William Bligh

Last updated

Elizabeth Betham
(m. 1781;died 1812)
William Bligh
Portrait by Alexander Huey (1814)
4th Governor of New South Wales
In office
13 August 1806 26 January 1808
Children8, including Mary Putland
OccupationNaval officer, colonial administrator
Known for Mutiny on the Bounty
Military service
Branch/service Royal Navy
Years of service1761–1783 [lower-alpha 1]
Rank Vice-Admiral of the Blue
Awards Naval Gold Medal

Vice-Admiral William Bligh FRS (9 September 1754 – 7 December 1817) was a British officer in the Royal Navy and a colonial administrator. He is best known for the mutiny on HMS Bounty, which occurred in 1789 when the ship was under his command. The reasons behind the mutiny continue to be debated. After being set adrift in Bounty's launch by the mutineers, Bligh and those loyal to him stopped for supplies on Tofua, losing a man to natives. Bligh and his men reached Timor alive, after a journey of 3,618 nautical miles (6,700 km; 4,160 mi).


On 13 August 1806, Bligh 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 London on 7 December 1817.

Early life

Bligh was born on 9 September 1754, [2] 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 on Royal Parade in Plymouth on 4 October 1754, [3] where Bligh's father, Francis (1721–1780), 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 (née Balsam; 1713–1768), was a widow who married Francis at the age of 40. [4]

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. [5]

William Bligh, 1775 by John Webber William Bligh, 1775.jpg
William Bligh, 1775 by John Webber

In 1776, Bligh was selected by Captain James Cook (1728–1779), for the position of sailing master of Resolution and accompanied Cook in July 1776 on Cook's third voyage to the Pacific Ocean, during which Cook was killed and was succeeded by Captain Charles Clerke, who was dying from tuberculosis. [5] Due to his weakened state, Clerke placed Bligh in charge as navigator of the expedition and attempted to explore the Northwest Passage for a second time. Following Cook's and Clerke's deaths, Bligh played a significant role in navigating the beleaguered expedition back to England in August 1780. [6] He was also able to supply details of Cook's last voyage following the return.[ citation needed ]

Bligh married Elizabeth Betham, daughter of a customs collector (stationed in Douglas, Isle of Man), on 4 February 1781. [7] The wedding took place at nearby Onchan. [8] The couple had eight children together: six daughters and twin sons (the boys died in infancy). [2] [7] The couple remained married until Elizabeth's death on 15 April 1812. [9] A few days after the wedding, Bligh 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 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. [7]

Between 1783 and 1787, Bligh was a captain in the Merchant Service. [1] 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 with France when that country was allied with the North American rebelling colonies in the War of American Independence (1775–1783). In 1787, Bligh was selected as commander of His Majesty's Armed Transport Bounty . He rose eventually to the rank of vice admiral in the Royal Navy. [1]

William Bligh's naval career involved various appointments and assignments. He first rose to prominence as Master of Resolution, under the command of Captain James Cook. Bligh received praise from Cook during what would be the latter's final voyage. Bligh served on three of the same ships on which Fletcher Christian also served simultaneously in his naval career. [7]

DateRankShip (number of guns)
1 July 1761 – 21 February 1763 Ship's boy and captain's servant HMS Monmouth (64)
27 July 1770 Able seaman HMS Hunter (10)
5 February 1771 Midshipman
22 September 1771 HMS Crescent (28)
2 September 1774Able seamanHMS Ranger
30 September 1775 Master's mate
20 March 1776 – October 1780 Master HMS Resolution (12)
14 February 1781 HMS Belle Poule
5 October 1781Lieutenant HMS Berwick (74)
1 January 1782 HMS Princess Amelia (80)
20 March 1782Sixth lieutenant HMS Cambridge (80)
14 January 1783Joins merchant service
1785Commanding lieutenantMerchant vessel Lynx
1786CaptainMerchant vessel Britannia
1787Returns to Royal Navy
16 August 1787Commanding lieutenant HM Armed Vessel Bounty
14 November 1790 Commander HM Brig-sloop Falcon (14)
15 December 1790 Captain HMS Medea (28) (for rank only)
16 April 1791 – 1793 HMS Providence (28)
16 April 1795 HMS Calcutta (24)
7 January 1796 HMS Director (64)
18 March 1801 HMS Glatton (56)
12 April 1801 HMS Monarch (74)
8 May 1801 – 28 May 1802 HMS Irresistible (74)
March 1802 – May 1803 Peace of Amiens
2 May 1804Captain HMS Warrior (74)
14 May 1805Appointed Governor of New South Wales
27 September 1805Captain HMS Porpoise (12), voyage to New South Wales
13 August 1806 – 26 January 1808Governor of New South Wales
31 July 1808 Commodore HMS Porpoise, Tasmania
3 April 1810 –
25 October 1810
Commodore HMS Hindostan (50), returning to England.
31 July 1811Appointed Rear-Admiral of the Blue (backdated to 31 July 1810)
12 August 1812Appointed Rear-Admiral of the White
4 December 1813Appointed Rear-Admiral of the Red
4 June 1814Appointed Vice-Admiral of the Blue

In the early 1780s, while in the merchant service, Bligh became acquainted with a young man named Fletcher Christian (1764–1793), who was eager to learn navigation from him. Bligh took Christian under his wing, and the two became friends. [10]

Voyage of Bounty

The mutiny on the Royal Navy vessel HMAV Bounty occurred in the South Pacific Ocean on 28 April 1789. [11] Led by Master's Mate / Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, disaffected crewmen seized control of the ship, and set the then Lieutenant Bligh, who was the ship's captain, and 18 loyalists adrift in the ship's open launch. [11] The mutineers variously settled on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island. Meanwhile, Bligh completed a voyage of more than 3,500 nautical miles (6,500 kilometres; 4,000 miles) to the west in the launch to reach safety north of Australia in the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia) and began the process of bringing the mutineers to justice. [12]

First breadfruit voyage

In 1787, Lieutenant Bligh, as he then was, took command of HMAV Bounty. In order to win a premium offered by the Royal Society, he first sailed to Tahiti to obtain breadfruit trees, then set course east across the South Pacific for South America and the Cape Horn and eventually to the Caribbean Sea, where breadfruit was wanted for experiments to see whether it would be a successful food crop for enslaved Africans on British colonial plantations in the West Indies islands. [2] According to one modern researcher, the notion that breadfruit had to be collected from Tahiti was intentionally misleading. Tahiti was merely one of many places where the esteemed seedless breadfruit could be found. The real reason for choosing Tahiti has its roots in the territorial contention that existed then between France and Great Britain at the time. [13] 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 go west by rounding South America and Cape Horn, Bounty was finally defeated by the notoriously stormy weather and opposite winds and forced to take the longer way to the east around the southern tip of Africa (Cape of Good Hope and Cape Agulhas). That delay caused a further delay in Tahiti, as Bligh had to wait five months for the breadfruit plants to mature sufficiently to be potted in soil and transported. Bounty departed Tahiti heading west in April 1789. [14]


The mutineers turning Lt Bligh and some of the officers and crew adrift from His Majesty's Ship HMS Bounty. By Robert Dodd Mutiny HMS Bounty.jpg
The mutineers turning Lt Bligh and some of the officers and crew adrift from His Majesty's Ship HMS Bounty. By Robert Dodd

Because the vessel was rated only as a cutter, Bounty had no commissioned officers other than Bligh (who was then only a lieutenant), a very small crew, and no Royal 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. [15] They had seized firearms during Christian's night watch and surprised and bound Bligh in his cabin.[ citation needed ]

Account of arrival at Timor, 14 June 1789. Log of the Proceedings of His Majesty's Ship Bounty, 1789, bound manuscript, Safe 1 / 47 Wr Bligh Journal fl3156809 a286171.jpg
Account of arrival at Timor, 14 June 1789. Log of the Proceedings of His Majesty's Ship Bounty, 1789, bound manuscript, Safe 1 / 47

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. The gunner William Peckover, brought his pocket watch which was used to regulate time. [16] Most of these instruments 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.[ citation needed ]

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 colonial outpost in the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia), 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. [17] Fleeing from Tofua, Bligh did not dare to stop at the next islands to the west (the Fiji islands), as he had only a pair of cutlasses 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. [16] He also made use of a small notebook to sketch a rough map of his discoveries.[ citation needed ]

Original illustration by S. Dree from French author Jules Verne's story The Mutineers of the Bounty (Les Revoltes de la Bounty) (1879). Mutineers of the Bounty by Jules Verne, illustration by Leon Bennett.jpg
Original illustration by S. Drée from French author Jules Verne's story The Mutineers of the Bounty (Les Révoltés de la Bounty) (1879).

Bligh had confidence in his navigational skills, which he had perfected under the instruction of Captain James 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. [18] From 4 May until 29 May, when they reached the Great Barrier Reef north of Australia, 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 English monarchy after the English Civil War. [19] Strains were showing within the party; following a heated disagreement with Purcell, Bligh grabbed a cutlass and challenged the carpenter to fight. Fryer told Cole to arrest their captain but backed down after Bligh threatened to kill him if he interfered. Fryer later said Bligh "was as tyrannical in his temper in the boat as in the ship." 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 14 June 1789. [16] Despite the hardships he and his men had endured, upon reaching Kupang Bligh maintained his stubborn adherence to Navy protocol, insisting that a makeshift Union Jack be made up and hoisted and that Fryer remain aboard the launch to guard her. [20] Three of the men who survived this arduous voyage with him were so weak that they 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. [21] Two others died on the way to England.[ citation needed ]

Possible causes of the mutiny

The reasons behind the mutiny are still debated; some sources report that Bligh was a tyrant whose abuse of the crew led them to feel that they had no choice but to take over the ship. [22] Other sources argue that Bligh was no worse (and in many cases gentler) than the average captain and naval officer of the era. [23] They also argue that the crew—inexperienced and unused to the rigours of the sea—were corrupted by the freedom, idleness and sexual licence of their five 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 that their new captain would return them to Tahiti to live their lives "hedonistically" and in peace, free from Bligh's acid tongue and strict discipline.[ citation needed ]

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". [24]

Bounty's log shows that Bligh was relatively sparing in his punishments. He scolded when other captains would have whipped, and whipped when other captains would have hanged. [25] He was an educated man, deeply interested in science, convinced that good diet and sanitation were necessary for the welfare of his crew. [7] He took a great interest in his crew's exercise, was very careful about the quality of their food and insisted upon the Bounty being kept very clean. [26] 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." [27] Bligh was also capable of holding intense grudges against those he thought had betrayed him, such as Midshipman Peter Heywood and ship's gunner William Peckover; in regard to Heywood, Bligh was convinced that the young man was as guilty as Christian. Bligh's first detailed comments on the mutiny are in a letter to his wife Betsy, [28] in which he names Heywood (a mere boy not yet 16) as "one of the ringleaders", adding: "I have now reason to curse the day I ever knew a Christian or a Heywood or indeed a Manks[ sic ] man." [29] Bligh's later official account to the Admiralty lists Heywood with Christian, Edward Young and George Stewart as the mutiny's leaders, describing Heywood as a young man of abilities for whom he had felt a particular regard. [30] To the Heywood family, Bligh wrote: "His baseness is beyond all description." [31] Peckover applied for a position as gunner on HMS Providence (the second breadfruit expedition to Tahiti) but was refused by Bligh. In a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, dated 17 July 1791 (two weeks before departure), Bligh wrote: [32]

Should Peckover my late Gunner ever trouble you to render him further services I shall esteem it a favour if you will tell him I informed you he was a vicious and worthless fellow – He applied to me to render him service & wanted to be appointed Gunner of the Providence but as I had determined never to suffer an officer who was with me in the Bounty to sail with again, it was for the cause I did not apply for him.

Bligh's refusal to appoint Peckover was partly due to Edward Christian's polemic testimony against Bligh in an effort to clear his brother's name. [32] Christian states in his appendix: [32] [33]

In the evidence of Mr. Peckover and Mr. Fryer, it is proved that Mr. Nelson the botanist said, upon hearing the commencement of the mutiny, "We know whose fault this is, or who is to blame, Mr. Fryer, what have we brought upon ourselves?" In addition to this, it ought to be known that Mr. Nelson, in conversation afterwards with an officer (Peckover) at Timor, who was speaking of returning with Captain Bligh if he got another ship, observed, "I am surprized that you should think of going a second time with [Bligh] (using a term of abuse) who has been the cause of all our losses."

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. The 14 men from Bounty who were captured by Edwards's 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. Finally, Captain Edwards gave orders to release the other 11 prisoners, to which end Joseph Hodges, the armourer's mate, went into the cell to remove the prisoners' irons. Unfortunately, before he could finish the job, the ship sank. Four of the prisoners and 31 of the crew died during the sinking. More prisoners would likely have perished, had not William Moulter, a bosun's mate, unlocked their cages before jumping off the sinking vessel. [34]


In October 1790, Bligh was honourably acquitted at the court-martial inquiring into the loss of Bounty. [11] 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. [35]

Comparative travels of Bounty and the small boat after mutiny

Bligh's letter to his wife, Betsy

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

William Bligh, pictured in his 1792 account of the mutiny voyage, A Voyage to the South Sea William Bligh - Project Gutenberg eText 15411.jpg
William Bligh, pictured in his 1792 account of the mutiny voyage, A Voyage to the South Sea

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 [37] & 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. [38]

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. [39] He also transported plants provided by Hugh Ronalds, a nurseryman in Brentford. [40] The operation was generally successful but its immediate objective, which was to provide a cheap and nutritious food for the African slaves in the West Indies islands around the Caribbean Sea was not met, 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. [41] The ackee's scientific name Blighia sapida in binomial nomenclature was given in honour of Bligh. In Adventure Bay, Tasmania, third lieutenant George Tobin made the first European drawing of an echidna. [42]

Later life

In February 1797, while Bligh was captain of HMS Director, he surveyed the Humber estuary, preparing a map of the stretch from Spurn to the west of Sunk Island. [43] In April–May, Bligh was one of the captains whose crews mutinied over "issues of pay and involuntary service for common seamen" during the Spithead and Nore mutinies. [44] The mutinies were 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 episode, 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'." [45]

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. [46] For his actions during the battle, Bligh was awarded the Naval Gold Medal. [47]

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. [48] After the battle, Nelson personally praised Bligh for his contribution to the victory. [46] 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.[ citation needed ]

Bligh was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in May 1801 for distinguished services in navigation, botany, etc. [7] [49]

Governor of New South Wales

Bligh had gained a reputation as 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. [50] He arrived in Sydney on 6 August 1806, [51] 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. [52] During his time in Sydney, his confrontational administrative style provoked the wrath 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, as well as 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, a practice that Bligh was determined to end. [53]

The conflict between Bligh and the entrenched colonists culminated in another mutiny, the Rum Rebellion, [54] 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. [55] A petition written by John Macarthur and addressed to George Johnston was written on the day of the arrest but most of the 151 signatures were gathered in the days after Bligh's overthrow. [56] 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. [57]

Propaganda cartoon of Bligh's arrest in Sydney in 1808, portraying him as a coward. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney Arrest of Govenor Bligh.jpg
Propaganda cartoon of Bligh's arrest in Sydney in 1808, portraying him as a coward. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

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. [58] The watercolour depicts a soldier dragging Bligh from underneath one of the servants' beds in Government House, 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. [58] 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. [59] 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. [59]

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 former Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Bligh Turnbull; [60] 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.[ citation needed ]

William Bligh House in London Captain Bligh House London.jpg
William Bligh House in London

Aftermath of the Rum Rebellion

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. [61] 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. [62] 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. [63] (This was a comparatively mild punishment that 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. [7] Perhaps significantly, he never again received an important command, though with the Napoleonic Wars almost over there would have been few fleet commands available. [11]

Final years and death

Bligh was recruited to chart and map Dublin Bay, and recommended the building walls for a refuge harbour at what was then known as Dunleary; the large harbour and naval base subsequently built there between 1816 and 1821 was called Kingstown, later renamed Dún Laoghaire. Many sources claim that Bligh designed the North Bull Wall at the mouth of the River Liffey in Dublin. He did propose the construction of a sea wall or barrier at the north of the bay in order to clear a sandbar by Venturi action, but his design was not used. The wall that was constructed used a design by George Halpin and resulted in the formation of North Bull Island by the sand cleared by the river's now more narrowly focused force. [64]

Bligh's tomb, surmounted by an eternal flame, sits in the Sackler Garden at the Garden Museum. Grave of William Bligh, Lambeth, London - geograph.org.uk - 1411724.jpg
Bligh's tomb, surmounted by an eternal flame, sits in the Sackler Garden at the Garden Museum.

Bligh died of cancer 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). [49] His tomb was notable for its use of Coade stone (Lithodipyra), a compound of clay and other materials that was moulded in imitation of carved stonework and fired in a kiln. This stoneware was produced by Eleanor Coade at her factory in Lambeth. The tomb is topped by an eternal flame, not a breadfruit. [65] A plaque marks Bligh's house, one block east of the Garden Museum at 100 Lambeth Road, [66] near the Imperial War Museum. [67]

He was related to Admiral Sir Richard Rodney Bligh and Captain George Miller Bligh, and his British and Australian descendants include Native Police Commandant John O'Connell Bligh and the former Premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh. [68] He was also distantly related to the architect and psychical researcher Frederick Bligh Bond. [67]

The New South Wales suburb of Bligh Park is named after William Bligh, as at the time of the Rum Rebellion, the Hawkesbury settlers supported the then-deposed governor. [69]


Bligh's reputation as the archetypal bad commander remains though several historians' attempts to portray Bligh more sympathetically are those of Richard Hough (1972) and Caroline Alexander (2003).

Bligh's logbooks documenting the mutiny were inscribed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World register on 26 February 2021. [70]


Bligh has been the subject of numerous print and film portrayals. [71] [72]


Bligh was portrayed by:

The 1935 and 1962 films largely perpetuate the image of Bligh as a tyrant while the 1984 film attempts a nonjudgmental portrayal of Bligh.


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. [74]

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). [75]


On 17 December 1964, the "Adobe Dick" episode of the cartoon The Flintstones (episode 128) paid a humorous homage to Captain 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, Captain Blah, was a domineering man with a uniform resembling the historical figure William Bligh. [76]

The seventeenth-season Simpsons episode, "The Wettest Stories Ever Told", parodies the mutiny on the Bounty. Fletcher Christian (Bart Simpson) leads a mutiny against Captain William Bligh (Seymour Skinner). [77]

Mutiny, on Channel 4 in the UK, charts a recreation of Bligh's journey to Timor. It aired in 2017. [78]

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>Mutiny on the Bounty</i> (novel) 1932 Book by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall

Mutiny on the Bounty is a 1932 novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, based on the mutiny against Lieutenant William Bligh, commanding officer of the Bounty in 1789. It has been made into several films and a musical. It was the first of what became The Bounty Trilogy, which continues with Men Against the Sea, and concludes with Pitcairn's Island.

Mutiny on the <i>Bounty</i> 1789 mutiny aboard the British Royal Navy ship HMS Bounty

The mutiny on the Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty occurred in the South Pacific Ocean on 28 April 1789. Disaffected crewmen, led by acting-Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, seized control of the ship from their captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, and set him and eighteen loyalists adrift in the ship's open launch. The reasons behind the mutiny are still debated. Bligh and his crew stopped for supplies on Tofua, losing a man to natives. Bligh navigated more than 3,500 nautical miles in the launch to reach safety and began the process of bringing the mutineers to justice. The mutineers variously settled on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island.

<i>The Bounty</i> (1984 film) 1984 film by Roger Donaldson

The Bounty is a 1984 British epic action adventure swashbuckler historical psychological thriller drama film directed by Roger Donaldson. It depicts the voyage and mutiny of HMS Bounty, with Robert Bolt's screenplay adapting the 1972 book Captain Bligh and Mr Christian by Richard Hough. It stars Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian and Anthony Hopkins as William Bligh, with supporting roles played by Laurence Olivier, Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson, Bernard Hill and Edward Fox.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fletcher Christian</span> English sailor (1764–1793)

Fletcher Christian was an English sailor who led the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789, during which he seized command of the Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty from Lieutenant William Bligh.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pōmare I</span> Unifier and first king of Tahiti from 1788 to 1791

Pōmare I was the unifier and first king of Tahiti and founder of the Pōmare dynasty and the Kingdom of Tahiti between 1788 and 1791. He abdicated in 1791 but remained in power as the guardian regent during the minority of his successor Pōmare II from 1791 until 1803. He is best known in the western world for being the ruler of Tahiti during the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789.

HMS <i>Pandora</i> (1779) Shipwreck in Queensland, Australia

HMS Pandora was a 24-gun Porcupine-class sixth-rate post ship of the Royal Navy launched in May 1779. The vessel is best known for its role in hunting down the Bounty mutineers in 1790, which remains one of the best-known stories in the history of seafaring. Pandora was partially successful by capturing 14 of the mutineers, but wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef on the return voyage in 1791. HMS Pandora is considered to be one of the most significant shipwrecks in the Southern Hemisphere.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Peter Heywood</span> British naval officer

Captain Peter Heywood was a British Royal Navy officer who was on board HMS Bounty during the mutiny of 28 April 1789. He was later captured in Tahiti, tried and condemned to death as a mutineer, but subsequently pardoned. He resumed his naval career and eventually retired with the rank of post-captain, after 29 years of honourable service.

Admiral Edward Edwards was a British naval officer best known as the captain of HMS Pandora, the frigate which the Admiralty sent to the South Pacific in pursuit of the Bounty mutineers.

<i>Mutiny on the Bounty</i> (1935 film) 1935 film by Frank Lloyd

Mutiny on the Bounty is a 1935 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer drama film directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, based on the 1932 Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall novel Mutiny on the Bounty. Despite historical inaccuracies, the film was a huge box office success, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1935 and one of MGM's biggest hits of the 1930s. The film received a leading eight nominations at the 8th Academy Awards, winning only Best Picture.

<i>Mutiny on the Bounty</i> (1962 film) 1962 film by Carol Reed, Lewis Milestone

Mutiny on the Bounty is a 1962 American Technicolor epic historical drama film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard, and Richard Harris. The screenplay was written by Charles Lederer, based on the novel Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Bronisław Kaper composed the score.

James Morrison (1760–1807) was a British seaman and mutineer who took part in the Mutiny on the Bounty.

Larcum Kendall was a British watchmaker.

HMS <i>Bounty</i> 18th-century Royal Navy vessel

HMS Bounty, also known as HM Armed Vessel Bounty, was a British merchant ship that the Royal Navy purchased in 1787 for a botanical mission. The ship was sent to the South Pacific Ocean under the command of William Bligh to acquire breadfruit plants and transport them to the British West Indies. That mission was never completed owing to a 1789 mutiny led by acting lieutenant Fletcher Christian, an incident now popularly known as the Mutiny on the Bounty. The mutineers later burned Bounty while she was moored at Pitcairn Island in the Southern Pacific Ocean in 1790. An American adventurer helped land several remains of Bounty in 1957.

David Nelson was gardener-botanist on the third voyage of James Cook, and botanist on HMS Bounty under William Bligh at the time of the famous mutiny.

The Mutiny of the Bounty is a 1916 Australian-New Zealand silent film directed by Raymond Longford about the mutiny aboard HMS Bounty. It is the first known cinematic dramatisation of this story and is considered a lost film.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nathaniel Portlock</span> British explorer

Nathaniel Portlock was a British ship's captain, maritime fur trader, and author.

Matavai Bay is a bay on the north coast of Tahiti, the largest island in the Windward group of French Polynesia. It is in the commune of Mahina, approximately 8 km east of the capital Pape'ete.

Complement of HMS <i>Bounty</i>

The complement of HMS Bounty, the Royal Navy ship on which a historic mutiny occurred in the south Pacific on 28 April 1789, comprised 46 men on its departure from England in December 1787 and 44 at the time of the mutiny, including her commander Lieutenant William Bligh. All but two of those aboard were Royal Navy personnel; the exceptions were two civilian botanists engaged to supervise the breadfruit plants Bounty was tasked to take from Tahiti to the West Indies. Of the 44 aboard at the time of the mutiny, 19 were set adrift in the ship's launch, while 25, a mixture of mutineers and detainees, remained on board under Fletcher Christian. Bligh led his loyalists 3,500 nautical miles to safety in the open boat, and ultimately back to England. The mutineers divided—most settled on Tahiti, where they were captured by HMS Pandora in 1791 and returned to England for trial, while Christian and eight others evaded discovery on Pitcairn Island.

Charles Churchill (1759–1790) was the master at arms on board HMAV Bounty during Lieutenant William Bligh's voyage to Tahiti to transplant breadfruit to the British colonies in the West Indies. During a mutiny on the ship, Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian seized command of the ship from Bligh on 28 April 1789. Churchill was an active member of the mutiny, being a member of Fletcher Christian's loyalists that arrested Bligh in his cabin.

William Peckover was a gunner in the Royal Navy and served on several vessels, most notably several commanded by James Cook or William Bligh.



  1. In 1783, Bligh left the Royal Navy to join the Merchant Service. He returned to the Royal Navy in 1787. [1]


  1. 1 2 3 "Biography of William Bligh, Captain of the HMS Bounty". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 18 April 2023.
  2. 1 2 3 "William Bligh". Britannica. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  3. Dictionary of National Biography, Volumes 1–20, 22
  4. Vice-Admiral William Bligh
  5. 1 2 "William Bligh (1754–1817)". Captain Cook Society. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  6. "Seafaring Tales Presents: Captain James Cook's Second and Third Voyages". Youtube.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "Vice Admiral William Bligh". Pacific Union College. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  8. Kneale 2007.
  9. "Elizabeth (Betsey) Betham". Ancestry.com. Retrieved 18 April 2023.
  10. "Fletcher Christian". The Lake District. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  11. 1 2 3 4 "William Bligh". Royal Museums Greenwich. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  12. "Mutiny on the Bounty". Royal Museums Greenwich. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  13. Lorbach, Karl Ernst Alwyn. 'Conspiracy on the Bounty: Bligh's Convenient Mutiny'. 2012, printed University of Queensland, hardcover/Kindle, 366 pages, ISBN   978-0-9806914-1-2. [see Appendix Four — An Afterword on Banks and his Breadfruit, pp. 309–314].
  14. "The Voyage of HMAV Bounty". Pacific Union College. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  15. "Mutiny of the Bounty". Discover Collections. State Library of NSW. Retrieved 12 December 2013.
  16. 1 2 3 Bligh, William. "Log of the Proceedings of His Majestys Ship Bounty Lieut. Wm Bligh Commander from Otaheite towards Jamaica, signed `Wm Bligh'" (13 March 1790) [Bound Manuscript]. William Bligh – Papers, Series: William Bligh – Papers relating to HMS Bounty, 1787–1794, Box: Item 2, File: Safe 1 / 47. NSW, Au: State Library of New South Wales, State Library of NSW.
  17. "The Bounty" by Caroline Alexander.
  18. "Bounty's Launch". Pacific Union College. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  19. "Queensland Places – Restoration". State Library of Queensland. 6 November 2015. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  20. WHAT REALLY HAPPENED AFTER THE MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY?", Today I Found Out Blog (April 3 2024). Rubber erasers have been in use since approximately 1770. See Joseph Priestley, A Familiar Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Perspective xv n. (1769).
  21. Toohey 2000.
  22. Johnson, Ben. "Mutiny on the Bounty". Historic UK. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  23. "Righting a historic wrong: the real story of the mutiny on the Bounty". RadioTimes. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  24. Bligh 1790.
  25. "THE TRUE FACE OF CAPTAIN BLIGH". Welcome Tahiti. Retrieved 18 April 2023.
  26. "CAPTAIN COOK AND CAPTAIN BLIGH". Victoria University of Wellington. Retrieved 18 April 2023.
  27. Beaglehole 1974, p. 498.
  28. Bligh letter of 1789
  29. Alexander, p. 152. Natives of the Isle of Man are known as "Manxmen".
  30. Bligh, Ch. 13.
  31. Alexander, p. 168.
  32. 1 2 3 Kennedy 1978, p. 235.
  33. "The Appendix, Minutes of Bounty Court-Martial". 22 November 2010. Archived from the original on 22 November 2010. Retrieved 28 April 2020.
  34. Wilson, Stephen (14 August 2010), The Pandora Story (PDF), Queensland Museum
  35. "The Court-Martial of the Bounty Mutineers: An Account". Famous Trials. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  36. Gosse, Philip (19 October 2005), Bounty Story
  37. The Blighs' fourth child, another daughter, born a few months after Lt. Bligh sailed from England.
  38. Alexander, Caroline, The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty (Viking Penguin, New York, 2003), pp. 154–156.
  39. "The Second Breadfruit Voyage of William Bligh". State Library of NSW. 6 August 2017. Retrieved 16 July 2018.
  40. Ronalds, B. F. (2017). "Ronalds Nurserymen in Brentford and Beyond". Garden History . 45: 82–100.
  41. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: Information Sheets: Staple Foods II – Fruits
  42. "George Tobin journal and sketches on HMS Providence, 1791–1793, with additional material to 1831". State Library – New South Wales. Retrieved 4 December 2020.
  43. "Survey of the Humber". The National Archives. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  44. Gill 1913, p. 102.
  45. Mundle 2010, pp. 288–291.
  46. 1 2 "William Bligh at war". Australian National Maritime Museum. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  47. "William Bligh". The Australian Museum. Retrieved 18 April 2023.
  48. "Battle of Copenhagen". British Battles. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  49. 1 2 "Bligh, William (1754–1817)". Australian Dictionary of Biography . National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. ISSN   1833-7538 . Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  50. "Mary Bligh O'Connell". Riverstone & District Historical Society Museum. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  51. "A Place In History". The Sunday Herald . Sydney. 9 November 1952. p. 10. Retrieved 2 May 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  52. Whitaker, Anne-Maree, 'William Bligh', in David Clune and Ken Turner (eds), The Governors Of New South Wales 1788–2010, Federation Press, Sydney, 2009, pp. 87–105, ISBN   978-1-86287-743-6.
  53. "Governor William Bligh" (PDF). Rule of Law. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  54. Evatt, H. V., Rum Rebellion: A Study of the Overthrow of Governor Bligh, Dawson Publishing, Folkestone, 1937.
  55. "Governor William Bligh is deposed in the Rum Rebellion". National Museum Australia. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  56. "The petition against Governor Bligh". Discover Collections. State Library of NSW. Retrieved 12 December 2013.
  57. "Exploration: William Bligh". Our Tasmania. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  58. 1 2 Neville, Richard (May 1991). "The Arrest of Governor Bligh: Pictures and Politics". Australiana. 13 (2): 38–42.
  59. 1 2 "Governor Bligh's Arrest, 1808". Archived from the original on 15 October 2013. Retrieved 8 March 2013.
  60. "Death of an Early Hawkesbury Settler". Windsor and Richmond Gazette . NSW. 9 July 1892. p. 6. Retrieved 23 October 2015 via National Library of Australia.
  61. Mundle 2010, pp. 330–332.
  62. "Mary Putland". Design & Art Australia. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  63. Yarwood 1967.
  64. Daly, Gerald J. (1991). "Captain William Bligh in Dublin, 1800–1801". Dublin Historical Record. 44 (1): 20–33. ISSN   0012-6861. JSTOR   30100863.
  65. Woodward, Christopher (April 2016). "Captain Bligh's tomb" (PDF). Australian Garden History. 27 (4): 18–20. Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 August 2018. Retrieved 29 August 2018 via The Britain-Australia Society.
  66. Rennison 2009.
  67. 1 2 "William Bligh | Commander of the 'Bounty' | Blue Plaques". English Heritage. Retrieved 22 January 2024.
  68. Couriermail.com.au
  69. "Bligh Park". Hawkesbury Australia. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  70. "Bligh's Bounty logbooks recognised by UNESCO". State Library of New South Wales. 26 February 2021.
  71. "The Mutiny on the Bounty". Cliffnotes. Retrieved 18 April 2023.
  72. "Screen Depictions of the Mutiny on the Bounty". Famous Trials. Retrieved 18 April 2023.
  73. Canby, Vincent (4 May 1984). "Film: 'The Bounty,' Capt. Bligh Story by Dino De Laurentiis". The New York Times .
  74. Quiller-Couch, Arthur Thomas. "Frenchman's Creek" . Retrieved 2 August 2014.
  75. "Tongues of Serpents". Naomi Novik. 18 February 2011. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  76. "Flintstones". The Corporate Counsel. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  77. "Recap – The Simpsons S 17 E 18 The Wettest Stories Ever Told". TV Tropes. Retrieved 18 April 2023.
  78. "Mutiny – Channel 4". Channel 4. Retrieved 17 April 2023.


Manuscript sources

Digitised versions of Bligh's logbooks are available on the Library's website.
Online works
Government offices
Preceded by Governor of New South Wales
Succeeded by