his rational protestations that it was the last port of call for the Bounty and inevitably the first place the Admiralty would search once word of the mutiny was received or the ship was reported overdue).

The mutiny is made more mysterious by the friendship of Christian and Bligh, which dates back to Bligh's days in the merchant service. Christian was well acquainted with the Bligh family. As Bligh was being set adrift he appealed to this friendship, saying "you have dandled my children upon your knee". According to Bligh, Christian "appeared disturbed" and replied, "That,—Captain Bligh,—that is the thing;——I am in hell—I am in hell."

Bounty's log shows that Bligh resorted to punishments relatively sparingly. He scolded when other captains would have whipped, and whipped when other captains would have hanged. He was an educated man, deeply interested in science, convinced that good diet and sanitation were necessary for the welfare of his crew. He took a great interest in his crew's exercise, was very careful about the quality of their food, and insisted upon the Bounty's being kept very clean. He tried (unsuccessfully) to check the spread of venereal disease among the men. The modern historian John Beaglehole has described the major flaw in this otherwise enlightened naval officer: "[Bligh made] dogmatic judgements which he felt himself entitled to make; he saw fools about him too easily ... thin-skinned vanity was his curse through life ... [Bligh] never learnt that you do not make friends of men by insulting them."

Popular fiction often confuses Bligh with Edward Edwards of HMS Pandora, who was sent on the Royal Navy's expedition to the South Pacific to find the mutineers and bring them to trial. Edwards is often made out to be the cruel man that Hollywood has portrayed Bligh as being. The 14 men from Bounty who were captured by Edwards' men were confined in a cramped 18′ × 11′ × 5′8″ wooden cell on Pandora's quarterdeck. Yet, when Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, three prisoners were immediately let out of the prison cell to help at the pumps. And finally Captain Edwards did also give orders to release the other 11 prisoners, to which end Joseph Hodges the armourer's mate went into the cell to knock off the prisoners' irons. But before he could finish the job, the ship sank very quickly. Eventually four of the prisoners and 31 of the crew died during the wrecking. More prisoners would likely have perished, had not William Moulter, a bosun's mate, unlocked their cage before jumping off the sinking vessel.


In October 1790, Bligh was honourably acquitted at the court-martial inquiring into the loss of Bounty. Shortly thereafter, he published A Narrative of the Mutiny on board His Majesty's Ship "Bounty"; And the Subsequent Voyage of Part of the Crew, In the Ship's Boat, from Tofoa, one of the Friendly Islands, to Timor, a Dutch Settlement in the East Indies. Of the 10 surviving prisoners eventually brought home in spite of Pandora's loss, four were acquitted, owing to Bligh's testimony that they were non-mutineers that Bligh was obliged to leave on Bounty because of lack of space in the launch. Two others were convicted because, while not participating in the mutiny, they were passive and did not resist. They subsequently received royal pardons. One was convicted but excused on a technicality. The remaining three were convicted and hanged.

Bligh's letter to his wife, Betsy

The following is a letter to Bligh's wife, written from Coupang, Dutch East Indies, (circa June 1791) in which the first reference to events on Bounty is made.

My Dear, Dear Betsy,

I am now, for the most part, in a part of the world I never expected, it is however a place that has afforded me relief and saved my life, and I have the happiness to assure you that I am now in perfect health....

Know then my own Dear Betsy, that I have lost the Bounty ... on the 28 April at day light in the morning Christian having the morning watch. He with several others came into my Cabin while I was a Sleep, and seizing me, holding naked Bayonets at my Breast, tied my Hands behind my back, and threatened instant destruction if I uttered a word. I however call'd loudly for assistance, but the conspiracy was so well laid that the Officers Cabbin Doors were guarded by Centinels, so Nelson, Peckover, Samuels or the Master could not come to me. I was now dragged on Deck in my Shirt & closely guarded – I demanded of Christian the case of such a violent act, & severely degraded for his Villainy but he could only answer – "not a word sir or you are Dead." I dared him to the act & endeavoured to rally some one to a sense of their duty but to no effect....

The Secrisy of this Mutiny is beyond all conception so that I can not discover that any who are with me had the least knowledge of it. It is unbeknown to me why I must beguile such force. Even Mr. Tom Ellison took such a liking to Otaheite [Tahiti] that he also turned Pirate, so that I have been run down by my own Dogs...

My misfortune I trust will be properly considered by all the World – It was a circumstance I could not foresee – I had not sufficient Officers & had they granted me Marines most likely the affair would never have happened – I had not a Spirited & brave fellow about me & the Mutineers treated them as such. My conduct has been free of blame, & I showed everyone that, tied as I was, I defied every Villain to hurt me...

I know how shocked you will be at this affair but I request of you My Dear Betsy to think nothing of it all is now past & we will again looked forward to future happyness. Nothing but true consciousness as an Officer that I have done well could support me....Give my blessings to my Dear Harriet, my Dear Mary, my Dear Betsy & to my Dear little stranger & tell them I shall soon be home...To You my Love I give all that an affectionate Husband can give –

Love, Respect & all that is or ever will be in the power of your
ever affectionate Friend and Husband Wm Bligh.

Strictly speaking, the crime of the mutineers (apart from the disciplinary crime of mutiny) was not piracy but barratry, the misappropriation, by those entrusted with its care, of a ship and/or its contents to the detriment of the owner (in this case the British Crown).

Second breadfruit voyage

After his exoneration by the court-martial inquiry into the loss of Bounty, Bligh remained in the Royal Navy. From 1791 to 1793, as master and commander of HMS Providence and in company with HMS Assistant under the command of Nathaniel Portlock, he undertook again to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies. He also transported plants provided by Hugh Ronalds, a nurseryman in Brentford. The operation was generally successful, and breadfruit is a popular food in Puerto Rico; however, its immediate objective, which was to provide a cheap and nutritious food for West Indian slaves was not made, as most slaves refused to eat the new food. During this voyage Bligh also collected samples of the ackee fruit of Jamaica, introducing it to the Royal Society in Britain upon his return. The ackee's scientific name Blighia sapida in binomial nomenclature was given in honour of Bligh.

Subsequent career and the Rum Rebellion

In February 1797, while Bligh was captain of HMS Director, he surveyed the River Humber, preparing a map of the stretch from Spurn to the west of Sunk Island.

In April–May, Bligh was one of the captains whose crews mutinied over "issues of pay and involuntary service for common seamen" during the Nore mutiny. The mutiny was not triggered by any specific actions by Bligh; the mutinies "were widespread, [and] involved a fair number of English ships". Whilst Director's role was relatively minor in this mutiny, she was the last to raise the white flag at its cessation. It was at this time that he learned "that his common nickname among men in the fleet was 'that Bounty bastard'."

As captain of Director at the Battle of Camperdown on 11 October, Bligh engaged three Dutch vessels: Haarlem, Alkmaar and Vrijheid. While the Dutch suffered serious casualties, only seven seamen were wounded on Director. Director captured Vrijheid and the Dutch commander Vice-Admiral Jan de Winter.

Bligh went on to serve under Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801, in command of Glatton, a 56-gun ship of the line, which was experimentally fitted exclusively with carronades. After the battle, Nelson personally praised Bligh for Bligh's contribution to the victory. He sailed Glatton safely between the banks while three other vessels ran aground. When Nelson pretended not to notice Admiral Parker's signal "43" (stop the battle) and kept the signal "16" hoisted to continue the engagement, Bligh was the only captain in the squadron who could see that the two signals were in conflict. By choosing to fly Nelson's signal, he ensured that all the vessels behind him kept fighting.

Bligh had gained the reputation of being a firm disciplinarian. Accordingly, he was offered the position of Governor of New South Wales on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks (President of the Royal Society and a main sponsor of the breadfruit expeditions) and appointed in March 1805, at £2,000 per annum, twice the pay of the retiring Governor Philip Gidley King. He arrived in Sydney on 6 August 1806, to become the fourth governor. As his wife Elizabeth had been unwilling to undertake a long sea voyage, Bligh was accompanied by his daughter Mary Putland who would be the Lady of Government House; Mary's husband John Putland was appointed as William Bligh's aide-de-camp. During his time in Sydney, his confrontational administrative style provoked the wrath of a number of influential settlers and officials. They included the wealthy landowner and businessman John Macarthur and prominent Crown representatives such as the colony's principal surgeon, Thomas Jamison, and senior officers of the New South Wales Corps. Jamison and his military associates were defying government regulations by engaging in private trading ventures for profit: Bligh was determined to put a stop to this practice.

The conflict between Bligh and the entrenched colonists culminated in another mutiny, the Rum Rebellion, when, on 26 January 1808, 400 soldiers of the New South Wales Corps under the command of Major George Johnston marched on Government House in Sydney to arrest Bligh. A petition written by John Macarthur and addressed to George Johnston was written the day of the arrest but most of the 151 signatures were gathered in the days after Bligh's overthrow. A rebel government was subsequently installed and Bligh, now deposed, made for Hobart in Tasmania aboard HMS Porpoise. Bligh failed to gain support from the authorities in Hobart to retake control of New South Wales, and remained effectively imprisoned on the Porpoise from 1808 until January 1810.

Shortly after Bligh's arrest, a watercolour illustrating the arrest by an unknown artist was exhibited in Sydney at perhaps Australia's first public art exhibition. The watercolour depicts a soldier dragging Bligh from underneath one of the servants’ beds in Government House and with two other figures standing by. The two soldiers in the watercolour are most likely John Sutherland and Michael Marlborough and the other figure on the far right is believed to represent Lieutenant William Minchin. This cartoon is Australia's earliest surviving political cartoon and like all political cartoons it makes use of caricature and exaggeration to convey its message. The New South Wales Corps' officers regarded themselves as gentlemen and in depicting Bligh as a coward, the cartoon declares that Bligh was not a gentleman and therefore not fit to govern.

Of interest, however, was Bligh's concern for the more recently arrived settlers in the colony, who did not have the wealth and influence of Macarthur and Jamison. From the tombstones in Ebenezer and Richmond cemeteries (areas being settled west of Sydney during Bligh's tenure as governor), can be seen the number of boys born around 1807 to 1811 who received "William Bligh" as a given name, e.g. William Bligh Turnbull b. 8 June 1809 at Windsor, ancestor of Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia; and James Bligh Johnston, b.1809 at Ebenezer, son of Andrew Johnston who designed Ebenezer Chapel, Australia's oldest extant church and oldest extant school.

Bligh received a letter in January 1810, advising him that the rebellion had been declared illegal, and that the British Foreign Office had declared it to be a mutiny. Lachlan Macquarie had been appointed to replace him as governor. At this news Bligh sailed from Hobart. He arrived in Sydney on 17 January 1810 only two weeks into Macquarie's tenure. There he would collect evidence for the coming court martial in England of Major Johnston. He departed to attend the trial on 12 May 1810, arriving on 25 October 1810. In the days immediately prior to their departure, his daughter, Mary Putland (widowed in 1808), was hastily married to the new Lieutenant-Governor Maurice Charles O'Connell and remained in Sydney. The following year, the trial's presiding officers sentenced Johnston to be cashiered, a form of disgraceful dismissal that entailed surrendering his commission in the Royal Marines without compensation. (This was a comparatively mild punishment which enabled Johnston to return, a free man, to New South Wales, where he could continue to enjoy the benefits of his accumulated private wealth.) Bligh was court martialled twice again during his career, being acquitted both times.

Soon after Johnston's trial had concluded, Bligh received a backdated promotion to rear admiral. In 1814 he was promoted again, to vice admiral of the blue. Significantly perhaps, he never again received an important command, though with the Napoleonic Wars almost over there would have been few fleet commands available. He did, however, design the North Bull Wall at the mouth of the River Liffey in Dublin. Its purpose was to clear a sandbar by Venturi action. As a result of its building. North Bull Island was formed by the sand cleared by the river's now more narrowly focused force. Bligh also charted and mapped Dublin Bay.


Bligh died in Bond Street, London on 7 December 1817 and was buried in a family plot at St. Mary's, Lambeth (this church is now the Garden Museum). His tomb, notable for its use of Lithodipyra (Coade stone), is topped by a breadfruit. A plaque marks Bligh's house, one block east of the Garden Museum at 100 Lambeth Road, near the Imperial War Museum.

He was related to Admiral Sir Richard Rodney Bligh and Captain George Miller Bligh and his descendants include Native Police Commandant John O'Connell Bligh and the former Premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh.

In literature and film

Bligh is humorously portrayed in Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's short story "Frenchman's Creek" as a competent but irascible and tactless surveyor sent to a small fishing village in Cornwall during the Napoleonic Wars. His accent and strong language being misunderstood by the locals as French, he is temporarily imprisoned as a spy.

The situation in Sydney in 1810, with Bligh returning from Tasmania to be restored as governor, is the setting of Naomi Novik's fantasy novel Tongues of Serpents (Harper-Collins, 2011).

On 16 December 1964, the "Adobe Dick" episode of the cartoon The Flintstones (episode 129) paid a humorous homage to Cpt. Bligh and his ship. On the show, the characters Fred and Barney took a chartered fishing trip with the guys from the lodge on the U.S.S. Bountystone. The captain of the ship, CAPT. Blah, was a domineering man with a uniform resembling the historical figure, William Bligh. Mutiny, on channel 4 in the UK, charts a recreation of Bligh's journey to Timor. It aired in 2017.

Bligh has been portrayed in film by the following actors:

  • George Cross in The Mutiny of the Bounty (1916)
  • Mayne Lynton in In the Wake of the Bounty (1933)
  • Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
  • Trevor Howard in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)
  • Anthony Hopkins in The Bounty (1984)
  • References

    William Bligh Wikipedia