The Death of Captain Bligh

Pitcairn Islands - Scott #86 (1967)
Pitcairn Islands – Scott #86 (1967)

Today is the 200th anniversary of the death of William Bligh, best kbown as the British Royal Navy officer in command of HMAV Bounty during the mutiny aboard that ship in 1789. After being set adrift in Bounty‘s> launch by the mutineers, Bligh and his loyal men reached Timor, a journey of 3,618 nautical miles (4,164 miles or 6,701 kilometers).

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

William Bligh was born on September 9, 1754, but it is not clear where. It is likely that he was born in Plymouth, Devon, as he was baptized at St Andrew’s Church, Plymouth on October 4, 1754, where Bligh’s father, Francis, 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, was a widow (née Balsam) who married Francis at the age of 40.

Bligh was signed for the British 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.

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

Bligh married Elizabeth Betham, daughter of a customs collector (stationed in Douglas, Isle of Man), on February 4, 1781. The wedding took place at nearby Onchan. A few days later, he was appointed to serve on HMS Belle Poule as master (senior warrant officer responsible for navigation). Soon after this, in August 1781, he fought in the Battle of Dogger Bank under Admiral Parker, which at last won him his commission as a lieutenant. For the next 18 months, he was a lieutenant on various ships. He also fought with Lord Howeat 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; however, commissions were hard to obtain with the fleet largely demobilized at the end of the War with France when allied with the North American rebelling colonies in the War of American Independence (1775-1783).

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

Mutineers of the Bounty by Jules Verne, illustration by Leon Bennett
Mutineers of the Bounty by Jules Verne, illustration by Leon Bennett

In 1787, Bligh was selected as commander of His Majesty’s Armed Transport 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 African slaves there on British colonial plantations in the West Indies islands. 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. 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 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 he had to wait five months for the breadfruit plants to mature sufficiently to be potted in soil and transported. Bounty departed Tahiti heading east in April 1789.

Because the vessel was rated only as a cutter, Bounty had no officers other than Bligh (who was then only a commissioned lieutenant), a very small crew, and no Marines to provide protection from hostile natives during stops or to enforce security on board ship. To allow longer uninterrupted sleep, Bligh divided his crew into three watches instead of two, placing his protégé Fletcher Christian — rated as a Master’s Mate — in charge of one of the watches.

The mutiny, which took place on April 28, 1789, during the return voyage, was led by Christian and supported by eighteen of the crew. They had seized firearms during Christian’s night watch and surprised and bound Bligh in his cabin. Despite being in the majority, none of the loyalists put up a significant struggle once they saw Bligh bound, and the ship was taken over without bloodshed.

The mutineers provided Bligh and eighteen loyal crewmen a 23-foot (7 m) launch so heavily loaded that the gunwales were only a few inches above the water. They were allowed four cutlasses, food and water for perhaps a week, a quadrant and a compass, but no charts, or marine chronometer. Most of these were obtained by the clerk, Mr. Samuel, who acted with great calm and resolution, despite threats from the mutineers. The launch could not hold all the loyal crew members, so four were detained on Bounty for their useful skills; they were later released in Tahiti.

Tahiti was upwind from Bligh’s initial position, and was the obvious destination of the mutineers. Many of the loyalists claimed to have heard the mutineers cry “Huzzah for Otaheite!” as Bounty pulled away. Timor was the nearest European colonial outpost in the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia), 3,618 nautical miles (4,164 miles or 6,701 kilometers) away. Bligh and his crew first made for Tofua, only a few leagues distant, to obtain supplies. However, they were attacked by hostile natives and John Norton, a quartermaster, was killed. Fleeing from Tofua, Bligh did not dare to stop at the next islands to the west (the Fiji Islands), as he had no weapons for defence and expected hostile receptions.

He did however keep a log entitled ‘Log of the Proceedings of His Majesty’s Ship Bounty Lieut. Wm Bligh Commander from Otaheite towards Jamaica’ which he used to record events from April 5, 1789, to March 13, 1790. He also made use of a small notebook to sketch a rough map of his discoveries.

Bligh had confidence in his navigational skills, which he had perfected under the instruction of Captain James Cook. His first responsibility was to bring his men to safety. Thus, he undertook the seemingly impossible 3,618-nautical-mile (4,164-mile or 6,701-km) voyage to Timor, the nearest European settlement. Bligh succeeded in reaching Timor after a 47-day voyage, the only casualty being the crewman killed on Tofua.

From May 4 until May 29, when they reached the Great Barrier Reef north of Australia, the 18 men lived on 1⁄12 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 May 29, they landed on a small island off the coast of Australia, which they named Restoration Island, May 29, 1660, being the date of the restoration of the British monarchy after the English Civil War. 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 June 15, 1789. Several of the men who survived this ordeal voyage with him but 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.

Captain Bligh House, London
Captain Bligh House, London

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

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

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 1797, Bligh was one of the captains whose crews mutinied over “issues of pay and involuntary service for common seamen” during the Nore mutiny. The mutiny was not triggered by any specific actions by Bligh; the mutinies “were widespread, [and] involved a fair number of English ships”. Whilst Director‘s role was relatively minor in this mutiny, she was the last to raise the white flag at its cessation. It was at this time that he learned “that his common nickname among men in the fleet was ‘that Bounty bastard’.”

As captain of Director at the Battle of Camperdown on October 11, 1797, Bligh engaged three Dutch vessels: HaarlemAlkmaar and Vrijheid. While the Dutch suffered serious casualties, only seven seamen were wounded on Director. Director captured Vrijheid and the Dutch commander Vice-Admiral Jan de Winter.

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

Bligh had gained the reputation of being a firm disciplinarian. Accordingly, he was offered the position of Governor of New South Wales on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks (President of the Royal Society and a main sponsor of the breadfruit expeditions) and appointed in March 1805, at £2,000 per annum, twice the pay of the retiring Governor Philip Gidley King. He arrived in Sydney on August 6, 1806, to become the fourth governor. As his wife Elizabeth had been unwilling to undertake a long sea voyage, Bligh was accompanied by his daughter Mary Putland who would be the Lady of Government House; Mary’s husband John Putland was appointed as William Bligh’s aide-de-camp.

During his time in Sydney, his confrontational administrative style provoked the wrath of a number of influential settlers and officials. They included the wealthy landowner and businessman John Macarthur and prominent Crown representatives such as the colony’s principal surgeon, Thomas Jamison, and senior officers of the New South Wales Corps. Jamison and his military associates were defying government regulations by engaging in private trading ventures for profit: Bligh was determined to put a stop to this practice.

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

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

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

Bligh received a letter in January 1810, advising him that the rebellion had been declared illegal, and that the British Foreign Office had declared it to be a mutiny. Lachlan Macquarie had been appointed to replace him as governor. At this news Bligh sailed from Hobart. He arrived in Sydney on January 17, 1810, only two weeks into Macquarie’s tenure. There he would collect evidence for the coming court martial in England of Major Johnston. He departed to attend the trial on May 12, 1810, arriving on October 25. In the days immediately prior to their departure, his daughter, Mary Putland (widowed in 1808), was hastily married to the new Lieutenant-Governor Maurice Charles O’Connell and remained in Sydney.

The following year, the trial’s presiding officers sentenced Johnston to be cashiered, a form of disgraceful dismissal that entailed surrendering his commission in the Royal Marines without compensation. This was a comparatively mild punishment which enabled Johnston to return, a free man, to New South Wales, where he could continue to enjoy the benefits of his accumulated private wealth. Bligh was court martialled twice again during his career, being acquitted both times.

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

Grave of William Bligh, Lambeth, London
Grave of William Bligh, Lambeth, London

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

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

Pitcairn Islands - Scott #85 (1967)
Pitcairn Islands – Scott #85 (1967)
Pitcairn Islands - Scott #87 (1967)
Pitcairn Islands – Scott #87 (1967)

On December 7, 1967, the postal administration in charge of Pitcairn Islands released a set of three stamps to mark the 150th anniversary of Admiral Bligh’s death (Scott #85-87).The 1-cent denomination portrayed a young William Bligh and Bounty ‘s launch in ultramarine, light blue and black while the 20-cent value pictured Bligh’s tomb at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Lambeth, London, in brown, yellow and black. Today’s stamp is denominated 8 cents and is bright rose, yellow and black with an image of Bligh and his followers adrift in the launch. The stamps were printed by lithography on unwatermarked paper and perforated 12.

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