William Bligh was born 9 October 1754 in St Tudy, Cornwall, England, United Kingdom to Francis Bligh (1721-1780) and Jane Balsam (1702-1768) and died 6 December 1817 London, England, United Kingdom of cancer. He married Elizabeth Betham (c1753-1812) 4 March 1781 in Onchan, Isle of Man.

Vice Admiral William Bligh FRS RN (9 September 1754 – 7 December 1817) was an officer of the British Royal Navy and a colonial administrator. A notorious mutiny occurred during his command of HMS Bounty in 1789; Bligh and his loyal men made a remarkable voyage to Timor, after being set adrift by the mutineers in the Bounty's launch. 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 St Tudy near Bodmin[1] in Cornwall to Cornish parents, Francis and Jane Bligh (née Balsam).[2] He was signed up for the Royal Navy in 1761, at the age of seven, in the same town. It was common practice to sign on a "young gentleman" simply in order to rack up the required years of service for quick promotion. In 1770, at the age of 16, he joined HMS Hunter as an able seaman, the term being used only because there was no vacancy for a midshipman. He became a midshipman early in the following year of 1771. In September 1771, Bligh was transferred to the Crescent and remained on that ship for three years.

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

Bligh married Elizabeth Betham, the daughter of a Customs Collector (stationed in Douglas, Isle of Man), on 4 February 1781, at the age of 26. The wedding took place at nearby Onchan.[3] A few days later, he was appointed to serve on HMS Belle Poule as its master. 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. In 1787, Bligh was selected as commander of the Bounty. Bligh would eventually rise 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 historical prominence as Master of HMS Resolution, under the command of Captain Cook. Bligh received praise from Cook during what would end up to be Cook's final voyage. A summary is as 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)
07 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)
4 June 1814 Appointed Vice Admiral of the Blue

The voyage of the Bounty

In 1787, Bligh took command of the Bounty. In order to win a premium offered by the Royal Society of Arts, 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 long way around the Cape of Good Hope. That delay resulted in a further delay in Tahiti, as they had to wait five months for the breadfruit plants to mature enough to be transported. The Bounty departed Tahiti in April 1789.

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 inhabitants during stops or to enforce security on board ship. To allow longer uninterrupted sleep, Bligh divided his crew into three watches instead of two, and placed his protégé Fletcher Christian—rated as a Master's Mate—in charge of one of the watches. The mutiny, which broke out during the return voyage on 28 April 1789, was led by Christian and supported by eighteen of the crew, who had seized firearms during Christian's night watch and then 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 seemed to have put up any significant struggle once they saw Bligh bound, and the ship was taken without bloodshed. The mutineers provided Bligh and the eighteen of his crew who remained loyal with a 23 foot (7m) launch (so heavily loaded that the gunwales were only a few inches above the water), with four cutlasses and food and water for a few days to reach the most accessible ports, a sextant and a pocket watch, but no charts or compass. The launch could not hold all the loyal crew members, and four were detained on the Bounty by the mutineers for their useful skills; these were later released at 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 the Bounty pulled away. Timor was the nearest European outpost. Bligh and his crew did make for Tofua first, to obtain supplies. There they were attacked by hostile natives and a crewman was killed. After fleeing Tofua, Bligh didn't dare stop at the next islands (the Fiji islands), as he had no weapons for defense and expected further 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 mile (6,701 km) voyage to Timor. In this remarkable act of seamanship, Bligh succeeded in reaching Timor after a 47-day voyage, with 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, as they waited for transport to Britain.[4]

Original illustration from the novel "Mutineers of the Bounty" (Les Révoltés de la Bounty) by Jules Verne (1879), drawn by S. Drée.

To this day, the reasons for the mutiny are a subject of considerable debate. Some believe that Bligh was a cruel tyrant whose abuse of the crew led members of the crew to feel that they had no choice but to take the ship from Bligh. Others believe that the crew, inexperienced and unused to the rigours of the sea and, after having been exposed to freedom and sexual license on the island of Tahiti, refused to return to the "Jack Tars" existence of a seaman. They were "led" by a weak Fletcher Christian and were only too happy to be free from Bligh's acid tongue. They believe that the crew took the ship from Bligh so that they could return to a life of comfort and pleasure on Tahiti. Bligh returned to London arriving in March 1790.

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 being kept very clean. He tried (unsuccessfully) to check the spread of venereal disease among them. . Prior to the mutiny only 2 members of the Ships crew had died, one seaman from infection and the ship's doctor from indolence. J. C. Beaglehole has described the chief flaw in this otherwise enlightened naval officer: "[Bligh made] dogmatic judgments 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."

Beaglehole's judgment is supported by the small settlers in NSW (see Bligh's tenure as NSW Governor), who named sons after him. Bligh had the moral courage to take on what he saw was wrong, but he strongly supported those he thought were right.

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 was allegedly every bit the cruel man that Bligh was accused of being; the 14 men that he captured were confined in a cramped 18' x 11' x 5' 8" wooden cell on the Pandora's quarterdeck. When the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, 4 of the prisoners and 31 of the crew were killed. The prisoners would have all 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, due to Bligh's testimony that they were non-mutineers that Bligh was obliged to leave on the Bounty due to 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
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


Travel of the mutineers
6. Tubai (6 July, 1789)
6. second arrival at Tahiti
7. Tubai (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
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 mentioned.

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 28th 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 & endeavored 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]

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 Assistance, 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 1797 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 HMS Director, at the Battle of Camperdown on 11 October 1797, Bligh engaged three Dutch vessels: the Haarlem, the Alkmaar and the Vrijheid. While the Dutch suffered serious casualties, only 7 seamen were wounded in Director.

Bligh went on to serve under Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801, in command of HMS Glatton, a 56-gun ship of the line, which was experimentally fitted exclusively with carronades. After the battle, Bligh was personally praised by Nelson for his 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 by Sir Joseph Banks and appointed in March 1805, at £2,000 per annum, twice the pay of the retiring Governor Philip Gidley King. He arrived in Sydney in August 1806, to become the fourth governor.[12] 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 26 January 1808, the New South Wales Corps under Major George Johnston marched on Government House in Sydney and arrested him. 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.

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. Looking at the tombstones in Ebenezer and Richmond cemeteries (areas being settled west of Sydney during Bligh's tenure as Governor), it is instructive to note the number of boys born around 1807 to 1811 who were named "William Bligh XXXXX" (family name).

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.)

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. 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.


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 Coade stone, is topped by a breadfruit. A plaque marks Bligh's house, one block east of the Museum.


  1. ^ Captain Bligh
  2. ^ William Bligh at Genealogics
  3. ^ Trevor Kneale, The Isle of Man, Pevensey Island Guides, Brunel House, Newton Abbot, Devon, 2007, ISBN 1-898630-25-9
  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. ^
  6. ^ Map Data
  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)p.154–156
  9. ^ Section 9 - The second breadfruit voyage of William Bligh
  10. ^ a b Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: Information Sheets: Staple Foods II - Fruits
  11. ^ a b c d "William Bligh - Vice Admiral of the Blue". 
  12. ^ Anne-Maree Whitaker, 'William Bligh', in David Clune and Ken Turner (eds), The Governors Of New South Wales 1788-2010, Federation Press, Sydney, 2009, pages 87-105, ISBN 9781862877436

External links

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Government offices
Preceded by
Philip Gidley King (1758-1808)
Governor of New South Wales
Succeeded by
Lachlan Macquarie (1762-1824)


Offspring of William Bligh and Elizabeth Betham (c1753-1812)
Name Birth Death Joined with
Harriet Maria Bligh (1781-1856)
Mary Bligh (1783-1864)
Elizabeth Bligh (1786-1854)
Jane Bligh (1788-1875)
Frances Bligh (1788-1862)
Anne Campbell Bligh (1791-1843)
William Bligh (1795-1795)
Henry Bligh (1795-1795)

Footnotes (including sources)

‡ General

This page uses content from the English language Wikipedia. The original content was at William Bligh. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with this Familypedia wiki, the content of Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons License.