Military Wiki
Vice Admiral
William Bligh
1814 portrait
4th Governor of New South Wales

In office
13 August 1806 – 26 January 1808
Preceded by Philip Gidley King
Succeeded by Lachlan Macquarie
Personal details
Born (1754-09-09)9 September 1754
St Tudy, Cornwall, Great Britain
Died 7 December 1817(1817-12-07) (aged 63)
25 Bond Street, London, England, Great Britain
Resting place St Mary-at-Lambeth, Lambeth, London, England
Spouse(s) Elizabeth (Betsy) Betham
Children 6 children
Occupation Naval officer, colonial administrator

Vice Admiral of the Blue William Bligh, FRS, RN (9 September 1754 – 7 December 1817) was an officer of the British Royal Navy and a colonial administrator. A historic mutiny occurred during his command of HMS Bounty in 1789; Bligh and his loyal men made a remarkable voyage to Timor, 3,618 nautical miles (6,701 km; 4,164 mi), after being set adrift in the Bounty's launch by the mutineers. Fifteen years after the Bounty mutiny, 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, resulting in the so-called Rum Rebellion.

Early life

Bligh was born in Tinten Manor in St Tudy near Bodmin, Cornwall, to Francis Bligh and his wife Jane. Francis was Jane's second husband; she was the widow of a man whose surname was Pearce and her maiden name was Balsam.[1] He was signed for the Royal Navy at age seven, it being common to sign on a "young gentleman" simply to gain experience at sea required for promotion. 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 the Crescent and remained in the ship for three years.

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

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.[2] A few days later, he was appointed to serve in 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. For the next 18 months, he was a lieutenant on various ships. He also fought with Lord Howe at Gibraltar in 1782.

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 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 the Bounty. He rose eventually to the rank of Vice Admiral in the Royal Navy.

Naval career

William Bligh's naval career consisted of a variety of appointments and assignments. He first rose to prominence as Master of HMS Resolution, under the command of Captain Cook. Bligh received praise from Cook during what would be the latter's final voyage. A summary follows:

Date Rank Ship (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 HMS Hunter
22 September 1771 Midshipman HMS Crescent (28)
2 September 1774 Able seaman HMS Ranger
30 September 1775 Master's mate HMS Ranger
20 March 1776 – October 1780 Master HM Sloop Resolution (12)
14 February 1781 Master HMS Belle Poule
5 October 1781 Lieutenant HMS Berwick (74)
1 January 1782 Lieutenant HMS Princess Amelia (80)
20 March 1782 Lieutenant HMS Cambridge (80)
14 January 1783 Joins Merchant Service
1785 Commanding lieutenant Merchant Vessel Lynx
1786 Lieutenant Merchant Vessel Britannia
1787 Returns to Royal Navy
16 August 1787 Commanding 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 Captain HMS Providence (28)
16 April 1795 Captain HMS Calcutta (24)
7 January 1796 Captain HMS Director (64)
18 March 1801 Captain HMS Glatton (56)
12 April 1801 Captain HMS Monarch (74)
8 May 1801 – 28 May 1802 Captain HMS Irresistible (74)
March 1802 – May 1804 Peace of Amiens
2 May 1804 Captain HMS Warrior (74)
14 May 1805 Appointed Governor of New South Wales
27 September 1805 Captain HMS Porpoise (12), voyage to New South Wales
13 August 1806 – 26 January 1808 Governor of New South Wales
31 July 1808 Commodore HMS Porpoise (12), Tasmania
3 April 1810 –
25 October 1810
Commodore HMS Hindostan (50), returning to England.
31 July 1811 Appointed rear admiral of the blue (backdated to 31 July 1810)
12 August 1812 Appointed rear admiral of the white
4 December 1813 Appointed rear admiral of the red
4 June 1814 Appointed vice admiral of the blue

The voyage of the Bounty

The first breadfruit voyage

In 1787, Bligh took command of the 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 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, the 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. The Bounty departed Tahiti in April 1789.

The mutiny

Since it was rated only as a cutter, the Bounty had no officers other than Bligh himself (who was then only a lieutenant), a very small crew, and no Marines to provide protection from hostile natives during stops or 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.

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

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 with a 23 foot (7 m) launch (so heavily loaded that the gunwales were only a few inches above the water). They were given four cutlasses, enough food and water to reach the most accessible ports, a quadrant and a compass, but no charts, sextant or Marine chronometer. The launch could not hold all the loyal crew members, so four were detained on the Bounty for their useful skills; they were later released at Tahiti.

Original illustration by S. Drée from Jules Verne's story "The Mutineers of the Bounty" (Les Révoltés de la Bounty) (1879).

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 the Bounty pulled away. Timor was the nearest European outpost, so Bligh and his crew first made for Tofua, to obtain supplies. However, they were attacked by hostile natives and John Norton, a quartermaster, was killed.[3] 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.

Bligh had confidence in his navigational skills, which he had perfected under the instruction of Captain Cook. His first responsibility was to survive and get word of the mutiny as soon as possible to British vessels that could pursue the mutineers. Thus, he undertook the seemingly impossible 3,618 nautical miles (6,701 km; 4,164 mi) voyage to Timor. In this remarkable act of seamanship, Bligh succeeded in reaching Timor after a 47-day voyage, the only casualty being the crewman killed on Tofua. 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.[4]

Why the mutiny?

To this day, the reasons behind the mutiny are a subject of debate. Many believe 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. Others argue that the crew, inexperienced and unused to the rigours of the sea and, after having been exposed to freedom and sexual license on Tahiti, refused to return to the "Jack Tar's" life of an ordinary seaman. They were led by Fletcher Christian in order to be free from Bligh's acid tongue. This view holds that the crew took the ship so they could return to comfort and ease on Tahiti.

The 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.[citation needed] J. C. 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."[citation needed]

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. Clearly that kind of portrayal should be regarded as a mere caricature. Indeed, the 14 men from the Bounty who were captured by Edwards' men were confined in a cramped 18′ × 11′ × 5′8″ wooden cell on the Pandora's quarterdeck. Yet, when the 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.[5]


In October 1790, Bligh was honourably acquitted at the court-martial inquiring into the loss of the Bounty. Shortly thereafter, A Narrative of the Mutiny on board His Majesty's Ship "Bounty" was published. Of the 10 surviving prisoners eventually brought home in spite of the Pandora's loss, four were acquitted, owing to Bligh's testimony that they were non-mutineers that Bligh was obliged to leave on the 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.

Comparative travels of the Bounty and the small boat after mutiny:[6]

Travel up to the mutiny (red)
1. Tasmania, Adventure Bay (21 August 1788)
2. first arrival at Tahiti (26 October 1788)
2. departure for the Caribbean (4 April 1789)
3. Palmerston
4. Tofua
5. 28 April 1789: mutiny

Bounty Voyages Map.png

Travel of the mutineers (yellow)
6. Tubuai (6 July 1789)
6. second arrival at Tahiti
7. Tubuai (16 July 1789)
8. third arrival at Tahiti (22 September 1789)
8. departure from Tahiti (23 September 1789)
9. Tongatabu (15 November 1789)
10. 15 January 1790: Pitcairn, burning of the Bounty

Travel of Bligh's boat (green)
5. Bligh's party set adrift (29 April 1789)
16. Tonga
17. Timor (14 June 1789)

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 the Bounty is made.

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[7] & 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.[8]

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).

The second breadfruit voyage

After his exoneration by the court-martial inquiry into the loss of the 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.[9] The operation was successful, and breadfruit is a popular food in the West Indies to this day.[10] During this voyage Bligh also collected samples of the ackee fruit of Jamaica, introducing it to the Royal Society in Britain upon his return.[10] 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 Spithead mutiny.[11] Despite receiving some of their demands at Spithead, disputes over navy life continued among the common sailors. Bligh was again one of the captains affected during the mutiny at the Royal Navy anchorage of Nore. "Bligh became more directly involved in the Nore Mutiny", which "failed to achieve its goals of a fairer division of prize money and an end to brutality."[11] It should be noted that these events were not triggered by any specific actions by Bligh as they "were widespread, [and] involved a fair number of English ships".[11] It was at this time that he learned "that his common nickname among men in the fleet was 'that Bounty bastard'."[11]

As captain of Director at the Battle of Camperdown on 11 October, Bligh engaged three Dutch vessels: the Haarlem, the Alkmaar and the Vrijheid. While the Dutch suffered serious casualties, only seven seamen were wounded in Director. Director captured the Vrijehid 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.

A propaganda cartoon of Bligh's arrest in Sydney in 1808, portraying Bligh as a coward

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,[12] to become the fourth governor.[13] 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,[14] 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 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.[15] 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[16]

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 were named "William Bligh XXXXX" (family name).[citation needed]

The William Bligh House in London

Bligh was eventually permitted to sail from Hobart. He arrived in Sydney on 17 January 1810 to 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. 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.


Tomb surmounted by a breadfruit in a bowl. Moulded in Lithodipyra by Eleanor Coade's 'Artificial Stone Manufactory'

Bligh died in Bond Street, London on 6 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 the former Premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh.[17][18]

See also

  • European and American voyages of scientific exploration


  1. Vice-Admiral William Bligh
  2. Trevor Kneale, The Isle of Man, Pevensey Island Guides, Brunel House, Newton Abbot, Devon, 2007, ISBN 1-898630-25-9
  3. "The Bounty" by Caroline Alexander
  4. Toohey, John (March 2000). Captain Bligh's Portable Nightmare: From the Bounty to safety—4,162 Miles Across the Pacific in a Rowing Boat. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-019532-0. 
  5. Wilson, Stephen (14 August 2010). "The Pandora Story" (PDF). Queensland Museum. 
  6. Gosse, Philip (19 October 2005). "Bounty Story". 
  7. The Blighs' fourth child, another daughter, born a few months after Lt. Bligh sailed from England.
  8. Alexander, Caroline, The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, (Viking Penguin, NY, 2003) pp. 154–156
  9. Section 9 – The second breadfruit voyage of William Bligh
  10. 10.0 10.1 Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: Information Sheets: Staple Foods II – Fruits
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 "William Bligh – Vice Admiral of the Blue". 
  12. "A Place In History.". Sydney, NSW: National Library of Australia. 9 November 1952. p. 10. Retrieved 2 May 2012. 
  13. 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
  14. Evatt, H. V., Rum Rebellion: A Study of the Overthrow of Governor Bligh, Dawson Publishing, Folkestone, 1937
  15. 15.0 15.1 Neville, Richard (May 1991). "The Arrest of Governor Bligh: Pictures and Politics". pp. 38–42. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 "Governor Bligh’s Arrest, 1808". Retrieved 8 March 2013. 


Mundle, Rob, Bligh: Master Mariner, Hachette Australia, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7336-2506-0

External links

Government offices
Preceded by
Philip Gidley King
Governor of New South Wales
Succeeded by
Lachlan Macquarie

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