Plymouth- born Captain William Bligh deserves for history to look at him more kindly

PUBLISHED: 14:52 09 February 2015 | UPDATED: 14:52 09 February 2015

A statue of Bligh in Australia

A statue of Bligh in Australia


His name will forever be associated with an infamous mutiny but, as STEPHEN ROBERTS reveals, Plymouth-born Captain William Bligh deserves for history to look on him a little more kindly

Bligh's grave in Lambeth, London. Note the breadfruit on topBligh's grave in Lambeth, London. Note the breadfruit on top

Mutiny broke out on a British armed transport ship in the South Seas on 28 April, 1789, the ship’s captain and 18 loyal crew members cast adrift in an open boat in the direction of Timor, near Java. The reasons for the mutiny were never that clear, but the harshness of the captain has often been cited. The ship was The Bounty and the captain, William Bligh.

The mutiny on The Bounty has, of course, tarnished the reputation of Bligh, who has been viewed as tyrannical and incompetent, in equal measure, for losing control and possession of his ship. Has this one incident fairly summed up Bligh, or left us with just an unjust caricature?

Bligh was a Devonian, born in Plymouth on 9, September 1754. The lad was born for a life at sea, joining the Navy as a cadet at the tender age of seven and heading to sea for the first time aged 15, as a crew member of HMS Hunter.

For someone born in a seafaring county he was in both the right place and the right time. The 18th century was an era when seafarers were pushing back the boundaries of the known world in search of riches and knowledge of the unknown. Men chosen to lead these forays off the edge of the known world were exceptionally courageous and capable mariners, men who had displayed their ability as they rose through the ranks.

Bligh’s CV, The Bounty aside, is impressive. Rising from shop floor to the boardroom (or from cabin boy to vice-admiral in naval parlance), there was a lot more to this enigmatic character than the hot-headed temper that reputedly got him into deep water in the South Seas in 1789, when he was pushing 35.

As a 24-year-old, Bligh had been present on the final voyage of the legendary Captain Cook and had witnessed the tragic death of this sailing hero in Hawaii in 1779.

Before reaching the age of 40, Bligh had also taken HMS Providence on an epic voyage to Tahiti and back (a two-year voyage from August 1791 to August 1793), completing a mission to collect breadfruit trees and other botanical specimens. Among the crew was a young Matthew Flinders, who would find fame himself as the first man to circumnavigate Australia and prove it a continent.

For all these considerable achievements, it was to be the voyage in between these two, the fateful journey of The Bounty, to which Bligh’s name is always irrevocably linked.

Bligh was at the helm of the notorious ship when full-scale mutiny broke out and he was mercilessly cast adrift with the ‘loyalists’ in an open 23-foot boat, with few provisions and no chart, giving him another opportunity to show his mettle as he guided his beleaguered crew on a voyage as epic as any he’d undertaken, 47 days in an open boat from Tonga to Timor, or over 3,500 nautical miles. Bligh lost only one crew member during this marathon.

The ‘breadfruit voyage’ of The Bounty was intended to obtain this foodstuff from Tahiti and transport it to the Caribbean, where it was earmarked as food for slaves. Why the mutiny, led by Bligh’s protégé, Fletcher Christian, occurred is still a mystery. Whether it was due to Bligh’s dictatorial style, or because the crew had a prolonged six-month stay on Tahiti, waiting for the breadfruit to mature, and didn’t relish putting to sea again, we shall never know.

Bligh’s setback never seemed to count against him and he went on to become governor of New South Wales, where he had orders to clean up the corrupt rum trade.

His over-zealous actions saw him once more facing mutiny, which resulted in him being arrested, deposed and imprisoned for two years. Controversy seemed to be Bligh’s companion in life, yet he was one of life’s great survivors, promoted to rear-admiral in 1811.

Bligh died in December 1817 at the age of 63, having survived all of life’s vicissitudes. For all the debate about his character and his failings, we should not forget his achievements also, for he really was a master navigator and mariner, someone you could trust to get you home.

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