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William Bligh (1754–1817)

by A. G. L. Shaw

This article was published:

William Bligh, by Alexander Huey

William Bligh, by Alexander Huey

National Library of Australia, 11230917

William Bligh (1754-1817), naval officer and governor, was born on 9 September 1754 at Plymouth, England, where his father was a boatman and land waiter in the customs service. He was descended from a family settled in St Tudy, Cornwall, since 1680, whose members had been mayors of Bodmin in the sixteenth century. William was entered in H.M.S. Monmouth on 1 July 1762, was paid off the following February, and effectively joined the navy on 27 July 1770. Since there was no vacancy for midshipmen, he was rated 'able-seaman', but he messed with the former and officially became one in February 1771. Whatever his formal education, in later life he showed wide interests and very considerable attainments. On 17 March 1776 he was appointed master of the Resolution, then setting out on James Cook's third voyage. On it he was frequently employed in 'constructing charts … and in drawing plans of … bays and harbours'. Between the return of the ship in October 1780 and the end of the French war in 1783, Bligh was master of the Belle Poule, was promoted lieutenant and fought in two general actions.

In February 1781 he married Elizabeth Betham, of Glasgow, daughter of a customs officer on the Isle of Man, and niece of Duncan Campbell, merchant, shipowner and contractor in charge of convict hulks in the Thames. Between 1783 and 1787 Bligh served Campbell in the West Indian trade. He was then appointed commander and purser of H.M.S. Bounty, a ship bought from Campbell, to lead an expedition to procure bread-fruit for the West Indies; in it he was handicapped by the absence of any commissioned officer other than himself. This began his close association with Sir Joseph Banks. He sailed on 28 November 1787 and reached Tahiti eleven months later; but on 29 April 1789, soon after leaving there, the crew mutinied and cast off their commander with 18 'loyalists' in an open boat only 23 feet (7 m) long. With skilful seamanship Bligh navigated it 3618 miles (5822 km) to Timor in six weeks, during which he charted part of the 'north-east coast of New Holland'. After his return to London, he was honourably acquitted by the court martial which tried him in October 1790 for the loss of his ship, though many, then and since, have alleged that his 'tyranny' had caused the mutiny.

Bligh was certainly extremely hot-tempered; he swore well and vigorously and was infuriated by any incompetence shown by his subordinates; but the evidence suggests that his rages were short-lived, that in general he was not a harsh commander and that the mutiny was his misfortune, not his fault. This was certainly the view of the Admiralty, which promoted him captain in November and in 1791 sent him in the Providence to make a second attempt to transplant bread-fruit from Tahiti to the West Indies. This time he successfully accomplished his mission. On the way he charted part of the south-east coast of Van Diemen's Land during a stay at Adventure Bay, which he had earlier visited with Cook and with the Bounty. He made valuable observations there, at Tahiti, at Fiji and in Torres Strait. This time he enjoyed the support of his subordinates, despite the few 'passing squalls' noted by one of them, but he fell out with Matthew Flinders who was one of his midshipmen and thought his commander gave him insufficient credit for his charting. The strict water rationing Bligh imposed on the men for the benefit of the plants was a sign of the rigid adherence to orders at the expense of the feelings of his fellows that was to cause trouble in the future. While he was away an abridged version of his account of his first expedition, A Voyage to the South Sea … was published in London in 1792; an unabridged edition, Bligh and the Bounty, was published in 1936.

After his return in September 1793 Bligh received a gold medal from the Royal Society of Arts, but the court martial on some of the surviving Bounty mutineers, which had been held during his absence, caused a certain coolness towards him in some quarters. It was not until April 1795 that he received his next command. From then until 1802 he fought in several actions, including Camperdown in 1797, where his performance showed that he 'could handle his ship and company with skill', and Copenhagen in 1801 where he earned the praise of Nelson for his command of the Glatton. While in command of the Director in 1797 he had been involved in the mutiny at the Nore, but despite allegations to the contrary there is no evidence that he was in any way personally objectionable to the mutineers. In May 1801 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society for 'distinguished services in navigation, botany, etc.'

In 1800-01 he surveyed Dublin Bay and Holyhead, in 1803 Dungeness, Fowey and the coast of Flushing, and in 1804 was appointed to the Warrior to survey the entrance to the Schelde. While commanding this ship, he ordered the arrest of one of his lieutenants for neglect of duty, after disagreeing that an injury had made him unfit to take watch; the latter was acquitted and then accused his captain of having 'grossly insulted and ill-treated' him, and behaving in 'a tyrannical and oppressive and unofficerlike manner'. The court martial trying these charges in February 1805 found them 'in-part proved', sentenced Bligh to be reprimanded and ordered him to be 'more correct in his language' in future. Of this episode, one historian has concluded that the officers composing the court 'must in private have grinned broadly to themselves'; another has surmised that they 'were astonished for once in their hard-bitten lives [at] the parcel of epithets which were sworn to'.

This verdict did Bligh no harm, for on 15 March, Banks, always a man of influence where New South Wales was concerned, offered to obtain for him the post of governor to New South Wales in succession to Governor Philip Gidley King, at a salary of £2000, double that of his predecessor, and large enough to attract a senior post-captain. After hesitation Bligh accepted. He did not sail until February 1806; then, leaving behind his wife, who staunchly looked after his interest while he was away, and five daughters, but accompanied by Mary, his eldest, and her naval husband, Lieutenant Putland, he set out for his new post, bearing special instructions, among other things, to curb the traffic in spirits which was still rife in the colony. Here he was to find that his zeal to obey orders, his anxiety for their immediate and unquestioning execution, and his apparent unwillingness either to modify his policy or to initiate action without authority, would meet stronger opposition than on the quarter-deck of any of His Majesty's ships.

Bligh reached Sydney on 6 August 1806. He did not assume office for a week, and in the interval received from Governor King grants of 240 acres (97 ha) at Camperdown, 105 acres (42 ha) near Parramatta and 1000 acres (405 ha) near Rouse Hill on the Hawkesbury Road; curiously enough, there is no mention of these grants in the dispatches or of the 790 acres (320 ha) called 'Thanks', which Bligh granted to Mrs King the following January, though for grants of this size the governors had been instructed to obtain the approbation of the secretary of state. However, the governor rigidly insisted on his having such approval before he indulged other applicants even when they had letters from the under-secretary, to the great annoyance of Dr Robert Townson, Eber Bunker and Captain Short. With Short, Bligh had quarrelled on the voyage out, in a dispute which the secretary of state thought arose from 'very trivial causes' and 'proceeded to a length to which it could not possibly have advanced had you both been impressed with a just sense … of the propriety … of preserving a good understanding with each other'. Unfortunately Bligh never possessed this sense; instead, he showed 'an unfortunate capacity for breeding rebellion'. In this incident, he was probably legally in the right, but the affair, like all such affairs, made enemies.

In New South Wales Bligh found great distress, caused partly by the disastrous Hawkesbury floods, partly by the falling off in ships arriving with supplies and convict labour after the renewal of the Napoleonic wars and partly by the increasing influence of the local trading sharks as Governor King's health had grown worse. Bligh at once organized the distribution of flood relief and promised settlers that the government stores would buy their crop after the next harvest; but he allowed his temper to get the better of him in a violent blast against John Macarthur about his sheep and cattle. He was right to stress the shortage of herdsmen. Convict labour was scarce. No prisoners had arrived in 1805 and only about 550 males in 1806-07, fewer than those becoming free by effluxion of time; but the shortage never affected the farm which Bligh himself had bought on the Hawkesbury. This, he claimed, was a 'model', to show the settlers the benefits of efficient cultivation. It was very efficiently managed by Andrew Thompson. Like that of Bligh's son-in-law, Captain Putland, next door, it was highly profitable; but as Thompson noted, 'it may be observed that a common Farmer who has to pay for everything would by no means have such profits'. Certainly the government stores and flocks contributed to its success. Bligh later suggested that he would have paid for these supplies in due course, but he took his time about even considering to do so. Meanwhile he had suspended D'Arcy Wentworth for employing 'invalids' from the hospital on his private concerns, and refused to tell that officer why he had done so.

Such actions helped to increase the opposition raised to his otherwise proper and urgently needed reforms. On 4 October 1806 he issued new port regulations to tighten up the government's control of ships, their cargoes, including spirits, and their crews, including possible escaping convicts. On 3 January 1807 he ordered that all promissory notes should be drawn 'payable in sterling money', a regulation which would prevent any repetition of a legal dispute in the preceding year between Macarthur and Thompson over the value of a note expressed in wheat. On 14 February he reissued the often-broken order about illicit stills, and forbade under stringent penalties the bartering of spirits for grain, labour, food, or any other goods. These orders, desirable though they were, aroused intense opposition among interested parties; it was no wonder that Bligh told the Colonial Office in October that the governor 'must be determined and firm in his measures and not subject to any control here'.

Bligh had little time to concern himself with Van Diemen's Land, but he proceeded, as instructed, to organize the removal of the settlers from Norfolk Island to the Derwent. In Sydney, perturbed by a suspected rising of the Irish, he decided to split up eight of the alleged ring-leaders, though six had been acquitted when tried, and five were not legally convicts under sentence to transportation. High-handedly he sent two each to Norfolk Island, the Derwent and Port Dalrymple. Then after Simeon Lord, Henry Kable, James Underwood and John Macarthur in turn had come into conflict with the governor's efforts to enforce the law, Bligh so annoyed officers in the New South Wales Corps by his interference in its concerns and his abuse of its members, that Major George Johnston felt called upon to complain to the commander-in-chief. Bligh recommended that the corps be relieved, but not with great urgency; he does not seem to have suspected the hostility of its officers to him, perhaps with some reason, for at least one, Captain Anthony Fenn Kemp, thought the governor behaved 'in a handsome manner' when Kemp had a dispute with Johnston in September 1807.

In a laudable effort to improve the appearance of Sydney, Bligh ordered those said to be illegally occupying certain town sites to move, and questioned the leases of others, including Macarthur, Johnston, Garnham Blaxcell, John Jamieson and David Mann, which conflicted with the plan of the town. Knowledge of these views naturally increased the opposition to his rule.

In meeting this opposition Bligh was handicapped by the incompetence of his officials, particularly his besotted judge-advocate, Richard Atkins; but though the governor had reported his many shortcomings to London, he did not suspend him, as his commission entitled him to do. Though the only men in the colony with legal training were emancipists, the appointment of a sober and honest judge-advocate who was free from debt would assuredly have strengthened the governor; but he was reluctant to interfere with the independence of his principal judicial officer. In consequence he came to rely greatly on the advice which the ex-convict George Crossley gave to Atkins and, though the successive legal actions which he ordered against Macarthur seem eminently justified, they caused that stubborn and designing man, as always supremely certain of his own rectitude, to persuade the officers that the arrest of Bligh was necessary to put an end to a brutal tyranny. This, of course, was absurd; but it was certainly undesirable that Atkins, Macarthur's debtor, should preside at the trial when Macarthur was very properly prosecuted for a variety of 'misdeameanours and outrageous offences'.

Since they controlled the armed forces, the only threat to order came from the officers; unfortunately they, like others in Sydney, were ready to rebel. The requisition asking Johnston to assume control was signed by only nine persons before he did so, and in any case, so many of the same names appear on the series of petitions and counter-petitions drawn up in 1808, that it would seem that none of them was worth much. The bulk of the citizens were apathetic; many of the Hawkesbury settlers supported the governor; but Bligh had been singularly successful in antagonizing a number of leading men in the colony, and he was personally quite unfitted to handle the situation that was developing. Macarthur's ranting about the defence of liberty and property, which were never in danger, gave Johnston excuse to claim that 'insurrection and massacre' were imminent because Bligh was planning 'to subvert the laws of the country' and 'to terrify and influence the Courts of Justice'. This was grossly exaggerated. On the criminal court six of the officers had always to sit. During 1807 the governor had removed Surgeon Thomas Jamison from the magistracy as 'inimical to the government' and had replaced some of the military magistrates by civilians, but when Macarthur had won his suit against Robert Campbell junior, Bligh accepted the decision without ado. Before the rebellion no one except Johnston had sent an official complaint to London. In eighteen months Bligh had issued only three land grants and pardoned only two convicts; he often swore mightily, and was alleged, though not proved, to have misappropriated some government property; but these were strange justifications for rebellion. Nevertheless, just as other unpopular governors had been deposed in other British colonies in the eighteenth century, now the military in New South Wales were ready to march to Government House to arrest the governor, to stop him trying to rally his adherents on the Hawkesbury and to seize his papers so as to enable them to build the case that would justify their action.

For more than a year after his arrest in January 1808 Bligh remained in confinement in Sydney, refusing to promise to sail to England if liberated. In February 1809 he agreed to go if placed in the Porpoise, but when on board he broke his word on the ground that it had been extorted by force. On 17 March he sailed to the Derwent, hoping for the support of Lieutenant-Governor David Collins; but though Collins at first welcomed him he refused to denounce the rebel government and relations soon became strained. Notwithstanding his promise not to meddle in local affairs, Bligh interfered with boats on the river, stirred up local animosities and became such an intolerable nuisance that Collins, finding his conduct 'unhandsome in several respects', felt compelled to forbid local boats to approach or to victual the Porpoise. Thus isolated, Bligh stayed until Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived in Sydney. He returned to Port Jackson on 17 January 1810, but did not finally sail for England until 12 May. This sojourn afforded him time and opportunity to be 'a great plague' to his successor, and to earn an equally unfavourable opinion from Ellis Bent.

Bligh reached England on 25 October 1810 and was soon involved in the court martial of Johnston. Since the defence was justification, this was virtually his trial too. Johnston's conviction was his own acquittal; but the rider to the sentence on Johnston, that 'novel and extraordinary circumstances' offered some, though not a 'full', extenuation of his conduct, suggests that the court thought the governor not free from blame, unless it was merely unwilling to punish Johnston for being Macarthur's tool. Though Bligh's hot temper and violent language did not justify mutiny, they certainly marred his record and reduced his efficiency, especially as they seem to have been accompanied by the normal belief of contemporary administrators that offices were to be valued as much for their perquisites as for their salary. For all that, Bligh's rule and its aftermath proved that even in New South Wales and even by John Macarthur the law must be obeyed.

After Johnston's trial, Bligh received his routine promotion, first to rear admiral of the Blue, which was backdated to July 1810 when it had become due, and then to vice-admiral in June 1814. He lived in Lambeth for a time and gave valuable evidence to the 1812 select committee on transportation; but after the death of his wife in April 1812 and the grant of a pension in April 1813 he moved to Farningham, Kent. He died on 7 December 1817 and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary's, Lambeth. His six surviving daughters inherited his estate, including the grants he had received in New South Wales. These were eventually acquired by his son-in-law, Sir Maurice O'Connell; in 1841 Governor Sir George Gipps agreed to a settlement about them which was so favourable to the grantees that whatever his temporary trials, Bligh's estate gained lasting benefit from his office.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 6-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 6-7, series 3, vol 1
  • Proceedings of a General Court-Martial … for the Trial of Lieut-Col. Geo. Johnston (Lond, 1811)
  • M. H. Ellis, John Macarthur (Syd, 1955)
  • H. V. Evatt, Rum Rebellion (Syd, 1938)
  • G. Mackaness, The Life of Vice-Admiral William Bligh, 2nd ed (Syd, 1951) and for bibliography
  • W. Bligh, The Log of the Bounty, ed. O. Rutter, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1937)
  • D. Bonner Smith, 'Some Remarks About the Mutiny of the Bounty', Mariner's Mirror, vol 22, no 2, Apr 1936, pp 200-37
  • D. Bonner Smith, 'More Light on Bligh and the Bounty', Mariner's Mirror, vol 23, no 2, April 1937, pp 210-28
  • A. H. Taylor, 'William Bligh at Camperdown', Mariner's Mirror, vol 23, no 4, Oct 1937, pp 417-34.

Citation details

A. G. L. Shaw, 'Bligh, William (1754–1817)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Bligh, by Alexander Huey

William Bligh, by Alexander Huey

National Library of Australia, 11230917

Life Summary [details]


9 September, 1754
Plymouth, Devon, England


7 December, 1817 (aged 63)
London, Middlesex, England

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