William Bligh (1754-1817) was an English naval captain and a colonial governor of New South Wales, Australia. Probably best known for his involvement in the mutiny on H. M. S. "Bounty," he had a career fraught with controversy.
William Bligh was born on Sept. 9, 1754, in Plymouth, where his father was a customs officer. At 7 Bligh went to sea as a cabin boy and in 1770 joined the Royal Navy. Between 1776 and 1780 he was master of the Resolution on Capt. Cook's third voyage. In 1787 the British government dispatched Bligh to Tahiti with the Bounty to collect breadfruit plants in order to provide cheap food for West Indian slaves. Reluctant to leave Tahiti, the crew, led by Fletcher Christian, mutinied soon after departing from the island and cast Bligh adrift together with 18 supporters. After an epic 6 weeks' voyage, Bligh reached Timor in the East Indies, having traveled 3,618 miles in an open longboat. Honorably acquitted by a court-martial in 1790, he returned to Tahiti and successfully introduced breadfruit plants into the West Indies.
Between 1795 and 1802 Capt. Bligh saw action against the French at Camperdown and at Copenhagen, where he was commended by Nelson. In the Nore mutiny of 1797 he was not charged with maltreating his crew and retained his command. Contributions to navigation and natural history resulted in his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1801. But Bligh's strong will, violent temper, and foul tongue totally eclipsed his attainments at times, and in 1805 he was reprimanded for using insulting language to a junior officer.
Sir Joseph Banks recommended Bligh's appointment as governor of New South Wales. Bligh arrived in 1806 with instructions to end the trading monopoly enjoyed by officers of the New South Wales Corps. The rum traffic was duly prohibited, other traders encouraged, and improved credit facilities offered to small farmers. But the officer faction resisted attempts to enforce the law, and Bligh soon collided with the fanatical John Macarthur, who represented the governor as a brutal tyrant bent on destroying the liberties and property rights of Englishmen. When Bligh had Macarthur tried for sedition, the officers conspired to replace the governor by Maj. George Johnston, senior officer on the station. After holding office for only 17 months, Bligh was deposed in what became known as the Rum Rebellion.
At a subsequent court-martial in London, Johnston was dismissed from the service and by implication Bligh was exonerated although criticized for tactless behavior. At a time when opposition which centered on the colony's courts could easily be construed as subversion, Bligh was an unfortunate choice for governor because he lacked political sense, and in endeavoring to uphold the law he precipitated a crisis.
Bligh subsequently became an admiral. He retired to Kent and died in London on Dec. 17, 1817.
Further Reading on William Bligh
Many books have been written about Bligh. Although Sir John Barrow, The Mutiny and Piratical Seizure of H. M. S. Bounty (1831; rev. ed. 1914), was not entirely unfavorable, until the 1930s Bligh was usually pictured as a brutal bully. The first substantial biography to portray Bligh in a sympathetic light was George Mackaness, The Life of Vice-Admiral William Bligh (2 vols., 1931; rev. ed. 1951), which contains an excellent bibliography. H. V. Evatt, Rum Rebellion (1938), brilliantly demolishes the case of the New South Wales conspirators. A highly critical account of Bligh's behavior on the Bounty is contained in Alexander Mckee, H. M. S. Bounty (1961). Madge Darby's intriguing Who Caused the Mutiny on the Bounty? (1965) exonerates Bligh and casts suspicion on Midshipman Edward Young. A brief but excellent introductory account which clearly indicates the main issues is John Bach, William Bligh (1967). J. C. Beaglehole, Captain Cook and Captain Bligh (1967), draws comparisons between their respective roles as commanders.
Additional Biography Sources
Allen, Kenneth S., That Bounty bastard: the true story of Captain William Bligh, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977, 1976.
Bligh, William, An account of the mutiny on H.M.S. Bounty, Gloucester: A. Sutton; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1981.
Hawkey, Arthur, Bligh's other mutiny, London: Angus and Robertson, 1975.
Hough, Richard Alexander, Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian: the men and the mutiny, London: Cassell, 1979.
Humble, Richard, Captain Bligh, London: A. Barker, 1976.
Kennedy, Gavin, Bligh, London: Duckworth, 1978.
Kennedy, Gavin, Captain Bligh: the man and his mutinies, London: Duckworth, 1989.
Schreiber, Roy E., The fortunate adversities of William Bligh, New York: P. Lang, 1991.