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Biography: William Bligh

WILLIAM BLIGH

William Bligh was born on 9 September 1754 at Plymouth, a son of a Customs officer. He first appeared on a naval muster roll as Captain’s Servant on HMS Monmouth at the age of 7. On 27 July 1770, he was entered as an Able Seaman on HMS Hunter – although to all intents and purposes he was being trained as a Midshipman. He was formally entered as a Midshipman on the same ship on 5 September. A year later, he transferred to HMS Crescent and spent three years learning navigation and seamanship. He made several important hydrographic surveys during his training, which were submitted to the Admiralty. After transferring to HMS Ranger, he continued to learn his craft, showing outstanding proficiency. He came to the attention of Captain James Cook and was offered the chance to be Master of HMS Resolution at the age of 22, ahead of many senior officers, during Cook’s third and what was to be his final voyage. Before joining Cook, Bligh sat his Lieutenant’s examination which he passed on 1 May 1776.

The voyage was to search for a north west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The ships, HMSs Resolution and Discovery visited the Society Islands and Tahiti before heading towards what was to be discovered at Hawaii and undertake a survey of the coast of Alaska. The ships arrived at Hawaii in January 1779 and stayed until February. However, on their departure, a storm split the foremast of the Resolution and they were forced to return. The welcome was not quite as warm as it had been previously and relations between the ship’s company and the islanders deteriorated. After an incident with a theft from one of the ships, Cook took a party of Marines to take the Island chief hostage to prevent further robberies. The islanders resisted his attempts and was attacked with clubs and stones, and was bludgeoned to death. Captain Clerke in the Discovery assumed command of the expedition, and deputed Bligh to assume the navigation for the remainder of the voyage. However, on his return to Britain, Bligh was not promoted. He made a visit to the Isle of Man where he had been stationed prior to the voyage and became acquainted with Elizabeth Betham, aged 27. They became engaged and were married on 4 February 1781.

Shortly after their marriage, Bligh was appointed as Master on HMS Belle Poule. In April, the ship took part in an action with a Dutch convoy at Dogger Bank and Bligh’s handling of the ship led to an appointment in September to a large ship, HMS Berwick. After serving only a few months on this vessel, he transferred to HMS Princess Amelia and subsequently, in March 1782, he was appointed to HMS Cambridge. In October 1782, the ship left Britain as part of Lord Howe’s fleet to relieve Gibraltar from siege by France and Spain. After being paid off in January 1783, Bligh was placed on half pay and took his wife and daughter back to the Isle of Man. Elizabeth’s uncle offered him employment in his merchant fleet and for four years, Bligh took command of several vessels in his uncle’s fleet. In 1787, while commanding Britannia, he took onto his crew a young gentleman called Fletcher Christian. Christian was carried as a volunteer midshipman, but the two men became friends while sailing to the West Indies twice.

On his return in May 1787, Bligh was informed that he had been recommended to the Admiralty by Sir Joseph Banks (botanist on Cook’s first voyage) to command an expedition to the Pacific to transport breadfruit to the West Indian plantations. He was recommended because of his knowledge and acquaintance with the West Indies, his knowledge of Tahiti and the Pacific from his voyage with Cook and his skill as a navigator. The Navy Board purchased a vessel called the Bethia which was adapted at Deptford for the transportation of the plants. It was renamed HMS Bounty and was ready for service in August 1787. Bligh was to be the only commissioned officer and had no Marines appointed to the ship. If Bligh had been able to achieve promotion to Post-Captain prior to the voyage, he would have been allocated a junior commissioned officer to extend the officer structure, other than warrant officers and midshipmen. Christian was rated as Master’s Mate. In essence, the ship was undermanned and in many cases, Bligh did not have much say in who was enlisted. Many were second – or even third – enlistments due to desertions prior to sailing.

Bligh set out from Deptford in October 1787 for Spithead, where he was due to receive his final orders from the Admiralty. They were delayed in arriving and the crew lost three weeks of good sailing weather. They finally departed Portsmouth on 23 December. Bligh’s orders were to approach Tahiti from the Cape Horn and head for the West Indies via the Cape of Good Hope. Bligh knew that rounding Cape Horn would be difficult, but even more so with the delay in departure. They reached Cape Horn in March 1788 and the ship made little progress in the face of the fierce weather. Illness in the face of the conditions was inevitable and by April, eight out of the thirteen seamen were ill and not able to attend their duties. By 22 April, Bligh decided to abandon the Horn and set sail to the Cape of Good Hope, arriving on 22 May. After a stay of 38 days to make repairs and re-stock supplies, the ship set sail again. On 20 August, the ship arrived at Adventure Bay, in what is now Tasmania. While there, the first rumblings of discontent amongst the warrant officers surfaced, with William Purcell, the ship’s Carpenter and a warranted officer, challenging Bligh’s authority, after refusing to hoist water, which was a seaman’s job. In early September, the Bounty left Tasmania and headed towards Tahiti. After the incident with Purcell, Bligh kept a strict eye on his men. He came into dispute with the other Warrant Officer, the Master, John Fryer, who refused to sign the ship’s books. Bligh made him publicly sign them, creating greater tensions.

The ship arrived at Matavai Bay at Tahiti on 26 October 1788. The business of taking the breadfruit seedlings began and the ship remained at the island for six months. During this period, the crew were able to enjoy the hot climate, food and company of the natives. However, tensions between Bligh and his crew increased and three of the lower deck tried to desert. They were brought back and flogged in accordance with naval discipline. On April 4 1789, HMS Bounty left Tahiti to proceed to the West Indies with the breadfruit.

Three weeks after departure, on 27-28 April 1789, the tensions that had been growing over the last year finally erupted when a relatively minor dispute led to Fletcher Christian leading a band of seaman to take over the ship. Bligh and eighteen of the crew were set adrift in the launch, with a few provisions. Bligh’s skill as a navigator came to the fore. Even without a chart, he was able to navigate the launch 3618 miles to Timor, off the coast of Java. They arrived on 14 June, in a considerably weak state of health. After recuperating, Bligh purchased a schooner to take them back to Britain and eventually arrived on 14 March 1790. After a short illness, he was placed in temporary command of HMS Cambridge, although remained listed as being command of the Bounty. As a normal naval procedure when a commanding officer has lost his ship, Bligh had to face a court martial on 22 October 1790. He was, however, acquitted and was promoted to Captain on 15 December 1790.

In February 1791, Bligh was again appointed to command a second expedition to transfer breadfruit from the Society Islands to the West Indies. This time, Bligh’s experiences on the first voyage, led to the ship being better equipped and manned, including a party of Marines. The ship was HMS Providence and was to be accompanied by another, HMS Assistant. As Bligh was now ranked as a Captain, this also ensured an adequate officer structure on board the ships. The ships left Spithead on 3 August 1791. During the first part of the voyage, Bligh became ill and Lieutenant Portlock had to assume command until they reached the Cape of Good Hope. They arrived at Tahiti on 9 April 1792. They remained until July and left with over 2600 breadfruit plants. They arrived at St Helena in December and deposited some of the plants, before continuing on to the West Indies, arriving at St Vincent on 23 January 1793. They continued to Jamaica where they remained until June. After a short delay caused by the outbreak of war with France, they returned to Britain on 7 August and was able to send a cargo of plants to Kew Gardens. However, Bligh returned home to a tarnished reputation since, during his absence, the trial of the Bounty mutineers had taken place and examples of his hot temper had been circulated. He was placed on half pay and remained unemployed for eighteen months. In 1794, he was awarded the Society of Arts gold medal for the discoveries made during the voyage.

In March 1795, he was appointed to HMS Warley which was renamed Calcutta and was serving under Admiral Adam Duncan in the North Sea, based at the Nore. In October 1795, the crew of another ship, HMS Defiance, mutinied. Bligh was ordered to embark 200 troops and take them alongside the mutinous ship in order for the troops to take it over. The threat of the soldiers ended the mutiny. In January 1796 he left this ship to join HMS Director. In 1797, the navy was caught up in two largescale mutinies. The Spithead mutiny erupted in February when the fleet refused to put to sea over grievances of the sailor's pay. This ended with Lord Howe personally intervening in the sailor's plight. However, the discontent had spread to other fleets. Bligh's ship, Director, was at the Nore for a refit in May 1797 when the mutiny spread to that fleet. Each of the fleet's crews issued their demands to their Captain. Demands were not met and the ringleaders of the mutiny, who serving in HMS Sandwich, clashed with Bligh over his refusal to allow the ship's arsenal to be handed over to his crew. From then, Bligh's removal from the ship became a demand from the mutineers and this was accomplished on 19 May by Matthew Hollister. However, the Government was not in a mood to accede to the more politically motivated mutineers at the Nore. Bligh was sent on a secret mission to Yarmouth to see Admiral Duncan and gather intelligence on the state of the fleet and whether loyal ships could be used to against the mutineers. On 30 May, the crew of the Director overthrew the mutineers on board their vessel and this began a wave of similar actions on other ships. Bligh returned to ship on 16 June and persuaded the Admiralty to pardon the majority of the mutineers on the ship. Of those who were excluded from the pardon, none were hanged. Bligh's distinguished conduct continued when he fought at the Battle of Camperdown against the Dutch fleet on 11 October 1797. Duncan's improvised tactics were the forerunner of those used by Nelson at Trafalgar. Bligh played a full and distinguished part in the conflict and his meticulous reporting of the battle gave a detailed account of the battle. Duncan commended Bligh's actions to the Admiralty. Bligh continued to command the Director until July 1800. He was put on half pay until 13 March 1801, when he took command of HMS Glatton. He was assigned to the squadron led by Nelson and the fleet set sail for the Dutch coast. Bligh again distinguished himself during the Battle of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801, after which Nelson gave him a glowing testimonial. After the battle, Bligh transferred to HMS Monarch and returned to Britain, undertaking a personal favour for Nelson by taking a set of Copenhagen porcelain to Sir William and Lady Hamilton in London. On his return, he was transferred to HMS Irresistable. Copenhagen was his last naval battle. He was also elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his distinguished services in navigation and botany. In May, with the Peace of Amiens, he was put on half pay and returned to London to live with his wife and six daughters.

In 1803, he was briefly employed on hydrographic surveying around Dungeness and in the following year worked for the Hydrographic Office. On 2 May 1804, he was appointed to HMS Warrior. The ship was undermanned and not of a quality that Bligh would have liked and he clashed with his Lieutenant, John Frazier. Frazier was court martialled but the charges were dismissed. Frazier then demanded that Bligh be court-martialled for improper behaviour towards himself and it was convened on 25-26 February 1805. The court found the charges to be part proved and Bligh was reprimanded but resumed command of the Warrior. Soon after, Bligh was offered the appointment of Governer and Captain-General of New South Wales. In February 1806, he left Britain with his daughter, Mary, as his wife's health was not good to withstand a long sea voyage. On the voyage, he fell out with Captain Short of HMS Porpoise, who was escorting the vessel Lady Madeleine Sinclair which was carrying Bligh. Short was ordered home after their arrival in New South Wales. His strict authority intended to end the corruption that was rife in Sydney was resented by his civil and military subordinates, who were involved in the corruptions. By 1808, his measures had proved to be successful but had upset those involved. The military took action, and deposed him as Governor and placed him under house arrest. Although the King eventually replaced Bligh as Governor, those who had undertaken to displace him were arrested and returned to Britain for trial. Bligh left for Britain on 12 May 1810, leaving his daughter Mary behind, who had married Lieutenant-Colonel O'Connell before he left for home. He sailed on HMS Hindostan and arrived at Spithead on 25 October and returned to London and his family. His administration was vindicated by the trials of the mutineers, although the sentences passed were lenient for the time.

On 31 July 1811, he was promoted to Rear-Admiral of the Blue, and subsequently Rear-Admiral of the White in 1812 and Vice Admiral of the Blue in 1814. However, his days of active service were over and he was not given the opportunity to fly his flag on board ship. His wife, Betsy, died on 12 April 1812 after a long illness and Bligh moved to Farningham in Kent with his four unmarried daughters. On 7 December 1817, he collapsed and died. He was buried at St Mary's church, Lambeth with his wife.

A reading list for further information is available.

© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2004
The information contained in this INFORMATION SHEET is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.

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