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Napoleonic Wars: Vice Admiral William Bligh

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Napoleonic Wars: Vice Admiral William Bligh

Vice Admiral William Bligh

Photograph Source: Public Domain

William Bligh - Early Life:

Born on September 9, 1754, in Plymouth, England, William Bligh was the son of Francis and Jane Bligh. From an early age Bligh was destined for a life at sea as his parents enlisted him as a "captain's servant" to Captain Keith Stewart at the age of 7 years and 9 months. Sailing aboard HMS Monmouth, this practice was fairly common as it allowed youngsters to quickly accrue the years of service needed in order to take the exam for lieutenant. Returning home in 1763, he quickly proved himself gifted at mathematics and navigation. After his mother's death, he re-entered the navy in 1770, at the age of 16.

William Bligh - Early Career:

Though meant to be a midshipman, Bligh was initially carried as an able seaman as there were no midshipman's vacancies on his ship, HMS Hunter. This soon changed and he received his midshipman's warrant the following year and later served aboard HMS Crescent and HMS Ranger. Quickly becoming well known for his navigation and sailing skills, Bligh was selected by explorer Captain James Cook to accompany his third expedition to the Pacific in 1776. After sitting for his lieutenant's exam, Bligh accepted Cook's offer to be sailing master aboard HMS Resolution. On May 1, 1776, he was promoted to lieutenant.

William Bligh - Expedition to the Pacific:

Departing in June 1776, Resolution and HMS Discovery sailed south and entered the Indian Ocean via the Cape of Good Hope. During the voyage Bligh's leg was injured, but he quickly recovered. While crossing the southern Indian Ocean, Cook discovered a small island, which he named Bligh's Cap in honor of his sailing master. Over the next year, Cook and his men touched at Tasmania, New Zealand, Tonga, Tahiti, as well as explored the southern coast of Alaska and the Bering Straight. The purpose for his operations off Alaska was a failed search for the Northwest Passage.

Returning south in 1778, Cook became the first European to visit Hawaii. He returned the following year and was killed on the Big Island after an altercation with the Hawaiians. During the fighting, Bligh was instrumental in recovering Resolution's foremast which had been taken ashore for repairs. With Cook dead, Captain Charles Clerke of Discovery took command and a final attempt to find the Northwest Passage was attempted. Throughout the voyage, Bligh performed well and lived up to his reputation as a navigator and a chartmaker. The expedition returned to England in 1780.

William Bligh - Return to England:

Returning home a hero, Bligh impressed his superiors with his performance in the Pacific. On February 4, 1781, he married Elizabeth Betham, the daughter of a customs collector. Ten days later, Bligh was assigned to HMS Belle Poule as sailing master. That August, he saw action against the Dutch at the Battle of Dogger Bank. After the battle he was made a lieutenant on HMS Berwick. Over the next two years he saw regular service at sea until the end of the American War of Independence forced him onto the inactive list. Unemployed, Bligh served as a captain in the merchant service between 1783 and 1787.

William Bligh - Voyage of the Bounty:

In 1787, Bligh was selected as the commander of His Majesty's Armed Vessel Bounty and given the mission of sailing to the South Pacific to collect breadfruit trees. It was believed that these trees could be transplanted to the Caribbean to provide inexpensive food for slaves in British colonies. Departing December 27, 1787, Bligh attempted to enter the Pacific via Cape Horn. After a month of trying, he turned and sailed east around the Cape of Good Hope. The voyage to Tahiti proved smooth and few punishments were given to the crew. As Bounty was rated as a cutter, Bligh was the only officer on board.

To permit his men longer periods of uninterrupted sleep, he divided the crew into three watches. In addition, he raised Master's Mate Fletcher Christian to the rank of acting lieutenant so that he could oversee one of the watches. The delay off Cape Horn led to a five-month delay in Tahiti as they had to wait for the breadfruit trees to mature enough to transport. Over this period, naval discipline began to break down as the crew took native wives and enjoyed the island's warm sun. At one point, three crewmen attempted to desert but were captured. Though they were punished, it was less severe than recommended.

William Bligh - Mutiny:

In addition to the behavior of the crew, several of the senior warrant officers, such as the boatswain and sailmaker were negligent in their duties. On April 4, 1789, Bounty departed Tahiti, much to the displeasure of many of the crew. On the night of April 28, Fletcher Christian and 18 of the crew surprised and bound Bligh in his cabin. Dragging him on deck, Christian bloodlessly took control of the ship despite the fact that the most of the crew (22) sided with the captain. Bligh and 18 loyalists were forced over the side into Bounty's cutter and given a sextant, four cutlasses, and several days food and water.

William Bligh - Voyage to Timor:

As Bounty turned to return to Tahiti, Bligh set course for the nearest European outpost at Timor. Though dangerously overloaded, Bligh succeeded in sailing the cutter first to Tofua for supplies, then on to Timor. After sailing 3,618 miles, Bligh arrived at Timor after a 47-day voyage. Only one man was lost during the ordeal when he was killed by natives on Tofua. Moving on to Batavia, Bligh was able to secure transport back to England. In October 1790, Bligh was honorably acquitted for the loss of Bounty and records show him to have been a compassionate commander who frequently spared the lash.

William Bligh - Subsequent Career:

In 1791, Bligh returned to Tahiti aboard HMS Providence to complete the breadfruit mission. The plants were successfully delivered to the Caribbean without any trouble. Five years later, Bligh was promoted to captain and given command of HMS Director (64). While aboard, his crew mutinied as part of the greater Spithead and Nore mutinies which occurred over the Royal Navy's handling of pay and prize money. Standing by his crew, Bligh was commended by both sides for his handling of the situation. In October of that year, Bligh commanded Director at the Battle of Camperdown and successfully fought three Dutch ships at once.

Leaving Director, Bligh was given HMS Glatton (56). Participating in the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen, Bligh played a key role when he elected to continue flying Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson's signal for battle rather than hoisting Admiral Sir Hyde Parker's signal to break off the fight. In 1805, Bligh was made Governor of New South Wales (Australia) and tasked with ending the illegal rum trade in the area. Arriving in Australia, he made enemies of the army and several of the locals by fighting the rum trade and aiding distressed farmers. This discontent led to Bligh being deposed in the 1808 Rum Rebellion. After spending over a year collecting evidence, he returned home in 1810, and was vindicated by the government. Promoted to rear admiral in 1810, and vice admiral fours years later, Bligh never held another sea command. He died at his residence on Bond Street in London on December 7, 1817.

Selected Sources

  • A Voyage to the South Sea by William Bligh
  • The Extraordinary Life, Times and Travels of Vice-Admiral William Bligh
  • Vice Admiral William Bligh
  • William Bligh from The Australian Dictionary of Biography
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