Birthday: September 9, 1754
Died At Age: 62
Sun Sign: Virgo
Also Known As: Vice-Admiral William Bligh
Born Country: England
Born in: Plymouth, United Kingdom
Famous as: Military Leader
Spouse/Ex-: Elizabeth Betham (m. 1781)
father: Francis Bligh
mother: Jane Balsam
children: Anne Bligh, Elizabeth Bligh, Frances Bligh, Harriet Maria Barker, Henry Bligh, Jane Bligh, Mary Putland, William Bligh
Died on: September 7, 1817
place of death: Bond Street, London, United Kingdom
Who was William Bligh?
Vice-Admiral William Bligh FRS was a British mariner, explorer, and colonial administrator. He was the commander of the HMS Bounty when the famous mutiny took place on that ship. A customs officer’s son, Bligh became part of the Royal Navy when he was seven years old. In 1770, he was appointed as an able seaman on HMS Hunter. In 1776, he was selected by Captain James Cook to serve as the sailing master on Resolution during his third and final voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Throughout his career, Bligh served on a number of ships and gradually rose through the ranks to ultimately become a vice admiral in the Royal Navy. The Mutiny on the Bounty occurred in 1789, and the mutineers were led by Bligh’s one-time protégé Fletcher Christian. After they took control of the ship, they put Bligh and his loyal men on the ship’s launch and set them adrift. All the men were alive when they reached Timor. Seventeen years after the mutiny, he was made the governor of New South Wales in Australia. His actions during the tenure caused the so-called Rum Rebellion. He was arrested and later returned to England.
Childhood & Early Life
Born on September 9, 1754, William Bligh was the son of Jane Pearce and Francis Bligh. The exact place of his birth is unknown. It could be either Plymouth, Devon, or St Tudy, Cornwall. His father was a customs officer, who married his mother, a widow at the time, when she was 40 years old.
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The Mutiny on the Bounty
In the early 1780s, during his tenure in the merchant service, Bligh met a young man named Fletcher Christian. Intelligent and inquisitive, Christian quickly won over Bligh, who began teaching him everything he knew about sailing.
In 1787, Bligh was appointed commanding lieutenant of the Royal Navy vessel HMAV Bounty. The voyage was made on the behest of Caribbean plantation owners, who were looking for a subsistence food for their slaves. It was English botanist Sir Joseph Banks who suggested the use of Tahitian breadfruit.
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The admiralty knew that Bligh was an extremely competent commander, but the situation in which he became a commander and his thoughts on the voyage were dangerously complex.
During his service on Resolution, his performance was exemplary, and he believed he deserved a proper reward for it. However, it was overshadowed by Cook’s death. Furthermore, he wanted to embark on his own great journey.
Bligh endured a drastic pay cut following his return to the Royal Navy and felt extremely frustrated when he was not made captain for the expedition. During the voyage, he decided to serve both as captain and purser. Due to his financial situation at the time, this decision eventually proved to be catastrophic.
On April 28, 1789, the mutiny took place in the South Pacific Ocean. It was predominantly orchestrated by Christian, who was the ship’s master's mate / acting lieutenant. The mutineers took charge of the ship, put Bligh and 18 loyalists on the ship’s open launch, and set them adrift. The disaffected crewmen reached Tahiti and Pitcairn Island and began living there.
Bligh and his loyal men finished a journey of over 3,500 nautical miles (6,500 km; 4,000 mi) before they arrived at Coupang, a settlement on Timor, on June 14, 1789. While all of them survived the voyage, several died not long after in the pestilential Dutch East Indies port of Batavia (modern-day Jakarta).
The cause of the mutiny is highly debated. Some sources claim that Bligh ran his ship like a cruel tyrant, often resorting to abuse to bend the people under him to his will. There is also a belief that the mutineers thought that with Christian as their captain, they would get to return to Tahiti and live out their lives in a paradise.
In October 1790, Bligh successfully defended himself in the court-martial for the loss of Bounty. He went on to undertake a second breadfruit journey as the commander of HMS Providence between 1791 and 1793.
Governor of New South Wales
The infamy of the mutiny earned Bligh the derogatory nickname “Bounty Bastard”, which would stick with him for the rest of his life. Despite this, he continued to serve the British Empire with excellence. He received credits for finding 13 pacific islands and became a member of the Royal Society of London in 1801.
In 1805, he underwent a second court-martial for his abusive language but was ultimately exonerated.
From 1806 to 1808, he was the governor of New South Wales. When he was appointed, he was told to take care of the corrupt rum trade of the New South Wales Corps. The steps he took against the trade led to the so-called Rum Rebellion.
On January 26, 1808, he was apprehended by the corps and removed from command, an act that was later deemed illegal by the British Foreign Office.
Family & Personal Life
On February 4, 1781, William Bligh married Elizabeth Betham, the daughter of a customs collector, in Onchan, Isle of Man. The couple had eight children, six daughters, Mary Putland, Jane Bligh, Elizabeth Bligh, Frances Bligh, Anne Bligh, and Harriet Maria Barker, and two sons, Henry Bligh and William Bligh.
Death & Legacy
On December 7, 1817, Bligh passed away in London at the age of 63 and was interred in a family plot at St. Mary's, Lambeth. The church has since become the Garden Museum.
Through the years, the “Mutiny on the Bounty” has inspired several literary and cinematic depictions. He has been portrayed by the likes of George Cross in ‘The Mutiny of the Bounty’ (1916), Mayne Lynton in ‘In the Wake of the Bounty’ (1933), Charles Laughton in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ (1935), Trevor Howard in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ (1962), and Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Bounty’ (1984). Bligh is a character in Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's short story ‘Frenchman's Creek’.